Our parents warned us about it, but it’s hard to understand until you experience it first hand: as you get older, time seems to fly. It catches you off guard, probably because it’s such a powerful and bizarre concept. You can’t add more time to the clock, but by understanding how this phenomenon works, you can at least try to make life seem like it’s passing by a little slower.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
Our “Relative” Time Changes
There are different theories about why our perception of time changes as we age. For one, we perceive time relatively, and that means an hour at age 5 is different than an hour at age 55.
When you’re a kid, you haven’t been alive very long, so one year is a huge percentage of your overall life. When you’re an adult, however, you’ve already experienced many years. So one measly year feels much smaller.
This interactive timeline sort of helps you visualise this concept (theorised by philosopher Paul Janet), but the basic idea is: we perceive time relative to the total time we’ve experienced life on the whole.
We Have Fewer New Experiences
The older we get, and the more of the world we’ve seen, we start to develop a routine. The days start to blend together, and time seems to pass us by.
Psychologist William James concluded as much in Principles of Psychology. He explained that, compared with childhood, adulthood has fewer new and memorable experiences. We often measure time by firsts — our first day our school, first kiss, first home, first child — when we run out of firsts, James says “the days and weeks smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”
“This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said-why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass. “Time is this rubbery thing…it stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”
So when we get caught in dreaded autopilot mode, we’re racing through the day with no real detail of our surroundings. It’s like when you have a long commute to work — sometimes, you get to your destination with no real memory of even driving there.
Stress and “Time Pressure” Speed Up the Day
In a study published in Ammons Scientific, researchers asked subjects how quickly the felt time was passing, from very slow to very fast. They also asked them to rate the accuracy of statements used to describe how quickly time was passing. Long story short, they found that most subjects reported that time passes by so fast because we have so much to do and not enough time in which to do everything.
Researchers called this “time pressure,” and it goes hand in hand with stress. It makes sense considering the other theories, too. The more stressed we are, the less likely we are to be focused and present on the moment — we’re just trying to get through the day as quickly as possible. When we do that, we don’t have time to take in our surroundings and build detailed memories. Thus, our perception of time flies.
Try Focusing on “Mindfulness”
If the theory that we experience time in relation to our years alive carries any weight, it makes sense that a way to curb it might be to stop comparing our present time with our entire life.
In other words: live in the moment. When you’re focused on the present, you’re thinking about the absolute, not relative, value of time. And there are a few ways to go about this.
Meditation can help you slow down and focus (and it comes with gobs of other scientifically-backed benefits, too). And you don’t have to be deeply spiritual or religious to meditate, either. It’s as simple as finding a quiet spot, counting to ten and focusing on your breath. I “meditate” while I do the dishes.
Focusing on the present is all about being more mindful. “Mindfulness” is a buzzword you’ve probably heard a lot lately, but it’s a pretty cool idea that involves being more present in the moment and being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Aside from meditation, here are a few ways to harness mindfulness, as suggested by our own Melanie Pinola:
A simple way to get started is to set up triggers or cues to pull you back into the present when your mind inevitably starts to wander throughout that day. For example, while eating, remember to savour each bite every time you put your fork down. At work, you can set an hourly chime or other reminder to pause in the moment. Pausing before you respond to children — or adults — can also help you become more mindful in your relationships. More (deceptively simple) practices include practicing appreciation and letting go of control.
Like a lot of people, I tend to be more “present” when I’m on vacation. The very idea of being on vacation is about being present: you leave behind your stress and worries and just focus on relaxing, exploring, and enjoying life. There are a few practical habits I try to practice to make my everyday life feel more like vacation:
- Free up your schedule: For years, I’ve had a habit of overbooking myself and spreading myself thin. I’ve tried to put a stop to that and give myself more breathing room in my schedule. This prevents stress and gives me time to stay focused rather than rush through everything.
- Develop a morning routine: This is another way I’ve tried to remember to stay focused and present. Instead of jumping right into the day to get it over with, I try to give myself at least a few minutes in the morning to slow down and take in the day. Yes, the idea of a routine seems to kind of go against the idea of living in the moment, but this is a deliberate routine — one that’s focused on being present.
- Schedule an activity at the end of the day: It’s so easy to just squeeze “five more minutes” of work into the end of the workday. This can quickly turn into an hour, and before you know it, you’re working well into the evening. When I have something planned with a friend after work, this forces me to step away from the computer and slow down a bit.
Being present helps with that whole time as a percentage thing. You’re more focused on the here-and-now, absolute value of time.
Embrace New Experiences
Ditching your comfort zone can make a big difference, too. If James is right and time flies because we have fewer “firsts,” the best way to combat that is to add some novelty in your life: meet new people, visit new places, and try new things.
If you’ve gotten overly comfortable with life, try saying “yes” more often. As our own Thorin Klosowski put it: “It’s surprising just how many new experiences present themselves throughout the day when you start paying attention.”
This can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or taking a weekend trip to a part of your city you’ve never visited. Part of my resolution this year was to do one thing every week that forces me out of my comfort zone. As a result, I went to my very first conference, spoke at an event, and wrote about topics I was afraid of writing about. They were challenging, but they were new, and when I think back on them, the past 10 months seem like a long, packed year.
Generally, the idea is to give yourself new memories and new experiences so that you can get out of autopilot and change your perception of time. Based on my own experience, I can attest that this works pretty well.
When you embrace new experiences, you learn a lot about yourself and the world around you, and, naturally, you evolve. Change can make a big difference in how you perceive time. Think back to when you were five or ten or 21. Depending on your age, that probably seems like a lifetime ago. You’ve grown and learned so much since then, and that’s likely part of the reason why it seems like a lifetime ago.
When you’re constantly learning — reading about new subjects, trying out new skills, practising new languages — you are, in a way, experiencing new things. And that novelty should help you get more out of time, thus curbing that feeling that it’s passing you by.
Our perception of time is a funny thing. While it’s probably impossible to slow it down to a point that we’re experiencing time in the same way a 5-year-old might, there are a few things we can do to at least keep it from feeling like it’s going by so damn fast.