As we go about with head stuck in our phones life just passes us by. Before we know it we’ve gone from school kid to graduate, from a rookie on the job to the expert in our field. Facebook flashes up images to remind us just how quickly time flies. Only the other day a photo of my 2 year old popped up giving me a virtual slap to remind me that she is now 5. I looked across at the long-legged child and pined after the tiny person now gone. Then there’s my eldest, to me she’s still my baby yet she can look me in the eye without even standing on the bottom stair. The older I become the faster time passes, but I know that I’m not the only person to feel like that – this happens to us all. Time flies when you’re having fun – really should just read ‘Time flies’.
To understand this from a logical standpoint we can just look at the percentage of our life that a day, a week, a month becomes as we grow older. As a 5 year old a month constitutes 1/60th of our life, but by the time we’re 35 that same period of time makes up only 1/1820th. Research confirms that our assessment of time also alters with age. Psychologist Claudia Hammond who wrote ‘Time Warped’ explains that “If you ask a twenty-year-old and a seventy-year-old person to guess when a minute has passed without counting, the younger person does it more accurately, while time appears to be going slightly faster for the older person.”
We also have fewer ‘firsts’ as we get older which impacts how we perceive time. As a 5 year old there is something new every day – the first day at school, Christmas with different relatives, sports day, the summer holiday, the first trip on a boat, in an airport, on a plane, on a train….. As we grow older that first trip on a plane becomes the quarterly journey to see a client, the train ride becomes the daily commute, even people become less unexpected. The more people we meet the more and more similar everyone seems to be. As such our brain actually switches off a little and goes into autopilot. First events and novel experiences engage our brain, creating detailed and lasting memories making it feel like time is passing more slowly. Familiar people, events and situations that are not novel (or that we don’t perceive to be) cause us to switch off – our brain doesn’t bother keeping track and time just slips by.
When it comes to my girls growing up – although the familiarity of a school routine and ferrying to this party or that inevitably speeds up the passage of time, it doesn’t completely explain the fast forward that I’m experiencing. On closer inspection I would put this down to two further factors 1) being busy and 2) being tired.
Being busy – when you have children of any age the things to remember becomes quite frankly ridiculous. It feels like a full time job just responding to school e-mails, requests for dressing up as a smurf with less than 24 hours’ notice, invitations to school assemblies ‘tomorrow’ (replace with anything from dance recital, cross country match… ad infinitum), forgotten trainers, invites to sleepovers, parties which require presents, cards, a taxi service and so on and so forth. These leave me spinning without even adding a career and my own life into the mix. When we’re busy, regardless or not of whether that’s with kids, we don’t have time to savour experiences and see the novel. It’s all we can do to get through the day. Our brain is not in the business of reflecting and considering what’s going on, rather surviving from one moment to the next.
Tiredness – really doesn’t help matters when it comes to encoding those memories that will later give us benchmarks on the passage of time. Again, I don’t want to suggest that only those of us with children experience this, I certainty fell into the sleepless nights category in my twenties (usually through burning the candle at both ends). However when children are little, sleep is inevitably hard to come by for parents and when they get bigger there’s so much to do once they’ve gone to bed that things don’t improve. Regardless of the root cause tiredness stops our brain from encoding information effectively. The most recent research goes so far as saying that parts of our brain doze off while we’re actually awake and doing things. That’s not conducive to a rich and meaningful programming of memories which slow down our perception of time.
So how can you slow down time?
- Get sleep – it sounds obvious but without it our days pass by in a blur (it may not be practical to get lots of sleep but that’s another matter entirely).
- Look out…..
- not down – you’ve heard it before but this is yet another reason to put down your phone, laptop or other device. When we’re kids we live life facing out, curiously exploring the world around us, learning new things every day. As we get older we live a more tried and tested route through life and can quite easily fall into a routine whereby we never really look up. Face out, be curious and questioning, explore the world around you, the people around you – everyone has their own story, listen.
- not in – get out of your head, don’t live on autopilot stuck mulling over the same old things. No new memories or experiences exist within worry.
- Reflect – savour, appreciate, have gratitude – sounds fluffy but it isn’t. Take the time to see what’s in front of you. I don’t mean force yourself – sometimes we might try so hard to appreciate something or someone in our life that we can’t engage with it. That can start a whole other cycle of guilt or feeling that it’s all a waste of time. Try and find the ways to reflect that work for you and the ways to appreciate that fit with who you are. For example, I love watching birds circling in the air, looking up at leaves on oak trees, walking through fields. You may however find these things boring. The key thing is to look for what works for you and then once you’ve found it – do it, use it.
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Claudia Hammond (2012) Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception