Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Why Time Flies As You Age

Why does time seem to fly by the older you get? Why are "firsts" so memorable?

Does it seem like Christmas comes sooner and sooner each year? As a child, it seemed like Christmas would never get here. As an adult, they seem to come around sooner and sooner. Many middle-aged folks (whatever that means) notice that time seems to be flying by; the years quickly pass. Why is it that time appears to go more quickly as we get older?

There are some recent books that tackle this psychological issue, and while there are a number of theories, the best explanation is that novel experiences seem to slow time perception down. Repetition of events seems to make them go faster. As a child, who has experienced few Christmases, each one brings anticipation and a certain novelty. For the parents (and especially the grandparents), it’s all too familiar – the same old, same old.

I have written about time perception before, and readers have proposed some competing theories. One popular theory maintains that there is a sort of mathematical formula going on that divides our lifetime. As an 8-year-old child, a year is one-eighth of the lifetime – a significant (and memorable) portion; as a 50-year old, it’s only one-fiftieth. But that theory assumes that our brains work like computers, storing every single bit of information, like a filmed, life-long documentary. But that’s not how the brain works.

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Perception and memory psychologists argue that memories are a social re-construction, not a literal record like computer files. Not every memory is stored as a distinct event, and the vast majority of our memories of places and times are not accessible.

Here’s another example: The first time you drive to a distant locale, it seems like it takes forever (remember that first weekend getaway, or commuting trip the first day of the new job?). As you repeat the drive, over and over, the time flies by, and you can’t recall any specific trip, unless something “memorable” happens. A really long traffic jam; a fender bender; etc. Or, the first day of a two-week beachside vacation seems to go on and on, a long, and enjoyable experience (“Wow, I’ve got two whole weeks of this!”). But before you know it, you're packing for home.

 

So what is the key to time perception? Routine makes time go faster, unique and memorable events slow down time. Although there is comfort in routine, it does make time fly. So, if you want to “slow down” time, and make your Christmases (or your every day) last longer, change the routine. Create unique experiences for each one. You can also engage in greater mindfulness – focusing on and savoring each passing moment. The old adage of “live for the moment” is the key to slowing down those quickly passing years.

Read more here and here:

Two good books on time perception are “Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes our Past” by Douwe Draaisma, and Philip Zimbardo’s and John Boyd’s “The Time Paradox.”

 

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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