If you’re like many people, this week will feel shorter than the last. June will pass more quickly than May. 2014 will end before you’ve fully processed that it even began.
The symmetry of clocks lulls us into believing that time is a fixed commodity, but studies indicate that’s not the way it’s experienced. Time speeds up as we age. And the older you get, the more quickly it appears to vanish.
If that weren’t bad enough, we also retain less as adults. Consider, for instance, your memories of high school. How much more vividly do you recall the minutiae of those four years compared to the last four years at your job?
The hormonal burst we undergo as teenagers does more than trigger facial acne and questionable decision-making. It also stimulates the growth of neurons that soak up memories of that first date, kiss, or prom. Combine that with the fact that emotional memories feel more recent than memories of the mundane, and you can see why high school is so easy to remember—or, depending on your experience, so difficult to forget.
Psychologists haven’t pinned down exactly when our perception of time begins to accelerate, but they do offer a few interesting theories about why it happens.
There are biological accounts, having to do with natural changes in heart rate, metabolism, and body temperature as we age. Neurologically, the mature brain also produces less dopamine, a chemical that plays an important role in controlling our internal clock.
But there’s another viewpoint—one that opens the door to the possibility that our tendency to compress time can also be reversed.
According to this "Habituation Hypothesis," the older we get, the less there is that feels truly new. Our minds have evolved to conserve mental energy, and when life is predictable, we tune it out. We automate major parts of our day—getting dressed, commuting to work, cooking dinner—because it is beneficial to do so. The more efficient we are at carrying out simple tasks, the more mental resources we have available for more pressing issues.
But our mindless efficiency comes with an experiential cost. The less attention we pay each passing moment, the more quickly time fades.
So what can we do to reverse the trend?
Studies show that experiencing awe, which is the feeling we get when we encounter something inspiring and transformational, like a stirring piece of artwork or the grandeur of nature, expands perception of time. In a series of experiments, psychologists found that prompting the experience of awe in the lab led participants to estimate that they had more free time available. Consequently, they were also less impatient, more satisfied with their lives, and even more willing to volunteer.
Unless we’re on vacation, few of us actively seek out experiences the promote awe on a regular basis. What this research suggests is that a monthly visit to the museum or the occasional nature hike can alter the way we perceive time while elevating the quality of our daily experiences.
The more decisions you choose to make, the less attentional resources you have for focusing on the present moment. What’s more, continuous decision-making is mentally draining, causes stress levels to spike, and ironically, leads to poorer-quality decisions over the long run.
If you’re prone to overanalyzing every minute decision, consider this: research shows that the more options you weigh, the less satisfied you’ll feel about your eventual choice.
Taking the time to choose what not to decide can be a valuable investment, freeing up cognitive bandwidth and keeping you more in tune with the present. Just ask Barack Obama. He’s limited his suit collection to exactly two options—blue and gray—preserving attentional resources for more important matters.
By now, you’ve probably heard that multitasking diminishes rather than enhances your performance. Sure, simultaneously working on tasks feels more productive, but the attentional resources chewed up toggling back and forth leads to significantly poorer results.
Multitasking also comes with another cost—one that’s obvious when you consider the relationship between attention and time perception. It hinders the formation of new memories. By feeding our insatiable desire to get more done, we leave fewer resources available for consolidating new memories, prompting us to feel as if our lives are shrinking.
New adventures are more memorable, especially when they’re emotionally engaging. Making new friends, experimenting with novel hobbies, and taking on challenging projects at work require more from us cognitively and focus our attention on the present.
Going away on vacation can similarly provide a mental marker between life events, breaking up the routine of everyday life. It’s when every Wednesday night consists of going to yoga, ordering sushi, and watching television that the weeks, months, and years begin to blur.
We all want more time. Time for pursuing new hobbies, for visiting exotic cities, for growing closer to the ones we love. And yet, let’s be honest: expanding our perception of time helps us achieve none of these. So what’s the point? What good does it do us to feel as if time is passing more slowly when what we really need is more actual time?
Here, the research is enlightening. Studies show that people who feel "time-rich" tend to be happier and more fulfilled than those of us who constantly feel rushed. They experience fewer headaches and upset stomachs, and regularly get better quality sleep. And it’s not just people who are time-rich and financially successful. Studies show that time affluence is independent of income. Feeling less pressured promotes a happier existence, regardless of how much you earn.
And this is why there is value to slowing down our perception of time. The more we view time as plentiful, the better we are at savoring life’s essential moments as they unfold.
—Ron Friedman, Ph.D. is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps leaders build thriving organizations, and the author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Connect with him @ronfriedman.