You don’t have to break laws of physics. You just need to retrain your brain.
Colleen Grant & Sara Eve Alarie
When you’re a kid, time seems limitless. Every day passes with syrupy slowness, and years stretch out like taffy. But as you get older, time seems to speed up. One famous theory about humans’ perception of time suggests that by age seven, half your perceived life is over. By your 30s, each year rushes by, every day evaporates and each moment seems over before it’s begun.*
One reason that time seems so limitless for kids is that almost every experience is new and exciting, and newness helps fix an experience in your memories. As you get older, routine takes over and new experiences are generally in shorter supply. When you do the same things every day (for example, eating oatmeal for every breakfast), your brain becomes lazy; days begin to blur together.
The good news: whether you’re 20 or 50 years old, research shows that trying something new wakes up the brain. You could plan a day trip to somewhere outside your city. Or cook with a new ingredient. Or change up date night. Look for opportunities throughout the day to say yes to new experiences, big and small.
Making a special effort to notice more—in other words, practice mindfulness—can help slow your perception of time. Meditation is one of the easiest ways to do this. As a bonus, meditation may also help you sleep better, stress less and have more self-compassion.
If you’ve had trouble meditating in the past, start with just five minutes a day (yes, you can use a timer). Try meditating at different times of day to figure out what works for you. Mornings and early evenings often work well, as our minds tend to be less busy then.
To do a quick mindfulness meditation, find a comfortable seated posture. Focus your attention on your breath and on how your body moves with your inhalation and exhalation. Try not to control your breath. Instead, focus your attention on the act of breathing. When your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
In general, studies show that time seems to pass more quickly when we feel stressed about having too much to do. You’ve probably experienced moments when it seems like your to-do list is endless and there’s not enough time in the day to check off everything—that’s what researchers call “time pressure.” Time pressure doesn’t just make days fly by: it’s been linked with higher rates of depression in working women in particular.
To alleviate time pressure, try to work smarter. Avoid multitasking, which can fragment your focus and reduce overall productivity. And for those times when you just have to deal with a stressful, time-sensitive situation, consider adaptogens like rhodiola. Adaptogens can reduce some damaging effects of stress and act as healthy, natural stimulants that increase your working capacity and mental performance despite fatigue.
New research shows that our growing use of technology has made us more efficient at processing information: the more we use computers, the more our minds appear to mimic them. Shouldn’t a fast-thinking, computer-like brain save us time? Yes, theoretically. But there’s a downside. Constantly being connected to our devices appears to speed up our perception of time. In fact, in one study, just reading an advertisement for technology (in this case, the latest iPad) was enough to speed up people’s perception of time.
Take some time away from your smartphone and laptop every week. How will you fill those internet-less hours? Maybe try something new and exciting, or meditate …
*With a few exceptions, like awkward silences. Those can seem to stretch on forever. Even silences that are too short for us to notice consciously can affect us. Researchers have found a silence as short as four seconds in the middle of a conversation can make us uncomfortable!