"The truth, of course, is that there is no journey.
We are arriving and departing all at the same time."
- David Bowie, 1947 - 2016
Another year has come and gone. Another holiday season—with all its anticipation, build-up and never-enough-time-to-get-it-all-done—is just, poof!, gone.
New years certainly bring a sense of renewal and optimism. They offer a shared and personal reset unparalleled by any other time of year.
Yet they also can have a similar effect on us as birthdays, functioning as a cold, stark reminder of just how many of these new years we have put under out belt. Each year feels to pass more quickly than the last. This gnawing awareness seems only more acute with each next turn of the calendar to January 1. And soon, we inevitably find ourselves thinking of years passed versus years ahead of us, statistically speaking. Gulp.
Furthermore, our responsibilities seem to grow and grow, causing us to feel busier and busier all the time. Technology has made us hyper available, sucking up what might have been downtime and leaving us feeling like we have no time to do what we actually want to be doing.
There are several theories as to why our sense of time seems to speed up as we age, or change in different scenarios, or even shift throughout the course of a single hour. But the study of time perception is a particularly tricky one because of just that: it’s perceived, subjective, abstract and seems in constant flux.
Scientists and psychologists agree that time is mutable and subjective. Pinpointing the why is harder. One theory says that time is perceived proportionately. When you are five years old, one year is 20% of your life. When you’re 50, a year is 2%. This “ratio theory” suggests that we’re regularly comparing time intervals to the whole of time we’ve lived.
This theory breaks down when considered against newer research from a group of psychologists who found, unexpectedly, that people of all ages, not just older ages, perceive time to be going fast. What did change with age was the perception of speed at which the past 10 years passed; it increased with age, peaking at 50 and remaining stable until the mid-90s. Questions of small intervals of time, i.e. How quickly did the past week pass for you?, showed no difference across age.
Both of these theories, however, disconcertingly put our perception of time at the mercy of, well, time. Perhaps a different theory rooted in brain research is more heartening, as it gives us more power to control our perception of time. Brain imaging has pinpointed the single, specific area where each of our five senses—touch, taste, smell, hearing and vision—is processed in the brain. Time, however, gets processed in multiple places in the brain.
When our brain receives information, it might not necessarily come in all at once or in an order we understand. For example, touch is the slowest of the senses; the signal from touch has to travel from the touch point, up the spinal cord and to the brain. When our brain gets touch information is, thus, relative to where you felt the touch and to your overall body size. Your brain will register information from touch last, which might not mirror logic. The order in which the sensory-processing parts of your brain activate might not be logical. So our brains reorganize that information to be able to present it in a manner that makes sense to us.
When we receive information we’re already familiar with, that reorganization process is shorter; our brain has context to take shortcuts. When we get information that’s new and complex, the reorganization process takes longer. This is at the heart of why Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist and Houston resident, David Eagleman, believes we perceive time as speeding up as we age.
Eagleman has been fascinated with time ever since falling off a roof as a child. He vividly recalls how time seemed to slow down to a near crawl, making the fall feel much longer than it was, while all the details around him came into ultra-clear focus. In his years of studying time, Eagleman has encountered several people who tell the same story about life-threatening experiences, where time slows and the experience feels like it takes far longer than it does, and many details get etched into memory.
As Eagleman explains, the longer your brain takes to collect, reorganize and understand information, the more detailed the memory becomes and the longer a moment seems to last. “Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said in a New Yorker profile about him. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”
As kids, most everything has a newness to it, requiring our brains to do more work to process the information in a way that we can understand, making time feel like it passes more slowly. We don’t have to put effort into learning and experiencing new things; life is the new thing. Even the routine of school years is varied by the new things we learned in each next grade.
With experience and time, our lives and worlds become more familiar, which makes processing most of the information we receive easier, making time feel faster. As adults, we find ourselves at the mercy of routines of obligations and responsibilities—work, kids, marriage, etc. Routines become monotonous and unmemorable. If it is true that familiarity limits the details of our memories and speeds up the perception of time, then attempting to disrupt our routines, exposing ourselves to new experiences and learning new, complex information can slow time perception down. Perception becomes our reality. Learning and stretching ourselves cognitively can slow time down.
