Why Does Time Fly? 5 Tips to Slow Down Time

Have you ever felt that life is just going by too quickly?

I have found as I get older that the years seem to pass by ever faster: it only seems like yesterday that I was at school, I had my first crush on someone, I was going to my first job interview, I was renting my first apartment!

Estimating the length of an activity or event

When it comes to how we perceive time, humans can estimate the length of an event from two very different perspectives:

  • Prospective vantage – while an event is still happening
  • Retrospectively – when it has ended

Prospective Vantage

Let’s consider our mindset related to an event whilst it is happening. (I’m not going to bring in the emotional response a particular activity or event may evoke for now, but more about our attitude.)

Have you ever felt ‘in the zone’: fully immersed, engaged and energised by what you were doing, so much so that you lost all sense of space and time?

In 1975, a Hungarian Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, named this state of mind as FLOW, although this sense of being can be found mentioned in early Eastern texts centuries before.

Does this sound familiar, and why does this happen?

For ‘Flow’ to happen, our skill set must match our challenge. If the challenge is too hard for us this leads to anxiety. If it is too easy, we experience boredom. As just three mindsets seems a little simplistic, the model was further developed in to eight states and is represented as follows:

If we remember an activity that has achieved ‘Flow’, looking back it will seem to have lasted longer than more mundane experiences, even though at the time, time seemed to pass very quickly.

Retrospective Time

Now let’s reflect on the passage of time and recalling activities or events. In 2005, a study by German psychologists of some 500 participants aged 14 to 94 years old looked at retrospective time and found that:

  • For all ages, time periods of a day, week, up to a year, seemed to pass quickly at the same rate…
  • But for longer time periods such as a decade, people above the age of 40 perceived that time was accelerating, that later decades in their lives were passing quicker than in their childhood or young adult periods.

Does this sound familiar and why does this happen?

Well, our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.

Therefore, the greater the number of new memories we build over a few days, the longer those days will seem in hindsight.

This paradox, which has been called the holiday paradox, seems to make sense as to why, in retrospect, time seems to pass more quickly the older we get.

From childhood to young adulthood, we experience many unique situations and learn countless new skills. As adults, though, our lives become more routine, and our experiences are much more mundane. Hence, on reflection, our early years tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and seem to have lasted longer.

The butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough – Rabindranath Tagore

5 Tips to slowing down time

The good news is that this means we can slow time down in later life. We can alter our perception of time by:

  1. Keeping our brain active

    In the past we had to rely on newspaper crosswords, collections of Sudoku and puzzles offered in cheap magazines, and card or board games to keep our brains ticking. These days we have a wealth of mobile apps to keep us intrigued and the explosion of online gaming means there is no room for boredom!

  2. Continually learning skills and ideas

    Before the 1990’s we would learn new ideas & skills through books, TV, Radio and evening classes, but now there is a wealth of information and courses available at our fingertips with mobile devices & computers. There is no excuse for not learning something new.

  3. Engaging in ‘Flow’ activities

    In both work and play we should seek challenges that match or just stretch our skill set to aim for that wonderful state of ‘Flow’ more often than we are currently doing.

  4. Exploring new places

    This doesn’t necessarily mean going to new countries or cities. We can look for ways to vary the route to work, find new walking trails, try a new watering hole to eat or drink at!

  5. Creating different experiences

    Most important of all, we shouldn’t focus on the mundane or be ‘too busy’ at the expense of creating new memories with family & friends.

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Life IS going too fast, but now you know how you can slow down time!


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