8 Hacks That Will Stretch Your Sense of Time

How to overcome the feeling that time is running out.

Posted Feb 10, 2020

This post summarizes key research and tips from the “Time Is on Your Side” episode of our podcast, Talk Psych to Me.

Here’s the bad news: we can’t slow down clock time. But, here’s the good news: you have a lot more control than you think over brain time (otherwise known as psychological time).

Learning to mold and stretch time starts by recognizing that time perception is a fundamentally subjective experience. One hour reading a gripping novel is not the same one hour waiting in line at the DMV. The first year you moved out on your own is not the same one year you spent mindlessly busy at work. 

So if brain time operates differently from the rigor and predictability of clock time, how can we slow the flow of our time perception to get the most out of the time we have?

Time stretching skills fall into two categories: prospective time and retrospective time. Prospective time refers to the feeling of time passing in the present. Retrospective time refers to our memory of how time felt in the past.

Prospective Time-Stretching Skills

The simple but important rule of managing prospective time is that we can make time speed up when we forget about time, and we can make time slow down when we become aware of time. Generally, being aware of time passing in the moment is unpleasant (think waiting and boredom), but there are a few ways to enjoy this slowed-down sensation:

1. Wait more.

As kids, we spend a great deal of time waiting. We wait for summer vacation. We wait for school to start again. We wait for our first kiss. We wait to get our first car. We wait to graduate. All this waiting might even be part of the reason childhood feels so much slower than adulthood. As adults, we “earn” the right to stop waiting and have more control over our lives, but it comes at the cost of shrinking time perception. It’s counterintuitive, but waiting can make life feel richer and more hopeful. For example, a study by Nawijn and team (2010) found that waiting for a vacation to start typically makes us happier than the vacation itself. 

So what can you do to wait more (in a good way)? Fill your days with more anticipation. Plan your vacations far in advance, pick slower shipping times for orders you’re excited about, show up earlier so you rush a little less and wait a little more, and set playful rules to delay gratification: no chocolate cake until you finish your to-do list, no video games until you do the dishes.

2. Track time.

The simplest way to feel time slowing down is just to start noticing time. Set an alarm to go off every hour and pause, breathe, and reflect on how you’re spending your time. Ask yourself: “Is this what I meant to be doing?” One of my favorite time hacks we teach at LifeLabs Learning is called the Pomodoro Method (developed by Francesco Cirillo). Here’s how it works: focus on what you are doing with no interruptions for exactly 25 minutes, then take a mandatory 5-minute break. During the 25 minutes, time tends to fly by, but the 5-minute break stretches time back out again. 

3. Get a little bored.

Long stretches of boredom can be bad for our health and wellbeing, but researchers Mann and Cadman (2014) found that short bursts of boredom can actually increase our creativity. So give yourself space to let your mind wander, even if it’s just 15 minutes a week. Look out the window for no particular reason, don’t turn on music during your commute, and, instead of switching TV every evening, sit on the couch with nothing to do every once in a while. 

4. Swallow the frog.

To quote the great Mark Twain: “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” What this saying lacks in vegan-friendliness it makes up for in wisdom. So often, we put off our toughest or most unpleasant tasks until we’re left feeling like we’re running out of time (because we are). Instead, do your future self a favor and swallow the frog first. You’ll be amazed at how this one habit elongates the day ahead of you.

Retrospective Time-Stretching Skills

Paradoxically, when we are fully engrossed in what we’re doing, prospective time melts away, but our perception of how much time passed (i.e., retrospective time) expands. So while the occasional slowdown of prospective time can be healthy, living a fuller-feeling life means speeding up to slow down. Here’s how:

1. Get absorbed.

When we’re mindlessly busy or disengaged from our work or our lives, we retain fewer memories, and our perception of time passed is just a blip on the radar. To look back on our time and see it in brighter color, we need to absorb more detail along the way. How? Carve out uninterrupted time to get into flow—a brain state characterized by intense focus, just the right degree of challenge, and the sensation of timelessness. Notice what puts you into flow, and do more of it. Psychologist Mihaliy Csikszentmihalyi has found that it is one of the best predictors of life satisfaction. 

Shortcuts to getting absorbed also include doing new things, learning new things, changing your routines, finding the new in the familiar, and even 10-minutes worth of mindfulness meditation

2. Feel fear.

Psychologist David Eagleman and his team found that fear expands our prospective time, making us relive those intense moments in slow motion. Take advantage of this psychological hack by putting yourself in more situations where you feel “safe fear.” Think of it this way: everything within our comfort zone is instantly forgettable. The space outside this zone is where our richest memories lie. So you can go skydiving, do standup, or just talk to an interesting stranger during your commute—whatever gets your heart racing will do the trick. 

3. Feel awe.

If feeling more fear doesn’t sound right for you, be more deliberate about experiencing awe—the sensation of feeling small in the face of something incomprehensibly vast. Researchers Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker (2012) found that awe made people feel like they had more time and even made them more likely to spend time helping others. To get a quick rush of awe, spend time in nature, stare at images of nature, look up more to see trees, buildings, or stars hovering above you, or just take a few seconds to contemplate how very, very tiny you are relative to the vastness of the universe. 

4. Reminisce more.

How we perceive ourselves and our lives has less to do with the moment and more to do with what we remember when we look back. So, aside from being deliberate in making good memories, get more out of the memories you collect by coming back to them often and extracting more detail and texture. The memories we reflect on often are the memories we keep. Researchers Speer and Delgado (2017) found that reminiscing can even help reduce stress and increase well-being. For bonus points, take some time to reminisce with others.

In short, the next time you find yourself complaining about time, remember that brain time is malleable. And a life lived longer has nothing on a life lived fuller. 

Want to strengthen your time skills even further? Check out the episode “Time Is On Your Side” on our podcast, Talk Psych to Me!

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LinkedIn image: MinDof/Shutterstock


Does being bored make us more creative? by Mann and Cadman (2014) 

Psychological time as information by Zakay (2014)

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Csikszentmihalyi (2008) 

The effect of mindfulness meditation on time perception by Kramer, Weger, and Sharma (2013)

Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being by Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker (2012) 

Vacationers happier, but most not happier after a holiday by Nawijn et al. (2010)

Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses by Speer and Delgado (2017)

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