Why the past year flew by, and how to slow down the next one

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“Wow, this year sure flew by.”

“I know, tell me about it.”

If you find yourself having this same conversation every time a year draws to a close, you’re not alone. Most people feel that time is passing quickly[1,2], and wish life would not go by so fast.

Unfortunately, the older we get, the more likely we are to say that the years are racing by[1,2].

So, if the past year felt like a blur to you, next year will feel even blurrier.

Why does time seem to keep speeding up?

The most obvious answer is that your internal clock changes with age. Minutes that felt like an eternity in your youth start to whiz by in your later years.

But this turns out not to be true. We know this from studies[3] that ask participants to estimate how much time has passed between two events in the lab. For instance, when 1 minute has actually passed, how much time do people think has passed?

Younger people are quite good at this. Older people, however, experience 1 minute as lasting 1 minute, 23 seconds. On a moment-to-moment basis, then, older adults actually perceive time to pass more slowly.

So something else must be happening when older adults say that the past week, year, or decade flew by.

There appear to be three factors at work.

First, there’s a simple mathematical truth: The older you get, the smaller a given amount of time seems within the context of your life[4]:

  • At age 18, a year is about 6% of your life, and a decade is about 56%.
  • At age 80, a year is about 1% of your life, and a decade is about 13%.

Second, for most people, aging brings with it more responsibilities, which causes feelings of time pressure. When you feel like you haven’t had enough time to do all the things you wanted to do, you get the sense that time is racing past you[1,2].

Third, as people age and settle into a routine, they have fewer novel experiences, and pay less attention to the experiences they have[5]. When an older adult reflects back on the past week, year, or decade, fewer memorable events stand out, and less detail is recalled, which the brain interprets as “not much time has passed”[6].

These last two explanations hint at possible ways to slow down time:

  • Reduce time pressure. This could mean taking on fewer responsibilities at work, not overscheduling leisure time, or outsourcing some of the work around the house.
  • Be charitable. Taking time out of your busy schedule to help someone else, actually gives the sense that you have more free time[7].
  • Try new things. While youth has some built-in “firsts”—first kiss, first time behind the wheel, first job, first time living on one’s own—there’s no reason why you can’t continue to try new things, meet new people, or travel to new places throughout your adult life. Even vacationing for a week can significantly slow down your perception of time[5].
  • Be mindful. Rather than being on “autopilot” during routine activities, or distracted during novel ones, try to actively notice more of what you are experiencing. Paying more attention to your senses, feelings, and bodily states will slow down the subjective passage of time[8].

So, if you want next year to go a little slower than the last, to proceed at the more leisurely pace of your childhood, the key is to approach life the way you used to: less hurried, with more openness and wonder.

Not only will this slow things down, it may also make your life richer and more fulfilling.

?References

1.Wittmann, M., & Lehnhoff, S. (2005). Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports97, 921-935.
2.Friedman, W.J., & Janssen, S.M.J. (2010). Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica134, 130-141.
3.Block, R.A., Zakay, D., Hancock, P.A. (1998). Human aging and duration judgments: A meta-analytic review. Psychology and Aging13, 584-596.
4.Janet, P. (1877). Les causes finales.
5.Avni-Babad, D., & Ritov, I. (2003). Routine and the perception of time. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General132, 543-550.
6.Stetson, C., Fiesta, M.P., Eagleman, D.M. (2007). Does time really slow down during a frightening event? PLoS One2, e1295.
7.Mogilner, C., Chance, Z., & Norton, M.I. (2012). Giving time gives you time. Psychological Science23, 1233-1238.
8.Wittmann, M., Otten, S., Schotz, E., Sarikaya, A., Lehnen, H., Jo, H-G,…, & Meissner, K. (2014). Subjective expansion of extended time-spans in experienced meditators. Frontiers in Psychology5, 1586.