“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” (Steve Jobs)
It’s no secret that our relationship with time changes as we age. When we’re children, time seems expansive, sprawling. Summer vacation is vast; the span between Labor Day and Christmas feels interminable. It takes forever for that special event we’ve been anticipating to finally arrive.
A few decades later, time turns on us. The seasons fly by. Birthdays accumulate like dead leaves in autumn, and instead of savoring time, we just want to slow it down.
It’s not our imaginations. Time really is perceived differently by children and adults. One reason is simply the obvious: as we age, each year is a smaller percentage of our life. When you’re ten, a year is ten percent of your lifetime; but when you’re 60, it’s less than two percent.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s also evidence that children’s developing brains perceive time as it is happening to be slower than adults perceive it. However, according to Patricia Costello, PhD, a neuroscientist at Walden University, “By the time we are adults, our time circuits are done wiring and we have learned from experience how to correctly encode the passage of time.”
Another compelling factor in how we view time is the novelty of our experiences. According to neuroscientist Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, the nature of childhood is such that we are continually learning new things and being exposed to new ideas. These impress in our memories and broaden our sense of time. “We gauge time by memorable events, and fewer new things occur as we age to remember, making it seem like childhood lasted longer,” Kesari says.
Thus, an attractive strategy for seeing time as more of an ally than a foe is to break out of your routine and put more new in your life.
Just as we continually learned new things and had first-time experiences as children, we can recreate that with a little effort as adults. Seek out untried opportunities, learn a new skill, do common tasks differently, have some adventures! Here’s how Dr. Costello explains it:
“How can we stop that feeling of things going too fast, of missing out on our own lives? It comes back to learning new things. Are you learning a new skill? Are you cooking something different? Introducing novelty into your life when you can will make the memories stand out and stretch time in a way.”
Sometimes, when we’re experiencing these novel experiences, it may feel like time is flying by, but it also leaves us with a deeper impression of time, as well as fresh, new memories that elongate our experience of time.
Our new experiences can be as varied as an exotic vacation or simply learning a skill or trying something we’ve not done before. It can be meeting new people, tasting unfamiliar foods, or acting spontaneously; all, according to Costello, will heighten our sensitivity to the passage of time.
Related to this is living mindfully. Paying attention to our days and noticing our thoughts and feelings as we engage in something new. Ideally, we become skilled at noticing and appreciating life as we are living it, but Dr. Kesari also suggests that deliberately taking time at the end of each day to recall our experiences and reflect on them, will make time seem less fleeting.
“Memory is short-lived and many of us just aren’t that engaged in the everyday things we’re doing,” he notes, “so if you slow down and engage more in the moment, and look back on everything deeply later, you may find time lasting longer.”
Even just taking deep breaths can help us feel better about the passage of time. In one study, subjects who were told to take deep, slow breaths for five minutes perceived their day to be longer and felt there was more time available to them than those who were told to take short, quick breaths.
Fatigue has also been shown to affect our perceptions of time. According to Duke University professor of engineering, Adrian Bejan, a tired brain doesn’t transmit information as effectively as a well-rested one. He notes that athletes’ performance declines when they are tired. Their brains become less effective at processing information and their sense of timing is impaired. When well-rested, our perception of time slows down; we become more aware and more effective.
But Wait, There’s More…
Because this blog is focused on kindness, I can’t pass up an opportunity to share additional research showing that performing acts of kindness also changes our perception of time. It makes us feel like we have more time to do the things we want to do. Research by Cassie Mogliner, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has shown that people who lend a hand to others feel less starved for time than people who do not engage in such kindnesses. In fact, according to Mogliner, spending as little as 10 minutes helping others can reduce feelings of time pressure and give you a sense that you have time to spare.
Despite the fact that one actually has less time, Mogliner notes, “Giving your time to others can make you feel more ‘time affluent’ and less time-constrained.” She further states, “People who give time feel more capable, confident, and useful. They feel they’ve accomplished something and, therefore, that they can accomplish more in the future. And this self-efficacy makes them feel that time is more expansive.”
Physical time and mind time are two very different things. As we get older, we often feel as though time is hurtling by at an alarming speed. But there are strategies we can employ to change that perception, and to alter our view of time:
- Deliberately seek out fresh experiences; break out of your routines and try new things.
- Pay attention as you go through your day, and take time each evening to review and savor your experiences.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Make time each day for some deep, slow breathing.
- Give some of that precious time to others through acts of kindness and assistance.
Do you sometimes feel as if your life is flying by at extreme velocity? Try a few of these strategies and see if they help you savor your time and enjoy both the breadth and depth of your days..
“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” (Dr. Seuss)