Sun Ladder/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Sun Ladder/Wikimedia Commons

I’m 47 years old and just now feel ready to be 24. In fact I’ve always felt ready to be about half my age. My self-image does not update nearly as quickly as my body does. Before looking in the mirror each morning, I feel 24. When I first look in the mirror, I see someone who is 35, and am mildly distressed. Then I look closer . . . and, my goodness, reality sinks in.

I've always felt ready to be half my age. Why is that? Is it because I only ever seem to get half the work done I want to? Is it that I want to feel competent to a degree that just isn’t possible in real time?

I loved the movie “Inception.” But it wasn’t the nested-russian-doll, dream-within-a-dream theme that got me. It was the time dilation.

When I read Ray Kurzweil's book about the technological singularity, it wasn’t the nano-tech, or the bio-tech, or even the possibility of uploading our minds to more durable machines that got me. What got me was the suggestion that, as the Singularity drew near, we could speed up our minds and cram more and more experience into each second of real time. As we approached the singularity our experience-per-second might approach infinity.

My daydream fantasy all through grad school involved a ring I could turn on my finger once per day which would make time stand still while I was whisked away to a fully-catered tropical island for a couple days with only the things I had with me in my backpack. That would allow me to more thoroughly master the material for my exams, and it would allow me more time to explore topics for my papers. I would emerge in the real world again at the exact moment I left. No one else would be the wiser. But I would be more prepared for the things I had to do.

Back here in the real world, I have just 24 hours per day, and I’m 47, and it seems that, if I blink, I’ll be 74. And that leads me to ask two questions:

  1. Why does time seem to pass so quickly?
  2. Is there anything we can do about it?

As for the first question, no one really knows, but there are some theories, and I’ll briefly review four such theories.

As for the second question, there are a few things that seem to help a little. I’ll describe those in the concluding section.

Ratios

In 1877 Pierre Janet proposed that time seemed to speed up as we aged, because each new experience was a smaller fraction of a very natural measuring stick—the length of our own lives.

I’m not sure how much credit to give Janet here. Long before I heard of Janet (last week), I wondered whether the issue might have something to do with such ratios. And it’s a simple enough notion that it’s probably been surmised a million times or more, both after and before Janet came along.

When you’re five, a year represents 20% of your life. When you’re fifty, it’s a measly 2% of your life.

What makes this idea appeal to me even more is that I’ve noticed my sense of history changing as I get older as well. I was born in 1969. As I grew and became old enough to gain some sense of history, maybe by age 12 or so, the events of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to me to be what I would call “nearest” history. Today, in spite of the fact that we are now 35 years down the road from when I was 12, “nearest” history seems to stretch further back in time.

I do know more history now than I did then. And that could make more distant things seem more familiar. But it could also be that I project a shadow of my own life backwards from the year of my birth, and anything that falls within that shadow is considered “nearest history”. My shadow when I was 12 went back to 1957. now it goes back to 1922.

It was just yesterday we were recovering from WWI, right?

All this makes me think that the length of my own life is something of a default measuring rod for time. And, just to ratchet up the clarity another notch, let’s define 1 JTS to be length of my life at the time I am making a judgment about how long something will take or how long ago something occurred. (“JTS” are my initials, but can also stand for “Janet Time Shadow”).

When I was 12, it took 0.08 JTS to get to 13. Now that I am 47, it will take just 0.02 JTS to get to 48. Look at me! I can surf time so much faster now! Weeeee!

When I was 12, the Declaration of Independence was signed over 16 JTS before my birth. It took a long, long time for the United States to get from John Hancock to me. Today the Declaration was signed just over 4 JTS before my birth. And that means the United States, somehow, found a way to make the trip from Hancock to Stone much faster than it used to.

Not only does time in my own life seem to go faster every year, but history is speeding up as well.

Memories

Or maybe time seems to go faster because we measure time not in terms of JTS, but in terms of VMU (vivid memory units), as William James surmised. And we just happen to store more vivid memories when we are younger than when we are older.

This might happen for at least two reasons.

First, when we are young, everything is new. And, when things are new, they are more exciting or more terrifying. And, when events are more emotionally charged, we are more likely to record them as memories.

