If I could turn back time
If I could find a way…
Despite the wistful expressions of countless poets, storytellers, and movie screenwriters over the ages, no one has figured out a way to turn back time. (Though I’m sure Elon Musk is thinking about it!)
Nevertheless, it may surprise you that, although we can’t reverse time, there’s ample research in psychology and neuroscience suggesting that we can slow it down…at least the perception of its passage.
“The older I get, the more quickly time goes by.”
Is that true for you?
If you’re like most people, you completely agree–the passage of time seems to accelerate with each passing year.
In fact, one of my pet peeves this time of year, when the long-awaited spring season finally arrives, is when a friend will remark. “Before you know it, summer will come and go and we’ll be shoveling snow again!”
As it turns out, scientists have been theorizing about this for years.
In the late 19th century, for example, noted psychologist William James wrote:
The same space of time seems shorter as we grow older…In youth, we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. But as each passing year converts some of this experience into an automatic routine that we hardly note at all, the days and weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.
Repetition speeds things up.
James’ observation–that the more routine our experiences become, the less aware we are of them which shrinks our perception of time passing—has been confirmed by contemporary research.
In multiple studies conducted by a team of Israeli scientists, for example, groups of people were surveyed as they were doing things that were either old or new to them. “In all studies,” they concluded, “we found that…people remember duration as being shorter on a routine activity than on a non-routine activity.”
The reason, according to psychologists, is our brains are hardwired to default to predictable routines: it conserves the brain’s energy and keeps us safe.
The consequence, however, is that highly predictable routines tend to reduce our sense of awareness.
We’re not as present with what’s going on around us which tricks our minds into thinking time is passing more quickly than it should.
Are we there yet?
Think back to your childhood: Do you remember how time seemed to crawl by?
That’s because so many experiences were new and novel. You were constantly learning and doing new things–taking your first step, learning to read and write, ride a two-wheel bike, swing a baseball bat, etc.
By contrast, think of how routine creeps into our lives as we age: Most of us eat the same thing for breakfast, take the same route to work, and listen to the same program on our radio or digital device.
We go to the same job, have the same conversations with our coworkers, then go home and eat the same basic meal at the same time, watch the same entertainment, go to bed at the same time… only to rinse and repeat the next day.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with this lifestyle, if we’re not careful, it can rob us of our consciousness as we basically sleepwalk through life.
When we’re not present in the moment, our ability to calibrate time decreases.
As author Walker James notes, “Your life is the sum of what you’re aware of.”
The antidote: Pursue novel experiences.
During a recent travel experience with my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and our 20-month-old grandson, our flight was unexpectedly canceled, resulting in a 7-hour delay at the Detroit airport.
As our frustration mounted while we stood in lines, paced the concourse, and wondered if we would ever get on another plane, our grandson would have none of it.
What to us was a source of confinement preventing us from enjoying our vacation was, to him, a giant theme park.
He enjoyed virtually every moment of our forced exile–riding the bright red tram, climbing the escalator, and gawking at the planes as they taxied down the runway. Watching his natural curiosity and playful intelligence made me realize the value of reinterpreting our experiences–in this case, from a mundane and unwelcome ordeal to an adventure rife with unexplored wonders.
Although we can’t go back to our childhood, there are ample ways to adopt a more childlike approach to our everyday lives.
The easiest way: Try reshuffling your routine with the goal of increasing your awareness of things. It will create low-grade discomfort at first but lean into it and you’ll feel a sense of reward and accomplishment.
Here are some examples to consider:
• Take a totally different route to work
• Listen to a podcast or read a book that is completely different from the subject matter you normally engage with
• Take a random class at your local college (I recently took a class on migratory birds at my local community college–it was a refreshingly different, fascinating, and educational way to spend a Wednesday evening!)
Changing your predictable patterns can make you feel like you’ve lost control of the day.
Yet when it is done with intention and curiosity, minor disruptions to your routines can be a powerful way to stimulate new thinking, break bad habits, and adapt better to our constantly-changing world.
Consider your life:
Does time seem to go by too quickly for you?
If so, are you open to changing up your daily routine?
What would that look like for you?
I’d love to hear your perspective.