Why is time passing so quickly?
September 15, 2005 11:31 PM   Subscribe

Why is time passing so quickly?

It's a commonly-observed phenomenon that when you're a kid every day seems like an eternity. This was true through most of my younger years. Even as recently as my late 20s (I'm 32) days seemed to be a reasonable length. But all that seems to be changing now. There never seems to be enough hours in each day. Months are passing so quickly, an event of a couple of years ago can seem like yesterday. It's not as if I live a particularly boring life, rather that life seems to be speeding by now faster than it ever has and I'm losing the sense of having experienced every day to the fullest. At times this upsets me; I worry (irrationally) that when I get to the end of my life, it'll feel as if it's all gone by in the last two weeks.

What do you think causes this effect? Is there a name for it? Is it documented? Chronologically speaking I know it's all just a matter of perception, but do you think that perception can be controlled?

I'm not necessarily looking for scientific basis -- I'm more interested in your personal experiences, how this kind of thing affects you, if at all, and what you think about that.
posted by BorgLove to Religion & Philosophy (36 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
When you are a kid, 5 years is half of your life. At 20, it's 1/4. And ad infinitum.

As a kid you never say, "Oh yeah, I remember that (event), it was 6 years ago!"

I suppose it's all relativity.
posted by idiotfactory at 11:49 PM on September 15, 2005

When you're a kid you spend vast amounts of time doing Nothing. If I were to add up all the time I spent as a kid screwing around in one sense or the other I would probably be shocked. As an adult I spend my time working. If I'm not working I'm paying bills. If I'm not paying bills I'm cooking dinner and if I'm not cooking dinner I'm washing dishes. Get it? All this leaves me maybe 1 hour a day max that is actually "my time". When you're a kid this time is unlimited; it should be. It's an important part of being a kid. Excuse me, I have to see if I can find my old box of legos . . .
posted by quadog at 11:49 PM on September 15, 2005

What have you accomplished with your hours as a kid, and what have you accomplished with your hours as an adult? Accomplishments not just professionally/financially, but in terms of family, relationships, creative output, hobbies, taking control of your personal enviroment, etc.

Anything worth accomplishing takes a buttload of time.
posted by DaShiv at 11:57 PM on September 15, 2005

Not completely answering your question, but I have always noticed - even as a child - that when I am waiting for some future event to happen, time goes by like molasses. If I am thinking only of the here and now (like when I am absorbed in a project or something that keeps my specific attention) time flies by very quickly. This "quickening" can happen even if I don't particularly like the event. A good example is putting out fires at work vs. watching the clock just before a long weekend holiday that you are anxious to start.

So, I think it is completely psychological in our method of percieving awaited events. I know as a kid I was always thinking of something in the future, be it the end of the school day (good) the beginning of the next school day (bad), Xmas morning, birthday, new movie coming out, vacation, etc. Something happening in the future was always more concerning than whatever was happening right that minute. As an adult I find that I worry less about future events and am very busy in the hear and now much more often.

And I think it has something to do with perspective. I can easily put a time perspective on the last 5 hours of my day, but it is much more difficult to wrap my mind around the last 40 years of my life. Looking back even a few years compresses the time between events by necessity. Apples and oranges and all that.
posted by qwip at 11:57 PM on September 15, 2005

My great-aunt Polly was born in 1900. She claimed that no matter how old you became, your life takes up the same amount of space in your brain and you are always really the same being at four as at forty-four. For a six year old, from now to Easter is forever. At forty-six, it was just yesterday, wasn't it?
posted by wordswinker at 12:22 AM on September 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

To build on what qwip said, many of us start to avoid thinking about the future, and fail to enjoy the present. When you were little, things were going to be better when you were a grownup. When you were little, most things were novel.

Personally, I find it helps to mentally rewind and review the day before I fall asleep. It always turns out that there was a lot in it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:29 AM on September 16, 2005

Korzybski, in the generally loathsome Science and Sanity, posits that what separates humans from the animals is our "sense of time-binding." He runs on definitional problems about three paragraphs later, somewhere near where he asserts that nothing can be defined.

