To the young, summer seems to stretch out endlessly. Long days make time feel expansive. By middle age, though, the days can blur into each other. June becomes September at a rate disconcerting enough to make you wonder if it’s at all possible to slow time down.
There is, of course, one obvious way to stop the acceleration. Studies of subjective time perception find that unpleasant activities, such as waiting in an airport security line, or suffering through a bout of food poisoning, do indeed make the seconds feel miserably long. But most people have no desire to do more of these things. As Claudia Hammond writes in her book on time perception, Time Warped, “I would argue that if you live a life where time goes fast, this is a sign of a life that is full and probably fulfilling.” The question is whether it is possible to make the blissful pass at the same pace as the bothersome.
The short answer? No. It is, however, possible to make time feel less rushed and more expansive in the happening and in memory. Here are seven ways to do just that.
Time passes whether you think about where it goes or not. Simply thinking about time itself prevents this mindlessness, and hence prevents the sense that you have no idea where the last three weeks went. You know where they went, because you actively recorded what you did. While a few apps (e.g. Smarter Time) aim to take the work out of tracking, if you’re trying to slow time down, taking the work out of it defeats the point. Use a spreadsheet or notebook instead.
One reason time goes slower for children is that everything is new. Their brains are frenetically processing new information, and all that activity keeps time from sliding by. This is the same reason that the first day of a vacation tends to feel long as you absorb new surroundings and new ways of doing things. This is a good argument for taking a real vacation this summer.
But even normal life can be kept from the autopilot mode that makes the days blend in with each other. Switch up your commute by carpooling with your spouse or a friend. Try a different place for lunch. Meet your family for an evening activity instead of going through the normal nighttime routine. Weekends filled with absorbing and interesting day trips will feel like they lasted more than two days.
People speak of car crashes happening in slow motion, and experiments that induce fear seem to confirm this sensation. Time decelerates during intense experiences as the brain works hard to take in everything it might need to survive. To create a more positive version of this emotional depth, do something far outside your comfort zone. Maybe it’s singing a toast at a friend’s wedding, or skydiving, or traveling on your own in a foreign country. In any case, it will probably become one of your defining memories of the summer.
In psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous finding, people are happiest when experiencing “flow” — being deeply absorbed in an activity (painting, woodworking, playing an instrument) that is right at the edge of their abilities. The experience seems to warp the perception of time. This is tricky, because in some tellings it seems to speed time up, but in others, time seems to stand still. In any case, though, flow helps you be in the moment, one way to stop the ruminating that makes time slip away like the sand in an hourglass.
Watching TV or cruising social media are both very pleasant ways to fill a few hours. They are so pleasant, in fact, that the majority of American leisure time is spent in front of screens. But if you’re trying to slow time down, you don’t want to divert your attention from time’s passing. Instead of turning on the TV from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., go outside and watch the sunset and then stare at the stars. Leave the phone inside, too. The hours will seem impossibly long and vast.
One study on time perception found that “the experiences of being busy, rushing, and finding that there is not enough time to get things done are associated with the impression that time is passing quickly.”
Taking an extra minute or two to do whatever you need to at a more deliberate pace seldom leads to dire consequences. There are also distinct upsides to not rushing; asking someone how she is doing and then actually listening to the answer can deepen a relationship in a way that a hurried hello does not. Try repeating the mantra, “I have all the time I need,” and see how that changes things.
The present is fleeting; as William James once wrote, “It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”
But time feels fuller when the remembering self has vivid memories to look back upon. You can create more vivid memories by taking photos or journaling about experiences, and then revisiting these artifacts of your history and sharing the stories with others. As you may have guessed, showing other people your vacation photos isn’t about them. It’s about you, and making sure that your memories do not disappear into the blur of the past.