Slowing Down the Speed of Life
We’re not that great at judging the passage of time since our concept of time is influenced by so many things, such as heat, activity, stress, and speed.
For example, according to the March, 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind, a person with a fever experiences a given period as being longer than someone without a fever. Also, when we are busy, jumping quickly from one job to another, time seems to pass more quickly. But when we are in a waiting in a long lineup or marooned in a traffic jam, time seems to crawl. According to Vince Poscente, in his book The Age of Speed, 23 percent of Americans say they lose their patience within five minutes of waiting in line. This whole concept of time perception is used by professional marketers. That’s why businesses place magazines in waiting rooms and have TV sets in the service departments at car dealerships. Research shows that customers perceive waiting time to be less if there are signs to read. While lined up for a show in a Las Vegas casino many years ago, I recall a bank of slot machines only feet away so patrons could lose more money while they were waiting for the doors to open. When you are busy, time seems to go faster.
Waiting time also seems to be shorter if customers have someone to talk to. When people wait only a minute or a minute and a half, their perception of time is fairly accurate. But any length of time over that produces time distortion and they think they have been waiting longer than they really have. Marketing consultant Paco Underhill recommends taking care of a customer in less than two minutes because of this fact. In his book, Why We Buy, he also claims that the time a shopper spends waiting after an employee has initiated contact with her seems to go faster than the same amount of time spent waiting before that initial interaction. So acknowledging that the shopper is waiting tends to relieve time anxiety.
Most people want time to fly by if they are waiting in a doctor’s office or lined up outside a movie theatre or sitting in a dentist’s chair. But what they don’t seem to realize is that it’s their life that is flying by. Waiting time does not register in their long term memories, and looking back at their lives in retrospect, they wonder how they got to be so old so quickly. Ten years ago, when I suddenly realized I was past retirement age, I wondered about that as well. Could I have done anything differently so that time didn’t seem to pass so quickly? I know I can’t slow down the passage of time. The clock ticks relentlessly, regardless of what I do. But even most of the clock time seems to have escaped me. Fifty years seemed more like twenty. I felt cheated out of over half my life.
It was then that I started researching time from a different vantage point. For the thirty years or more that I had been studying and teaching time management, I had been dealing with external or clock time. Now I am more interested in internal or perceived time. Most of us are enjoying life as we live it; but if we can’t recall it later, did it really exist? I have always thought that the greatest time management strategy has little to do with working more efficiently; but everything to do with living a longer, healthier, happier life. Now I would add the phrase, “that you can remember.” My conclusion after these past ten years is that we can influence the speed at which our lives seem to pass, and that we can ensure that we recall a greater portion of it after the fact. And that looking back, it seems closer to the actual number of years we have lived. That’s what I call internal time management. The process of managing internal time involves more than just the study of efficiency and effectiveness; it involves holistic time management.
Holistic time management, as I see it, refers to the strategies necessary in order to lead a happier, healthier, longer, more productive and fulfilling life. It encompasses both external and internal time management, as well as health, stress, lifestyle and environmental issues that affect body, mind and spirit. It is of little consequence if you save a few minutes each day only to lose years by running out of life before your time. But it also a tragedy if you live a long life and then forget half of it. Managing your internal time will help prevent that from happening.
Time is in the eye of the beholder
Just as inactive waiting makes time drag, so a slow-paced, boring, non-eventful life seems longer while you’re actually experiencing it even though it seems shorter when recalled later. For many people, the days seem to pass slowly and the years seem to fly by.
If you race through life, multitasking, cramming as many activities as possible into a day, generally time will zoom by. And when you’re in your seventies or eighties, it will seem like you have lived only half of that amount of time. That’s what I call poor time management. But this doesn’t mean you should lead a slow, quiet, boring, non-active life with plenty of waiting and therefore appear to live longer. Because there are other factors involved, the most significant being memory. When we contemplate how fast our day or life has gone by, we are relying on our memory. And our memory is very selective. It dismisses anything it deems insignificant. We remember the important things, such as graduation from college, that car accident, our first bicycle, a winning goal scored in a soccer game, a new job and so on. Our brain doesn’t bother with all the insignificant things that happen to us, such as those thousands of emails we reviewed and deleted or the mountains of paperwork that come across our desks or those trivial tasks we worked on, or those endless hours waiting for people.
But if we have a lot of significant items in our life – if we live purposefully – we will have lots of memories, and consequently, our lives will have seemed longer. I proposed this in my first book, Making Time Work for You, back in 1981. But at that time I had no research to back me up – only personal experience. Let me quote from that book:
“Time seems to pass quickly for some, more slowly for others. For time is measured in past accomplishments. Those who look back and see few goals accomplished, few achievements, few times when they felt proud of what they have done – those people feel that life has sped by too quickly. They feel cheated. But those who look back and are flooded with memory after memory of satisfying activities, achievements, relationships, feel they have lived a long and fruitful life.
For time is not seen as minutes, hours, or days. You can’t see intangibles that have no substance. Time is seen as events. Happenings. Experiences. It’s seen as the glow on your children’s faces when you tell them you are taking them to the zoo on Saturday. It’s seen as the applauding crowd when you end your address to the home and school association. It’s seen as the first check you receive for a short story submitted to a magazine. It’s seen as that first promotion. It’s seen as the pile of congratulatory cards when you graduate from college. Time is measured in events, not seconds. Squander time, and there will be fewer events to recall. Fewer accomplishments. Fewer moments of happiness. Squander time, and you squander life.”