Time is this massive force in our lives. Sometimes it seems to slow to a snail’s pace, other times it feels to fly by in a flash. Sometimes we wish it away, other times we’d do anything for more of it.
Time influences all of our decisions, yet we can be unaware of how and why. And since our mere existence makes us active agents in our relative perception of time, surely we have some agency in that perception psychologically. In this TLV, we explore time, what it is, how it impacts us, how our perception of it changes, well, over time, and how we can slow it down, at least now and then.
A good place to start: accept that time is plastic, both fast and slow, and not always just fast. Then: read the links on time below and force your brain to process some new information.
Man oh man oh man, what the heck is happening out there? Oil and other commodity prices have collapsed. China’s growth is falling. Stock markets the world over are experiencing mini-meltdowns, which has the professional investor community pointing fingers at the Fed for raising interest rates too soon and calling for new rounds of monetary stimulus.
The EU’s central bank president, Mario Draghi, has hinted that more monetary stimulus may soon come. A hint of more monetary stimulus has investors ready to pounce on this new “buy low” opportunity. But is this what economy has come down to, “growth” only when central banks throw in more and more monetary stimulus?
The obvious seems to be that China’s transition from a backwater third world to the second largest economy in the world was a primary engine of global growth over the last three decades. That “engine” pulled a lot of other economic “cars.” But now that engine has slowed down, and odds seem high it will continue to slow. History shows that growth always slows as economies shift from being infrastructure- to consumer-driven.
Combine all this with a coming presidential election in the United States and we seem certain to experience a very unique year. Hold on to your seats, get some popcorn and try to enjoy the ride. Looks like it’s going to be an interesting year.
As we all likely know, over the last couple of decades there’s been a growing income gap. The rich seem to be getting richer, the poor still seem to be poor, while income for the middle class seems to be slipping. The dominant reason given by the majority of mainstream media and politicians/government for this growing disparity is that rich people, especially those in the Wall Street world, are taking advantage of everyone else.
Liberal media and politicians seem to think the answer is to increase taxes on the rich, an attempt to solve the problem by treating the symptom rather than curing the disease. If this is a real problem, it doesn’t stem from the rich Wall Street investors taking advantage of the poor worker bees. The problem is that Washington has made money the dominant influence in our economy.
We’re so void of productive economic policy that to keep economy “growing” we have become addicted to growth in monetary stimulus. In the nearly eight years of our sitting president’s term, we have almost doubled federal debt from $10T to approaching $20T, while the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has grown from $700B to $4.5T. Stepping back a bit we may even notice that as money and financial services dominate our economy, we struggle to achieve 2% annual GDP growth.
It seems a whole bunch of people in Washington don’t understand that economy is first and foremost about making things. Before there was ever a need for services, we had production. Now we seem to think that an economy is sustainable with services serving services serving other services. At best this makes us ever more dependent on monetary stimulus. At worst it’s an unsustainable economic model.
If our economic policy would be more favorable to production and savings over monetary manipulation and consumption, we would increase growth and reduce the income gap while creating a much more stable and sustainable economy.
No one is taking the word “cycle” out of the dictionary any time soon.
Investors and workers in the oil patch are being reminded of this fundamental rule of both Mother Nature and economy. It’s a painful lesson to learn the first time. But the earlier one does learn it, the easier it is to remember over the course of one’s life and career. Since there have been and always will be economic cycles, we should keep in mind that right place right time has just as much influence on our success as wrong place wrong time has on our failures. Keep your head down and feet stepping forward no matter where in the cycle of life you seem to be.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ time use surveys, how much Americans on average work has held pretty steady since 2003. The mass infiltration of smartphones does not appear to have caused us collectively to work more. This is particularly notable when looking at how much we work on weekends and holidays, which has also been stable since 2003. Most of us are also pretty good at getting in at least some leisure or sports related activity every day.