Another failed attempt to characterize this was the ill-fated naming of those ontogenically most caudad lobes of the telencephalon, the so-called "temporal lobes." It is true that people missing both of these cannot form new memories of the times they spend, but you can sit in a room with those people (like Vincent Gallo in Route 66, "spanning time," if you'll permit me) and never notice that there's something wrong.

I came across a rather stunning assertion recently: that 50% of the subjective life of a person has passed by by age 18. It was completely devoid of evidence or proof or even a suggested method of investigation of such a question; sounds about right to me, though.

Recent research, disputed contentiously, suggests that the more intelligent a person is, IQ-wise, the more finely their brain divides up time into the quantal moments of their cognitive processing. Does this mean that the smarter folks among us live subjectively longer lives? Maybe the 'slow' folks just don't have time to get bored and twiddle their mental thumbs? Then again, maybe the smart folks processing at 60Hz have three times as long on the test as the ones plodding along at 20? (40 Hz is the average place where gentle visual phenomena appear to fuse and it's been proposed for this reason among others that the basic cognitive quantum lasts 1/40th of a second.)

These are very interesting questions.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:30 AM on September 16, 2005

To make time pass slowly, all I have to do is stand in a line. Bureaucratic office lines are the best for time freezing, but bank, post office and grocery are all good ones.

This makes me wonder if the feeling of entrapment or loss of control over one's progress/mobility have something to do with it. As children, we are dependent on others for major portions of the day: when to eat (as well as what to eat) when to sleep, etc., so all the time spent waiting out those entrapped hours seem to take forever, but the actual play time doesn't last long enough - before you know it it's dark and your mother is calling you in. Drat!

I wonder how prisoners experience time?
posted by taz at 1:17 AM on September 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

I was told by a friend that studies symbolic systems/cognitive sciences that there's a part of our brain that measures the passing of time. When other parts of the brain are heavily in use then our concentration is shifted away from the part that measures time, so we sense that time passes quickly. When our brain is not actively used then time slows down.
Young children often do not have control over their daily schedule so they are often waiting for something and feel a day pass by slowly. Even if they are busy doing something, they are not fully motivated so they are not totally engaged . However, if you sit a child in front of a TV or video game.. they will be totally distracted and time will seem short to them.
Anyway, this is a fuzzy analogy of a cognitive sciences theory.. I think my friend mentioned that there have been scientific studies where the time-measuring part of the brain had been disabled in support of this theory.

posted by alex3005 at 1:19 AM on September 16, 2005

Why life speeds up as you are getting older by Douwe Draaisma covers the subject extensively and is a great read as well.
posted by ouke at 1:26 AM on September 16, 2005

I too often feel that there aren't enough hours in the day. However, this is when I *know* I'm experiencing every day to the fullest. It's often quite difficult to judge how generally happy one is - it's much easier to do in retorspect. However, time passing quickly and ther not being enough hours in the day are both great indications that you are happy, living life to the full, and having a good time.

I think this is true for two reasons. First, you don't have time to stop and think, which is what makes time seem to slow down. Second, there not being enough hours in the day means you are almost certainly branching out and challenging yourself: if you have too much stuff you want to do, you are probably getting new hobbies, meeting new people etc.

All you need to do is have some proper reflection time every once in a while. During this, think about what you've been spending your time doing and assess whether you need to rejog your activities roster to include more stuff you enjoy or think is worthwhile.