Of course, at the time, I was writing more for effect than for fact, but more recent brain research has proven those paragraphs to be accurate. There is a lot more to it, but leading a purposeful life, concentrating on meaningful projects and achieving significant goals can virtually expand your life.
But why then does life still seem to go by faster the older you get? I know from experience that life seems to go a lot faster for a seventy year old than it does for a twenty year old. The popular explanation for this is that the brain perceives time as a rough percentage of total life lived. For a 10-year old child, one year represents 10% of their existence to date. That’s a long time. But to a 60-year old, one year represents less than 2% of their life experience to date, giving the impression of it passing much faster. (The Rough Guide to the Brain by Barry J. Gibb). If this is true, the older you get the faster life will seem to pass. The only proof is to live to a ripe old age. So far, in my mid seventies, I find this to be true. But here again memory plays an even more important role.
Our sense of how fast time passes is a function of our memory. If we don’t remember something, it doesn’t exist for us. It’s missing from our past, and so our past is shorter than it should be. If we don’t pay attention to what we are doing, if we lack concentration, if we’re distracted, if we’re not totally aware of what’s going on, we usually don’t remember it. The key to remembering names, for instance, is to listen carefully so you hear it in the first place, focus on it, and repeat it to yourself many times. If you don’t, it’s lost.
When self-help gurus and stress management practitioners tell you to “be in the moment” they are probably referring to happy, anxiety-free living. But it’s more than that. It lengthens your life. Because if you’re “in the moment” you are fully aware and focused on the “now” and it will likely become a permanent part of your long-term memory.
Life expectancy for Americans born in 1900 was 50 years. Today it is about 78 years for men and 83 years for women. But I will wager that those 50 years, in retrospect, seemed just as long as our 78 years. Because today we are bombarded by external stimuli – everything from ipods to iphones, paper mail to email and people to podcasts. We are in the age of speed, doing two things at once, thinking ahead while getting behind, anxious and stressed – an ideal situation for memory loss.
Our entire life to date, except for this fleeting second that is happening right now, is in the past. You are living in the age of speed, and as you look back, the last five years probably seems more like two or three; because over half of it is missing from your memory. At this very second, the only present you have, time is not zooming by, regardless of how old you are. In fact, reading this is probably making time drag. You’re already glancing at the clock to see how much longer you have to endure this. You may be thinking about those things you have to do afterwards and what’s on schedule in the morning. You may even be anxious because the kids may start screaming at any moment or your cell phone might cut out. Consequently you will forget 40 percent of what you’re reading within the first hour.
Your brain is working against you as well since it is programmed to be on the alert for any interruptions. It’s a defense mechanism to keep you alert for any pending dangers. You may not encounter very many physical dangers nowadays, but the same response is kicking in when you are in the middle of a conversation with someone at a party and all of a sudden you hear your name mentioned elsewhere. Your attention immediately shifts to that conversation.
Your level of awareness depends on your degree of interest in what is happening at the time. If you can train yourself to be more thoroughly aware of the present, your perception of time will change. An hour spent working on a project that excites you and engages your attention will seem longer, in retrospect, to an hour spent daydreaming. Stefan Klein had a great line in his book, The Secret Pulse of Time – “By giving more life to your time, you give more time to your life.”
Other factors are at play as well. A long period of time spent on the same or similar activities shortens our perception of this time later. For instance, if we fish off a dock for three hours every morning, the time may seem to drag at the time, depending on our level of interest. But looking back at it later, we can’t distinguish between one fishing session and the others. The past will have seemed much shorter since this part of our life has been compressed. Barry Gibb, in his book, The Rough Guide to the Brain, refers to this as “retroactive interference.”
These effects help move life along faster as you grow older. The longer you live, the more similarity in things you have done, and consequently the more compressed your life becomes.
An even more dramatic example might be that of watching TV or playing video games. They not only rob you of time that might be better spent on something more meaningful, and seem to speed by quickly because of the rapidly changing images, but they also seem to shorten your life. Who can recall the eight years or so of TV that they have watched in the first 70 years of their life? Certainly I can’t. I have had no experience with video games, but I read in the book, A Whole New Mind, that the average American spends 75 hours per year playing video games. Of course there are also advantages from playing video games but certainly not when it comes to time spent and lost.
You are what your brain tells you that you are. You have lived and experienced what your brain tells you that you have lived and experienced. External time passes as quickly as your brain tells you it passes. See how important your brain is? In fact, I had to laugh when I read a line in one of the books on the brain. The author said, “I used to think my brain was the most important organ in my body – until I realized who was telling me that!”
Now we come to a very important question. Can we really manage internal time? Can we influence the perceived rate at which external time passes? Well, these are my opinions, and although most of my conclusions are based on actual brain research, you might research the topic and arrive at different conclusions. But as you will soon see, I am convinced that we can manage internal time to a significant degree. The next chapter gives you a brief review of the ten things you can do to slow the passage of time from your brain’s perspective.
The above was taken fro Harold Taylor’s book “Slowing Down the Speed of Life” which is available in our store or in Kindle version on Amazon here.
Slowing Down the Speed of Life