Second, as we get older we describe our experience in larger chunks. Ask a child how he got home, and he will tell you he left school, got chased by a bully, found a round rock to kick, kicked it until it hopped the curb near the mean dog’s yard, found another rock to kick, got teased by a girl, and so forth. Ask an adult, they’ll tell you simply that they walked home.

A person might take 1000 VMU to get to ten years of age, and another 1000 VMU to get to 47 years of age, traversing the last 37 years just as quickly (subjectively speaking) as the first 10.

Losing Time

And perhaps time seems to pass more quickly for another reason entirely.

I’ve often wondered what life might be like for someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder. With different personalities taking charge at different times, and with no shared memory of what happens when other personalities are in control, there must often be large gaps in experience. Those with DID must feel like they are “losing time” on a regular basis. And, as a result, time must seem to them to move even faster than it seems to move for me.

But I lose time, too.

When I first played the video game Skyrim in January, 2012, there were a few evenings where I told myself: “I’ll just finish this one quest. It should take about 30 minutes. And then I’ll go to bed at midnight.” And the next thing I knew the birds were chirping and the sun was rising outside my window.

Sometimes this happened because I didn’t stick to my plan and kept saying “just one more thing”. But sometimes it was because it took longer than expected to finish the original quest. Perhaps I got sidetracked along the way. Or maybe I didn’t realize how many things I would want to do in preparation before setting out on the quest.

Regardless, it was always something of a surprise to see the sun rise. I had started a 30 minute course of action, and there I was, 330 minutes later. Where did all that time go?

After getting my Masters degree, I set out to get my Ph.D., and figured it would take 2-3 years. For various reasons, I finally finished 8 years later. I had set out on a 3-year course, and arrived 8 years later. Where did all that time go?

More than once I have set aside a week to finish an article, and have found myself putting on the finishing touches 2 or 3 weeks later. Where did all that extra time go?

The truth is, I overshoot my estimates often. And, every time I do, I am tempted to ask “where has all the time gone?”

It’s common knowledge that when a contractor gives you an estimate for how long a project will take, you should multiply by two. This even (and perhaps especially) happens among experts, who should be able to make good time estimates. Douglas Hofstadter coined a recursive law to describe this effect:

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.” -- Hofstadter, GEB.

Why do we overshoot our estimates so regularly? It could be because, when we make an estimate, we think about our project at a high level of abstraction, and that precludes us from seeing all the obstacles and conflicts we still have to resolve. It could also be because, even if we allow ourselves some cushion, we tend to fill up the extra time by raising our standards and trying to make the project even better than we had planned. And then, as usual, we go on to encounter unexpected complications.

Why it happens isn’t really all that important for our purposes here. What’s important is that, when we blow past deadlines, and finish projects much later than expected, we tend to feel like we’ve lost time. And this contributes to the sense that time is moving faster than it should.

Under Pressure

If running past our time estimates makes us feel like we’ve lost time, then maybe we should make more firm deadlines in our lives.

Or, maybe not.

In a 2005 paper, Wittman and Lehnhoff asked study participants: “How fast did the last 10 years pass for you?” And what they found was that, the older people were, the faster time seemed to pass -- at least until they got into their 50s. After that point, between 50 and 90, people’s ratings for the speed of the passing of time leveled off. [1]

Why?

Wittman and Lehnhoff also asked people how much they resonated with “time pressure” metaphors. Such metaphors resonated quite well with people from their late teens until their early 50s, but not as well after that point.

Linking the two findings, Wittman and Lehnhoff suggested that time pressure might be one of the factors causing subjective time to accelerate for people.

And that makes some sense. People tend to work and make decisions under pressure quite a bit between the ages of 16 and 50. And we do feel like time moves more quickly when under pressure. Consider the following phenomena:

  • When a basketball team is down by 20 at the start of the 4th quarter, and is trying to mount a comeback, that 4th quarter can seem to move unmercifully quickly.
  • A 40 year old woman who has always wanted to have kids, and who has no good mating prospects in her immediate orbit might feel like her youth passed far too quickly, and that time is running out on her.
  • When your term paper is due tomorrow, and you still don’t have a good angle, you can wonder how the term went so quickly, and feel like the remaining time is simply not enough.
  • When your firstborn is 16, and you realize he or she will be leaving the house in another year or so to go off to college, you might be struck with how quickly the last 16 years went, and judge that the remaining time is simply not enough. (Though, if the job market remains depressed, parents can console themselves with the thought that, after college, the child will be back.)
  • When you’re 50 years old and you still haven’t reached your main career goals, and you realize that you’re career won’t last much past 70, time can seem to be moving much too quickly.