I should note: not having enough hours in the day and time passing *slowly* is an indication of your life being very full, but full of stuff you hate doing.
posted by pollystark at 2:15 AM on September 16, 2005

I tend to disagree (my own observation anyway) that being simply busy creates this feeling of accelerating time. I tend rather to relate to a "discovery" process. If I am doing "new" things, I have a much longer day than if I am only doing casual acts.
5 hours reading newspapers goes much faster than a same duration hiking in unexplored trails (the last hour could sometimes seem never end! And that INCREASES with age, believe me)
It is thus my explanation that, with age, you are less and less "discovering", thus reducing your feeling of fruitful use of flowing time; that is also the reason that productive scientists and artists have much less problems...
posted by vieuxmaitres at 3:31 AM on September 16, 2005 [2 favorites]

My "Freud" volume of the Great Books starts off with aswering this question. It's what idiotfactory said.
posted by brownpau at 4:00 AM on September 16, 2005

I despise this 'quickening' phenomenon. I'm still in my twenties, and I noticed it happened sometime after high school graduation.
Even when I'm in long lines I notice it, so I don't think it has much to do with enjoyable vs. unenjoyable activities.
The only thing I feel I can do to combat this, is live in the moment, enjoy every moment.
I do wish time travel was available, even though it's completely impractical. There are times I wish I could revisit and process differently.
Eek, time for bed.
posted by Radio7 at 4:12 AM on September 16, 2005

"The feeling of being hurried is not usually the result of living a full life and having no time. It is on the contrary born of a vague fear that we are wasting our life. When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else- we are the busiest people in the world."

--Eric Hoffer

So, what is the one thing you ought to do?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:42 AM on September 16, 2005

(Great quotation, ZenMasterThis.) James Gleick also tackled this topic in Faster, an analysis of the rise of technology. Pretty good read, though a bit vague on conclusions.
posted by skyboy at 4:57 AM on September 16, 2005

"We are here on earth the fart around" - Kurt Vonnegut. I think this explains why time goes so slowly as a child and speeds up exponentially as an adult. As a child every day we encounter new experiences so we create indelible memories that last forever. Everyone remembers the day they learned to ride a bike, hit a baseball, write that great story, kissed a girl. As an adult we tend to live lives of habit - same train ride, same cubicle, same issues as work - week after week. Our brain tends to categorize these experiences in the same file so when we look back on a year all we remember is a couple of holidays and a vacation. If you want to stretch out your cognitive life you need to be constantly searching for new experiences. I read somewhere that every day you should find a way to make your heart race. Challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone. That's what you did as a child mostly out of the need to grow up. Don't stop growing and never lose your innocence about life.
posted by any major dude at 5:17 AM on September 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

I think our brains just slow down and get less active. Right now, I can sit in a car for an hour waiting for someone, and only require a few step outs to ease my legs. As a child, I'd have died after 10 minutes.

I think that as a child, you always want to be looking for something new. As you get older, your brain dullens and you get content.

Since there is less happening in your mind, it seems like there was so much less in the day.
posted by markesh at 6:16 AM on September 16, 2005

Successive years are progressively smaller percentages of your life. I've read that the percentage is closer to the way we perceive time, and if you set it up "mathmatically" (1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 + ... + 1/x) we hit middle age at around 7 years old.
posted by 31d1 at 6:26 AM on September 16, 2005

Short thing on subjective time on Discovery Channel Canada.
posted by milkrate at 6:33 AM on September 16, 2005

Youngsters, take it from a semi-centenarian: It gets much, much worse. Where did I read this description of the fate awaiting those who live long enough?

Fourth of July, Christmas.
Fourth of July, Christmas.
Fourth of July, nursing home, die.
posted by Snerd at 7:27 AM on September 16, 2005

Around 1996 there was a great Discovery channel special about this. They mentioned subjective time, like nearly every other poster, but they also mentioned something about body temperature. Supposedly, according to this show, as children we have higher body temperatures than older people. This is also related to time perception. At a higher temperature, we perceive time as slower than at a colder body temperature.

My 5th grade brain, worried about time passing me by, then had me dress up in sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt in the middle of June in Wisconsin.
posted by adamwolf at 7:27 AM on September 16, 2005

I haven't been meditating for very long, but I have noticed on days that I do take 20 minutes to sit, the rest of the day loses that "Must get everything done! Not enough time! So much to do! And all of it boring!" sense that I often get otherwise. I'm able to focus more on what needs to be done (as opposed to just what I think I need to worry about) and to be a bit more in-the-moment, and I lose that restless "I should be doing something" feeling that ends up with my frittering away time at stupid tasks.
posted by occhiblu at 7:33 AM on September 16, 2005

The body temperature thing is interesting - your metabolism also slows down as you get older, and animals with high metabolism like mice live "faster.
posted by lunkfish at 8:19 AM on September 16, 2005

I've about come to the conclusion that it has to do with novelty.

