Creating the Illusion of Increased Time
“Time and Tide Wait for No Man” — St. Marher (1225)
Time passes quicker as we grow older. A few nights ago, I was at a restaurant with my family and out of the corner of my eye, I spied an older, debonair gentleman smiling in my general direction. I wasn’t quite sure what was amusing, especially since two of my children were in the throes of an old-fashioned donnybrook over who gets to sit next to mom at dinner. With the battle raging, I took my leave with the excuse that I needed to find a rest room. I did need a rest. When I turned around, the smiling gentleman stood before me, like an apparition, and said without introduction, “It all disappears before you blink an eye.” The matter-of-fact wizened statement caught me off guard. I nodded and uttered some sort of agreeable statement and made my way to the restroom. As I collected my wits, the cliché wisdom that this stranger shared me had struck a nerve. After all, a cliché is cliché because it conveys a universal truth. That evening, as I laid restless in bed, I couldn’t help but wonder where my time had gone. So, I resolved the next day to see what I could do about slowing time down before it all disappears.
First, let me start with the bad news: I didn’t figure out how to stop time. But here’s the silver lining: I did land on a few things that can change our perception of time and allow us to listen to our children argue (or not) and slow done our internal clocks. I started with my own memories. Instinctively, I remember in fine detail, and in slow-motion, several dramatic life events (e.g. nearly drowning as a child, first day at a new school, walking down the aisle on my wedding day). And then I wondered how, and why exactly, did time slow down in those specific instances. And could I extract the secret sauce that enabled time to slow down?
Doing some desk research, I discovered that time appears to slow down when we must focus on new things. In a study in the Journal of Attention, Perception and Psychophysics (I did not make this one up!), the researchers objectively measured the varying experiences and perceptions of time and concluded that “the subjective expansion of time is attributable to the engagement of attention and its influence on the amount of perceptual information processed.” Or in other words, when we have to focus on something new, unfamiliar and cognitively demanding, time passes us by at a much slower rate. So when an activity is familiar and routine, time goes by quicker. Think back to the last time you had to do something unfamiliar: The first time doing it probably went by much slower and it remained more vivid in your memory banks. But after repeating that the same activity a few times, time probably caught up with you and your perception of time sped up. One other important side note, learning to crochet is great, but when you seek out activities that are not just novel, but also have spikes in emotional excitement (e.g. Skydiving, rock climbing), this further freezes our internal clock.
So here’s what I decided to do with this new knowledge: I created a curiosity box. The box is relatively non-descript — it’s an old shoe box that’s taped up. Inside the box, I dropped in about hundred tiny slips of paper. Each paper includes an activity that I have not done before, or I haven’t participated in recently. Some things are mundane, such as volunteering to fully prepare dinner, and others are a bit more extreme, like finding a nearby cave to go spelunking. As peculiar as this may sound, we now know that any time you do something that’s out of the ordinary your brain has to work harder to process it and time slows down. The hard part is creating a routine for the non-routine.
Here’s a simple process you can use for yourself if you want to take by back time:
Step 1: Think about your goals in trying to slow down life. Is it that you want to find more time for your family or perhaps you would just like to be more mindful? Keep these goals in mind as you identify some of the activities in Step 2.
Step 2: Get really expansive and start to list out novel activities. Sort them between the mundane (learning how to kick a ball with your non-dominant foot) to the extreme (hang-gliding at the Jersey shore). This will ensure that you have a mixture of the everyday challenges and the extraordinary ones. Now put the list aside and let it marinate for a day or two.
Step 3: Have fun with expanding your list. Take a few additional days to ask family, friends or strangers about different activities that you can do. You can search message boards or local event calendars to find inspiration.
Step 4: Place each activity on a slip of paper and drop them into your curiosity box so it’s ready to go when you’re ready.
Step 5: Most important is to remember that this isn’t a job, a bucket-list challenge or a routine. Pull out your curiosity box and grab an activity when you feel time is passing you by too quickly. If you don’t feel up to taking a specific challenge, put it back and take another one.
Time may wait for now man (or woman). But small things can slow down our perception of time so that we are reminded to be in the moment and do the things that matter most to us. So, if you want to enjoy the feeling of having more time in the time that you have, pursue new things and be more present and mindful. Time does not have a stop, but we do have choices and the ability to extract the marrow from life. For me, somewhere deep inside my curiosity box, is a challenge to find a certain older, gentleman and thank him for his unsolicited inspiration to take back my time.