These are the kinds of things that can wake us up at 2 am, filled with despair at the passing of time and the dwindling hope that we will ever make anything of ourselves.

And, if our main first-person running commentary throughout our lives involves the thought “there’s never enough time”, is it any wonder we feel like time is passing more quickly than it should?

What Can Be Done?

If you find that time is moving too quickly, and you’d like to slow it down a bit, here are some suggestions that have worked for me, and others with whom I have worked. Your mileage, of course, might vary.

One: Close Your Open Loops: To the extent that you experience accelerating time due to the “losing time” and “pressure” effects, it will help to get all the open loops out of your mind. Open loops are all the unfinished business that your mind keeps coming back to over and over again. Open loops distract you from the task at hand, and create stress. They are one of the reasons things take longer than they should. And they add to the feeling that there’s never enough time to get everything done.

I’ve told this story many times, but in 2005 I was completely overwhelmed. I was finishing up my schooling, I was building a business. I was helping to raise two young children. And I quite literally had several hundred things on my mind. (I know, because I wrote them all down).

Once I got those things out of my mind and onto paper, I processed them in much the same way David Allen coaches people to process their email. And that made all the difference. It gave me a completely clear mind for the first time in a long time.

I've been teaching people this mind-clearing method for some time now in a free course I offer (Clear Mind in a Complex World), and many of my students report good results as well. The initial mind clearing can take some time. But, after a while, it takes only about ten minutes per month to run clear all the time. [2]

Two: Take On Smaller Projects: The larger your project, the more likely you are to blow past your estimated completion time. And you will overshoot by a larger margin. That results in more “lost time”. If you can arrange your work to be a series of one-week or two-week projects, instead of four-month or six-month projects, you will complete more projects in the same amount of time, and will have a smaller percentage of “lost time”.

Stop to Smell the Roses: To the extent that the effect is caused by dwindling “memory density”, we can slow time down by stopping to smell the roses more often.

At times I have been critical of the “mindfulness” movement.  I truly believe there is a place for reviewing the past, dreaming about the future, and dissociating into abstract thinking. But I cannot deny that, when we live in the past, dwell on the future, and think of life in large chunks, we lay down fewer memories.

So, while I still resist the advice to “always” live in the present, I agree that most people need to slow down and be present more often than they currently are, if for no other reason that time will seem to move more slowly.

Kill Time:  Finally, I’ll share a personal tip that I’ve never shared with a student or client. Whenever I’m feeling despair at the passing of time, I’ve found it helps to say the following to myself:

“I’m just killing time until the Singularity.”

I’m not sure whether this really makes time seem to pass more slowly, or if it just makes me feel better about the passing of time. Regardless, it has proven to be a reliable way to change despair into acceptance and hope.

Why does this work for me? Well, it’s similar to what a religious person might do when they tell themselves they are “longing for heaven.” They are anticipating a state of existence that is better than their current state, and the desired state is still a long way off. This bit of cognitive re-framing moves me from a state of very clearly wanting time to slow down, to a state of kinda sorta wanting time to speed up.

The Singularity, in it’s rosiest portrayals, is a time when we will be able to reverse aging, speed up our minds, and otherwise transcend many of our current limitations. It’s a “Nerd’s Rapture”.  I don’t know whether I believe it will happen, let alone in my lifetime. And I’m not at all convinced that it would be a good thing even if it did come to pass. Regardless, I have found that, if I pretend that it will happen in my lifetime, and that it will be a good thing, it removes anxiety about the rapid passing of time.

If the Singularity isn’t your thing, and you’re not religious, make up your own “waiting for paradise” story. Whatever it is, I think you’ll find that, even if you don’t believe it, just pretending will take the edge off.

Notes

[1] Wittmann M, Lehnhoff S. "Age effects in perception of time.", Psychol Rep. 2005 Dec;97(3):921-35.

[2] You can find the free course here:  http://evolvingego.com/courses/CMCW/cmcw.php

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