I've noticed that when I have to take a lengthy drive to someplace new, it always takes forever. If I repeat the drive often enough, it gradually starts to take less and less subjective time.

The reason seems to be that after awhile, I've seen most of the new along the way -- the cars change, the weather changes, but it's still mostly the same sites. The brain goes about 95% on autopilot, and time speeds up...

It seems to me that life is like that too. Time slows down when I'm learning new stuff, meeting new people, etc. Boring repetitive stuff -- or most everything that I've already learned - - goes on autopilot. Busy days full of busywork whiz by.

I'm starting to suspect the secret to living forever (subjectively) is to learn and do as much new stuff as possible, as often as possible...
posted by nonliteral at 8:23 AM on September 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

50% of the subjective life of a person has passed by by age 18.

I can believe that too.

Here's my theory. Have you ever noticed, when you've been on vacation, starting a new job, experiencing a rather hectic or stressful event like helping someone with an illness, traveling, etc, that time seems to slow down again? You know, when you're sitting at dinner thinking about what you did earlier that day, and you say to each other "Was that just this morning? Is it still the same day?"

When you ask your brain to jump off the rails for a while, and expose it to a lot of new experience, it actually has to slow down and take notice. Conditions aren't the same. Routines aren't the same. You are more in the moment, and the moments seem slower.

In normal life, we spend a lot of time on autopilot. Thus our brain stops paying as much conscious attention to the surroundings, and starts floating around to consider everything else we need to think about (bills, goals, schedules, deadlines, problems, relationships). We feel rushed because our minds aren't on what we're doing. Time flies by as we move from thought to thought and ignore the surroundings.

I would say that, for kids, almost every day is full of new experience. So kids' brains are much more in the moment than ours. They are spending far less time mixing other, more general and long-term thoughts with their daily experience. We can recapture some of that whenever we are in new environments or are asking new things of ourselves.
posted by Miko at 8:44 AM on September 16, 2005 [2 favorites]

Quick time? Yah. Its an age thing. Like thinking of REM as one of those "new" bands. After all, they came along sometime after I was in college.

Half my life, at 18? Not even close for me. But then, I perceive boredom as pain. I can't stand doing the same routine over time. Working at the same job over 6 months (assuming its 8+ hours a day) destroys me.

Where time does blow my mind, is looking back. For me, its looking down. I perceive the past as below, and age as height. And it scares me often (nostalgia?).

I might think of a person from back then. Then it disturbs me to think that boy is now a man, or maybe dead.

Travel: Oh god, for me, it is so extreme! Getting to a new place takes at least 6 times longer than getting back! It blows my mind frequently. Whether its a walk someplace or an hours-long drive, same effect.

Time spent doing nothing:
I learned quite some time ago, I need a LOT of this sort of time. One thing is clear, I spend much of it in a state of reverie. It is my notion that this is why I remember so much. That reverie is cross-indexing my memory.

I ramble, like an old man. Sorry. :-))
posted by Goofyy at 9:35 AM on September 16, 2005 [2 favorites]

Answered a long time ago by Seneca.
posted by tyamada at 11:21 AM on September 16, 2005

Everybody's right, from my perspective.
- Each day is smaller fraction of your life
- There is less novelty and leisure compared to your youth, so fewer moments in "the zone" where time almost stands still.
- As you take on more responsibilities and act more responsible, you are hurrying, worrying about getting them done.

