One of the most striking things about ageing is how one’s perception of time changes over the years. When you’re a kid, time seems like it stretches on forever: A week can feel like a year, and a year can feel like a lifetime. But as you age, time seems to speed up. Sure, a particularly draining workday might drag on, but years pass by seemingly in seconds, and you might find yourself tearing through a decade as fast as a lunch break.
Why does time pass so quickly as we age? Routine. When you’re young, new experiences make indents in your memory, leaving you with the perception of lengthened time. But when you do the same thing over and over again, your brain consolidates the repeated action into one memory, making it seem like time has contracted.
“Routine kills our memory for respective intervals,” psychologist and time researcher Marc Wittman, PhD, says. “If nothing meaningful has happened, we don’t have anything our brain can record, and time subjectively shrinks.” This is why, for instance, it’s hard to remember individual commutes to work, since your brain turns 261 train trips into one single memory.
This phenomenon became even more jarring amid the pandemic. For those of us working from home, every day became exactly the same, in the same location, with none of the usual entertainments — travel, restaurants, friends and family — that spice up a routine in normal times. After a period of seemingly interminable isolation (not to mention: grief, fear, and sadness), people are now emerging from their homes to discover that more than an entire year has passed by, almost without them even noticing.
Littman notes that sameness has really screwed with our brains. “Let’s say that before the pandemic, on Sundays, you used to go to a barbecue with friends and watch football and drink beer, and then on Monday [head] back to work; you would supercharge between Sunday and Monday,” he says. “This is gone during the pandemic. Everyday is ‘Blursday,’ and in retrospect, everything is just one messy source. Time duration shrinks.”
As Littman notes, time passing too quickly is emotional. It speaks to our existentialism as a species. “We have this idea of linear time and we have only a certain amount of lifetime,” he says. “The one direction is not to a nice place, but to a place we call old age and death.”
The bad news is, until someone finally finds the Fountain of Youth, there’s not much you can do about the direction in which time moves. But there are ways to slow down the way time feels, so you don’t, say, look up in 10 months and wonder how your kid finished an entire academic year without you even remembering bringing them to school each day. Here are some tips:
Switch up your routine
This is an obvious one: If routine is a time (and memory) killer, then the best way to spare time a quick death is to break that routine. There’s not much you can do about regular obligations like work, but you can put a daily crack in the sameness.
Psychologist Loren Soeiro, Ph.D ABPP, says even small changes to your routine can help stretch time. “There are ways to seek novelty and differentiation, even if they’re not expensive or time intensive,” he says. “You don’t need to go on vacation or go out to expensive meals or anything. Just breaking up your work day — walking around the neighbourhood, going out to meet a friend for coffee in the middle of the day. Something that makes it a little fresher.”
Other changeups include: taking a different route to work, listening to a new album every day, using a lunch break to explore a different part of your (or your workplace’s) neighbourhood, scheduling novel post-work activities during as many days of the week as you can, learning a new language or instrument, cooking a new meal a few days a week, etc.
One of the best ways to stretch time is to travel to a new place. Even a single weekend away can make time seem longer than one at home on your very familiar couch.
“Staying home all weekend, lounging around watching a Netflix series, it goes by fast,” Wittman says. “Compare this to a weekend in Paris with friends, where you’re doing exciting events and exploring, and you come back and say, ‘Oh, that was so long.’ There are so many things your brain can record over those two days. If you lounge around at home, nothing happens and time passes.”
If you can, try to take vacations in new places instead of returning to the same ones — although after a year at home, any location that isn’t your own space will spur memory-recording.
Break your goals into small, actionable pieces you can cross off on a list
One of the post-pandemic concerns Soeiro says he’s heard often is that this past year didn’t just pass by quickly, but got lost. “I hear it all the time. It gets connected to things like, ‘Where am I with respect to my goals? A year passed by and nothing changed,’” he says. “People might be feeling like that anyway, but the pandemic made it worse.”
If you’re feeling like the pandemic made you fall behind, the good news is that you can still get started on those goals now. “If you make a change tomorrow, you’re still that much different. You still made that change,” Soeiro says. “ It doesn’t matter that in this past year, nothing happened. Don’t be dissuaded by the time it’s taken to get here.”
For those struggling to get started, Soeiro suggests breaking a large goal into a series of smaller goals — minuscule as these steps might seem, accomplishing a small goal will make the distance toward your ultimate one seem much less daunting.
“Make a to-do list, put your small goals on that to-do list, and one by one you cross them off,” Soeiro says. “If all you need to do is complete an application for something, even if that’s part one in your effort to go to graduate school or get a new job, completing an application is a valid to-do and will give you a sense of momentum.”
Actively notice new things
This method sounds reductive, but it works. Keeping an eye out for small changes in your own familiar environment will help new memories break through the routine.
If you’ve got plants, keep track of their leaf growth. If you’ve got pets, teach them new tricks. If you’ve got kids, notch down their heights, count their teeth, check out the new band posters on their bedroom walls if they invite you in (don’t snoop). Note the way the sunlight changes in your living room over the course of the day. The little things make a difference
In general, being more present makes time slow down, and meditation is a great way to achieve that. Wittman says techniques like mindfulness and focusing on breathing help you get “control” over your perception of time.
“My idea of how we perceive time, it’s through our body,” he says. “We don’t have a sense organ for time in usual way, we sense time through the passing pf our interoceptive bodily states. When you focus on your bodily self, time slows down.”
In addition to expanding your perception of time, meditation can relieve stress and anxiety. You don’t need to sit in silence for hours to reap the benefits; there are a number of apps that can assist you in getting started on meditation, even if you can only spare a few minutes per week.
Keep a journal
Your brain might not keep a record of all your repeated memories, but your journal can. If you jot down a few thoughts, feelings, and memories per day, you’ll preserve those memories before your brain mashes them together, and revisiting them later will help you recall time otherwise lost.
“Journaling helps you build up your narrative memory, and your narrative self,” Wittman says. “It’s shown by researchers that when you actualize your memory contents over a certain time span, relatively, time expands.”
(Just maybe don’t revisit, say, your middle school diary. The pubescent cringe isn’t worth the extra time.)
Like journaling, taking photos helps create a narrative record that’ll preserve your memories even after your brain expunges them. But don’t take too many photos, since studies show that being preoccupied with photo-taking can impair your actual memory of the event you’re trying to document, which defeats the purpose.
Don’t punish yourself
Here is the thing — no matter how much you meditate or journal or shake up your daily routine, time is going to slip through your fingers. And if you’re feeling particularly distressed about the goals you failed to accomplish or moments you failed to capture in this past pandemic year, cut yourself a break.
“It was a very frightening year,” Soeiro says. “There’s been a lot of loss, there have been a lot of unexpected, frightening and unhappy events. We were all held back, we were all delayed, and it was pretty scary.”