From the BLS: “During the second half of 2014, a rapid decline in crude oil prices had consumers rejoicing at the gas pump. What they may not have realized though, is that gasoline stations also benefited from the decline in crude oil prices. During this period, the Producer Price Index (PPI) for automotive fuels and lubricants retailing showed a sharp rise in retail margins, peaking in December 2014. However, in early 2015, as crude oil prices stabilized at a new lower level, retail margins for gasoline declined.
The PPI for automotive fuels and lubricants retailing measures the average change in margins that gas stations receive for selling products such as gasoline and motor oil. Margins are calculated by subtracting the price at which retailers purchase fuel (the wholesale price of fuel) from the price at which they sell it (the retail price of fuel), reflecting the price for the value added through retail distribution.
Click here or the chart to access an interactive version.
From January 2011 to June 2015, a 3-month moving average used to reduce volatility in the margin-based producer price index for automotive fuels and lubricants shows a moderate inverse relationship between retail margins and prices for crude oil and gasoline. During periods of falling prices for crude oil and retail gasoline, declines in crude oil generally outpaced decreases in selling prices at the pump, resulting in a jump in retail margins. When prices for crude oil and retail gasoline rose, retail margins often declined. From January 2011 through January 2014, retail margins returned to relatively similar levels (with a slightly increasing long-term trend) despite large month-to-month movements. However, between June 2014 and January 2015, margins for automotive fuels increased while prices for both crude oil and retail gasoline declined.”
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants.
The question is: What are we busy about?”
- Henry David Thoreau
The Bad News
Time poverty: Why is everyone so busy?
“Time poverty,” yet one more brand of dearth we must worry about. In recent decades, particularly in wealthy countries, we’ve gained leisure time, thanks to modern technologies that save us time (computers, washing machines, dishwashers, etc.). Why then do we feel so out of time all the time? Likely because time is money. And times are economically strained.
In the 18th century, we used clocks to synchronize work to time for the first time. Work hours were officially financially quantified, which caused a cultural and psychological shift: people began to worry about wasting time and optimizing it for income. This idea is glaring in urban clusters of wealth and high costs of living, like New York City. When money doesn’t go as far, time gets more precious (and New Yorkers, therefore, have to walk really fast everywhere).
Interestingly, a paradox has occurred: those who make more money begin to view their time as more valuable, causing escalating time pressure and a perception of having less time for all non-work activities. The cash rich are often the time poor. And, consequently, the cash poor are often time rich. Read the full article for a closer look on how being busy can make you rich, which can make you busier still, particularly during times where maintaining a level of wealth is economically challenged.
The Good News
Americans' perceived time crunch no worse than in past
It’s not true! We’re not busier than we used to be. Gallup found that 48% of Americans say they don’t have time to do everything they want to do. This is on par with the 14-year average of 47% and actually lower than it was in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, 61% of those with children say they lack time to get everything done, while 42% of those without young children agree. Only 21% of those 65 and older felt they were in a time crunch.
How Time Perception Changes Throughout Life
Five theories on why time seems to fly as we age, and why it might not
If you’re between the ages of 20 and 59, you likely feel a greater sense of “time pressure,” meaning a sense you lack sufficient time to finish all you want to finish, which causes time to feel like it’s passing more quickly. This age range aligns with peak years of responsibilities pertaining to careers and families, which naturally put more demands on time. For them, it’s not aging per se that makes time feel faster, but time pressure.
Scientists have postulated for centuries that we have an internal body clock, or perhaps several internal clocks that measure different facets of time for different reasons. Those of us who can’t sleep in on the weekends know our bodies seem to have an internal alarm. Another idea is that we have an internal clock dedicated to perceiving time and, like any battery-operated clock, it slows as we age, which would cause our perception of time to speed up. Read on for more time perception theories.