Now, a little more about this last item - if you're wanting to do things and you have to wait in line, you have a couple of options:
- you can let your mental engine idle, as though at a stop light and waiting for the next time to act and possibly daydreaming, vegging out. . .
- you can race your mental engine, like someone revving their car engine at a stoplight, seemingly trying to change the light to green by revving their engine.
I think it has to do with your sense of control. If you're driving in traffic, trying to get somewhere faster, AND you can weave through the traffic, you have a sense of control and therefore of urgency, so time goes fast because you're sure that you must act and if you do not, opportunities are rushing by! You must grab them! Hurry! However, if you are stuck in traffic, you make a choice: race your mind thinking about all the things you ought to be doing, or rest your mind, since you are doing what you are supposed to be doing - driving to where you have to get to, albeit you're not moving right at the moment.

I agree with ZenMasterThis and Eric Hoffer - it has to do with guilt - if you are doing what you're supposed to, then you don't have guilt. Unless you are having guilt about the past and even the future. If I know I am going to be somewhat late due to my previous actions, or inactions, I can fall into that stupid trap of beating myself up about the past - oh, I should have left earlier, why did I waste my time doing such-and-so, etc. And this feeling I think is intensified if you know that this is your pattern and will continue to be your pattern. If you feel guilty about the past and the future, you can punish yourself for your "crimes" by whipping yourself over and over. And if you are a good old-fashioned Protestant (or just share some of the guilt feelings), you will give yourself many lashes quickly - which makes your mental mind race!!
Enough! I've said my piece and now I can relax and let time slow down like it's molasses.
posted by millicent friendly at 11:50 AM on September 16, 2005

The phenomena of "bunching" is what some people are referring to. The older you get the more routine experiences are stored in your head and while you are experiencing them you often have little sense of time passing, the experience of itself is bunched together... more routine = faster time.
posted by edgeways at 12:07 PM on September 16, 2005

My dad has a copy of that Draaisma book, but I haven't read it. I'm thinking that your sense of time is experienced in conscious brain activity. As things get easier, or you pay less attention (both of which), your sense of time speeds up. Remember, the "ratio of your life so far" is a description, not an explanation. If I recall a solution proposed in the book is to travel or otherwise do novel things. I certainly know a day when I do a lot goes by much slower.
posted by abcde at 12:41 PM on September 16, 2005

Oliver Sacks wrote about a related phenomenon in a roundabout way, in his Speed: Aberrations of Time and Movement piece for the New Yorker. The article doesn't seem to be online anywhere, but there is an excellent blog post with summary and discussion.

From the blog:
Oliver Sacks, the author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, has an article by this title in the August 23, 2004, issue of The New Yorker. It describes how time is perceived by people with Parkinson's Disease or Tourette's Syndrome, and by the people around them.

It seems that people with these syndromes are frequently speeded up or slowed down by their illnesses, but that their perceptions of time are not. So while a person with these ailments may seem to be engaged in rapid tics or incredibly slow motor functions, from the inside, everything seems temporally "normal." Sacks writes
posted by blindcarboncopy at 12:52 PM on September 16, 2005

Great question. As someone said above, I too despise this phenomenon. I will try to start doing novel things each day to slow down my racing life.
posted by jacobsee at 1:05 PM on September 16, 2005

"It is familiarity with life that makes time speed quickly. When every day is a step into the unknown, as for children, the days are long with the gathering of experience." --- George Robert Gissing
posted by weston at 1:38 PM on September 16, 2005

Because this life is short. Ninety years is nothing. On your death bead it will seem like it all went by in a couple of weeks, or even faster (if you have a death bead at all, as opposed to succumbing to sudden death at any moment). Death is certain and, in reality, imminent. What that means and what we should do in the mean time are the important questions.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:48 PM on September 16, 2005

Techniques of not-noing were developed in order to break the grip of habit which disconnects us from directly perceiving the real world.

List of not-doings

As children we know these techniques. When we become "grownups" we discard them as being embarassing immature kiddie games, but this is a mistake which traps us in the same delusional world trapping all grownups. It's a mistake which can be rectified, but it requires our giving up on being grownups, and our embracing the embarassing immature kiddie games.

Spend lots of time being aware of your skull. Then go from there!
posted by billb at 6:19 PM on September 17, 2005

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