Why Time Flies Faster Every Year

Science says changing how we look at it can slow it down

Photo by Rachael Crowe on Unsplash

My Grandpa turned 94 recently so many members of my Mom’s side of the family and I coordinated a Zoom call for him via Facebook Messenger. These group chats can get interesting.

One of my cousins posted a picture of me, my siblings, and her wearing ridiculous costumes pieced together after rummaging through Grandma’s old theatre costumes.

“Wow, this was 30 years ago!” someone said.

“What? I always think of this time as maybe like 10 years ago” someone with their first newborn in their profile pic replied.

“Just wait, it goes much faster now that you have a little human to love…like twice as fast!” I said.

This got me thinking. Everyone says “Oh, enjoy every minute…it goes so fast” about having kids. Or “time flies” for every other part of life.

This is all said so much, it’s become cliche. But as I’ve found with other cliches, they become a cliche due to some unchanging truth they hold.

The truth in this time flies cliche is that time simply does seem to speed up each year of our life. This can be distressing when you think about it. Now that I’m over 40, this thought can feel like sitting on a sled accelerating down a hill heading directly towards the graveyard.

A bit morbid perhaps, but I do feel like saying “nooo, slow down!” and dragging my feet in the snow of time and grasping to hold onto the years speeding by.

I especially want to slow down as I realize things like a preacher I knew once said:

“You know, one time you pick your son up to carry him and it will be the last time and you won’t even know it.”

Ohhh, this kind of thinking along with my sled ride to oblivion makes me sad. Every time I think of that ‘picking my kids up’ thing, I almost tear up. Then I go pick them up and hug them.

I know we can’t actually change time, but can we make it feel like it’s lasting longer?

Turns out there are ways we can do this according to science — ways to drag our feet in that snow of time and enjoy the beauty of the years more clearly.

Time As a Percentage

Time is constant but how we perceive it is variable.

Think of today vs. when you were a kid. 1 year felt like 5 years back then while 1 year today feels like 5 months.

Why do children perceive time like this and how can we perceive it more like a child?

As far as the why, one theory suggests that time is perceived as a certain percentage of your life so 1 year for a 2-year-old is 50% of their life. While 1 year for a 100-year-old is 1% of their life.

But this theory doesn’t feel like it quite explains things enough though.

Novelty Is a Time Deceleration Tool

Another theory is that there are many firsts in the life of a child. The first time you ate ice cream. The first time you rode a sled. There is a first time for everything but firsts are highly condensed into our youthful years.

Experiencing a first generates hyper-aware mindfulness that seems to slow time. Experiencing a first triggers our brain to enter “high-res” recording mode.

We take 50 mental pictures of a new story instead of the 1 we take when we already know how the story ends. Think of kissing your spouse before work the last time vs. your first kiss with a human ever. Which is recorded more clearly? Not sure why I had to specify human there.

So as a child, a life dense with firsts means their mind is always on “high-res” recording mode. As we develop habits, we don’t need to record every detail because our brains say “stop recording. I already know the story. I’ll use my energy for something else.”

A first time experiencing something means it is novel. Novelty slows the perception of time.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman highlighted what is called The Oddball Effect in one of his studies. In the study, he showed participants a photo of a boring brown shoe over and over. Then he inserted a bright flower picture into the sequence. All participants said the flower was shown to them for a longer period of time than the shoe was. But in reality, they were both shown for precisely the same amount of time.

Their brains hit “record” when the novel bright flower showed up in the sequence and time seemed to slow.

How can we apply this principle to slow time?

Do new things. Take on new experiences or hobbies. Even change the way you drive to work. Treat change and new experience like they are your best friend. If you get past the apprehension of change or new experience, you begin to love both. And life feels longer.

“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.” — Joshua Foer

There Are Two Types of Time Perception

Why does a weekend fishing and hanging with your old high school buddies feel like it flies by, while a business flight seems like it drags forever?

And even weirder, why when we look back and remember each event, does the fishing trip seem longer and the flight seem like a blur?

This is the difference between two types of time perception.

The first is prospective time perception. This is how you see time at that moment. When you’re on that fishing boat or on that boring flight.

The second is retrospective time perception. This is how you remember the event.

Retrospective perception is what we carry forward with us as part of our memory through the years. The times we were mentally engaged in something new (novel) or stimulating or engaging, our brains were recording more. So our retrospective perception makes it seem like time was longer.

If memory and current retrospective perception is how we understand our past reality, then the longer time we spend mentally engaged, the longer we feel like we have existed.

How can we apply this principle to slow time?

Stay interested and engaged in life as often as you can to remember time living as lasting longer.

Break Routine and Habit if Even Slightly

Routine and habit adherence seems to accelerate time. The groundhog days of COVID lockdown actually feel like they went pretty fast for me. Not at the time necessarily, but retrospectively per our above point.

But we can change routines and habits and slow things down.

Time seems to contract when you’re doing things highly familiar to you. Do you remember much about your last trip to the grocery store? Probably not. But what about your trip to that new store you’ve never visited? Probably.

According the Eagleman, time is a “rubbery thing”. He says:

“Time stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

How can we apply this principle to slow time?

He suggests that you don’t need a complete habit overhaul or routine change. Something as simple as altering your route to drive to work or changing your bedroom around feels like it slows time down because it interrupts familiar routine and breaks habit, thus expanding time.

Seek Nature

Another way to slow down time is to heighten your senses through experiencing nature.

As John Denver says “You fill up my senses like a night in the forest.”

Those of you who’ve been in a forest at night, or the side of a canyon, or even a walk in the woods, or with a new love in the “honeymoon phase” know what heightened senses feels like.

Research has found that:

“Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.”

How can we apply this principle to slow time?

Nothing is as awe-inpiring as full immersion in nature. So immerse yourself there as often as you can. Even if it’s on your back porch in lockdown staring at the clouds and stars.

When we spend more time with Mother Nature, time slows down.

Final Thoughts

Time is solid, but our perception of it is fluid.

To recap ways to perceive time more slowly:

  1. Seek novelty. Do new things. Pick up new hobbies. Seek new experiences.
  2. Stay interested in many things and engage as much as you can in life. Be Mindful and aware.
  3. Break routine and alter habits often. No monumental change is needed, just small changes to both.
  4. Try to find time to be with nature. Let yourself be awed by life and what the world and people have to offer. Stay amazed and in awe by cultivating your sense of wonder.

Is any of this the fountain of youth? No. But it may inspire us to be more mindful and pay attention to the beauty around us today which can make it seem like time is expanded.

These things can help us slow down the sled of our lives and drag our feet so we can see the beauty of time more clearly as it passes by.

And they can help us enjoy things like picking up your kid…maybe for the last time as they’re growing “so fast”.

You know what? I’m not complying with stupid “time” on this one. I’ll pick my son up and hug him forever, even when he’s 6'-2" and 17 in front of all his friends whether he likes it or not!

He will deep down.

Maybe just not at the time.

Family Man. Top Writer in Leadership. MBA Strategy and Management. Marine Corps Veteran. Winemaker. emaxklein@icloud.com

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