Managing Your Personal Time Use, Perceptions & Biases
Five ideas to slow down your perception of time
You might say you don’t have time to break your routine. But you could also say: do you have time not to? Five tips for exposing your brain to new information and slowing your time perception:
1. Keep learning: Steal some minutes here and there to read about something you don’t know or take a class.
2. Visit new places: When you can’t fit in that trip to India, varying up where you typically go—out to dinner, for routine errands—can suffice.
3. Meet new people: People are inherently complex and meeting new people takes that much more cognitive effort.
4. Try new activities: New activities require a high level of focus that routine activities don’t.
5. Be spontaneous: Spontaneity is the easiest and most immediate way to break any routine.
Zimbardo suggests that we all have a time perspective bias, and most of us are unconscious of it, causing us to be somewhat more passive agents in our lives. To optimize our time, he argues, we need to optimize our application of time perspective biases. Thus, we must learn to flexibly shift our time perspectives depending on the demands of a situation. Follow the link or click the video below to learn the “optimal temporal mix.”
Fast time and the aging mind
This is an excellent, hopeful article for anyone facing retirement. In retirement, our available time opens up considerably, allowing for one of the best tactics for slowing down time: discovery. Research shows that the greater cognitive demand of a task, the longer its completion process feels. When you have the time, get curious, learn, read and challenge yourself with new ideas, and you might just find yourself with yet more time to keep it up.
How to Find Time to Do More of What You Want
Here's how much work your brain can handle before needing a break
Recent research found that in terms of worker productivity, the length of the workday mattered less, and how people structured their days mattered more. The ideal work-to-break ratio is 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest. Not only did workers who followed this pattern far outperform their counterparts who didn’t, they also had greater focus when working and greater enjoyment on breaks. For our purposes here: taking regular breaks increases productivity, which can, in theory, keep the workday from seeping well into your weeknight. Tighter workdays means less burn out and, thus, less need to decompress to mindless television, and more time and energy at night to focus on activities you want to do, but never feel you have the time to do.
Thankful for Time-Saving Technologies
Animated map shows the time it took to travel the world 100 years ago
Next time you’re being shuttled shoeless through TSA like cattle with no dignity, at least take heart in knowing how much time flying has saved you. In 1914, London to New Orleans was a 10-day journey on boat and rail. London to Perth, Australia? Clear up to 30 days. Makes 15 hours in an absurdly tight coach seat seem not so bad.
"Forever is composed of nows."
- Emily Dickinson
New You Can Use: The Economy, Leadership & Management, The New America
Harvard Business Review: Estimate the cost of a meeting with this calculator
Oh, meetings…No one likes them. Too many are a waste of time…and money. Yet sometimes they’re worthwhile. Harvard has built a handy “meeting calculator” app to help you financially quantify the cost of a meeting. Is that upcoming meeting really worth it? Finally, some dollars and sense to help make the call. Click here or the link to download the mobile app.
Lou Holtz: The secret to great leadership
In a nod to football's championship season, we'll turn to Lou Holtz, Notre Dame's famed and former head football coach, for thoughts on leadership. In the spirited way only he can, Holtz shares the principles that guided him as he led his team to victory again and again.
The New America
Pew: The state of parenting in America
In December, Pew released an in depth look at how parents view parenting in America today. Across many indicators, the research, based on surveys from 1,807 American parents with kids under 18, shows that parental concerns and perceptions and a child's opportunities vary broadly between opposite ends of the income spectrum. The data also reveal what parents think of their parenting skills, how parenting skills break down demographically and the statistical impacts of various parenting styles. Follow the link to view the full report.
Is this a presidential race we’re watching, or a soap opera? This election season has all the hallmarks of those daytime dramas: bombast, betrayals, intrigue, infidelity. Are the candidates too caught up in the theatrics to think about the state of the union they will inherit? Do they realize they’re up for president, not best actor? Follow the link to read the Armchair’s view of what our next president can expect to experience.