Do you remember the carefree days of your youth when summer felt like it would never end? Time seemed to move so slowly back then. The days and weeks would crawl along, yet now months zip by faster than we can take hold of them. Have you ever stood on the eve of a New Year, and looking back, wondered where the time went?
I have asked many people those questions, and it seems we all experience the same phenomenon. Even more troubling is the observation that the older you get the faster time seems to move. It’s accelerating! Yet we all know that 365 days when we were 8 years old is the same amount of time for us this year. Then what’s the difference?
What has changed?
I have good news. Scientists think they have discovered why we perceive time differently as we age, and they believe we have the ability to slow it down again. Let’s begin with the “Why.” Human beings are designed to maximize efficiency. Our bodies and our minds are always working to do the most with the least. The result of this evolutionary process is that we are creatures of habit. We drive the same route to and from work every day to eliminate the need to actively navigate. We can get there and back on a sort of physical and mental ‛auto-pilot.’ This frees our minds to work on other problems or to relax by zoning out to the radio. We develop a morning hygiene ritual where we follow the same step, in the same way, every day. The only time this gets disrupted is if some external event forces us to deviate from the norm, and when that happens, we are usually out of whack the rest of the day.
We need and want that routine to feel normal. The same is true for the jobs we perform, the hobbies we engage in, and the relationships we maintain.
Our conception of time resides in our memories. Imagine a book with the numbers 2022 stamped in gold on the cover. Now imagine that every time you experience something new or unexpected, you add a bookmark at that page in the book. Your car breaks down. You make a new friend. You taste something strange. Each of those is a bookmark.
It has nothing to do with being good or bad, just something memorable. When we look back on New Year’s Eve, we are observing the number of bookmarks sticking out of our 2022 book. If there are lots of them, it feels like a lot happened that year. If a lot happened, then it must have taken a long time. Is the book almost empty? Then the year seems to have flow by in no time at all.
Our efficiency is part of the problem. We get so good at living on autopilot that there aren’t many memorable moments to record. One day looks just like any other. This week blends with the weeks before it.
Those weeks turn to months and those become years. Then we find ourselves wondering where the time went.
When we were children, the whole world was new to us. Everything was fascinating, frightening, bizarre, or magical. Every day was filled with wonder. Every object and situation we encountered was a lesson to learn and a memory to preserve. We added dozens of bookmarks to every page of our book of life. Those days seemed to last so long because there was so much worth remembering.
As we grow older repetition and familiarity take the magic and mystery out of life. We’ve been there and done that. We have experienced so much that very few things catch our attention or attract our wonder. This is the reason why time seems to pass so quickly for us now, and why it seemed to pass so slowly when we were young.
So how can we slow it down? You probably have a notion of the answer by now. We need to create more memories. This doesn’t mean you need to take costly vacations to exotic lands, although that certainly qualifies. It just needs to be something memorable. Take a walk with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Drive an unfamiliar route to work here and there. Attend a free lecture at your local library on a topic you know little about. There are countless ways to create more memories, but it requires a conscious effort to switch off your ‛auto-pilot’ once in a while.
If you would like to learn more about the perception of time, I recommend reading the work of Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University.
There are many aspects of growing older that are out of our control. The fullness of our time is fortunately not one of them. We can choose to create more memorable events in our lives, even with the slightest efforts. Make room for spontaneity in your daily routine. Every new discovery will help you slow the sands of time.