Like most people my age (65+) I feel that time appears to be going faster than ever before. For example, when I look at the calendar it is difficult to believe Thom and I have been back from our three-month trip for over a month now. Of course, we have gone and returned from Tucson twice since then, moved up to a rental cabin in the mountains, visited with friends and caught up on dozens of to-dos that we put off while traveling. But looking back over that month, especially when I admit that I planned (avoided?) writing a blog post (or two) during that time, my excuse is that I just didn’t have time. Does time actually go faster as we age or am I just getting pickier and pickier about how I spend it?
Make no mistake, I enjoy writing so it isn’t that I didn’t want to write, it’s just that it seemed other things took priority. And then, whenever I started “should-ing” on myself (you know, when you start telling yourself over and over that you “should” do something) I resisted. Like most of us, whenever I feel I must do something, it sucks the joy right out of it. So, for the last two or even three weeks I’ve had this pull between wanting to write and “I should” pulling me back and forth. Meanwhile time seemed to race by.
So that got me thinking about time and asking questions. Is time really going faster or is that just the push-pull of my thinking? Surprisingly I found some answers. It appears that the subjective experience of time going faster is universal as we age and there are several theories as to why that happens.
#1 We frequently measure time in terms of ratios. In other words when you are 10 years old, the time between Christmas and summer vacations drags on for a long time. Ratio wise, six months to a 10-year-old is 1/20th of his/her life. Compared to a 60-year-old, six months is 1/120th. In other words, six months is a tiny part of our lives. Obviously, the last month flew by for me because in terms of my entire life, it was a tiny fraction of my entire existence.
#2 When you experience and learn something new every day—it takes on bigger significance. Back when we were young the entire world was filled with new and amazing experiences. By the time you reach your sixties you’ve seen and experienced A LOT! When confronted by something new our minds register it in a more profound way and we usually remember it more. That’s when time slows down. When it is the same-old, same-old our minds/memories barely register it and before we know it, time seems to dissolve into an hour/an afternoon/a day/a week. Let’s remember that repetition makes our days monotonous and that makes time disappear. Want your experience of time to slow down? Fill your days with new and/or creative experiences.
#3 Pressure affects how we experience time. A Scientific American article cites a study that compared “time pressure” for both students and seniors. What do I mean by time pressure? One way to create time pressure in my life is for me to say, “I really, really need to write a blog post this week or everyone will think I quit writing!” Or for students, “I simply have to study hard and get a good grade on that test this Friday or I’ll flunk out.” In both cases the strong time pressure to do something makes a week fly by. Interestingly enough, the study revealed that age had nothing to do with how fast time seemed to go when we are under pressure to do something. Want to slow down time? Reduce any time pressure to have to do something.
#4 Anticipation slows time down. Remember as a kid it seems liked Christmas would never arrive? Or what about when you couldn’t wait to get a driver’s license or graduate? When we anticipate something (especially something in the distant future), it makes time appear to slow down. Unfortunately, as we age, far too many of us focus more of maintaining our lives rather than anticipating something new and exciting to come. When we stop spending time thinking about what will be coming in the years ahead, the present time seems to speed by. Want time to slow down? Plan something you can be excited about to do in the years ahead.
#5 Our experience of time slows down because we process visual information differently as we age. Adrian Bejan, a professor at Duke University, believes that time appears to go faster as we age because we process visual information at a much slower rate than when young. This slow-down of visual processing ties into memory formation. According to Bejan, older brains process fewer “mental frames per minute.” That slower processing reduces the visual data we take in as well as the mental images we remember. Another way of saying that is that for children, a lot more data is packed into every moment because they process it so much faster. The more data, the more memory, the more time seems to slow down. Plus, Bejan says that the size and complexity of older brains adds to the slowdown of our mental processes and again, that makes time appear to go faster than it is. How do we slow down our visual mental processing? While Bejan doesn’t say this, I can’t help but believe that when we stop and look—really look—at the things around us, that allows us to process it in a way that makes time appear to slow down.
After reading all these different theories about why time seems to go so fast these days, I came up with what I believe will help me the most in the future. Gratitude. When I slow down enough to realize all the good in my life in the present moment—and then pause in gratitude—time seems to freeze if only for a moment. And while I can’t necessarily slow down the way my brain processes the visual images in my mind, I can make plans that heighten my anticipation and cause me to learn and experience new things as I age. I am also very fortunate to be able to greatly reduce any “pressures” in my life. So, in the future I will blog when I think I have something to say and not “should on myself” when I don’t. I now know that while it is impossible to stop time, the SMART way to think about it is that “I get to make it up!”