Wait… it’s already March?

There’s a social contract I’m about to violate. Like all social contracts, there’s a set of ‘suitable’ responses to this question. I’m going to throw these responses to the four winds, at great peril to my social standing.

For example, if someone says “how are you?” chances are it isn’t a question. I mean, it might be. But it’s usually a greeting, not a request for information. The social contract says that you reply with a short, positive answer, then return the question:

“I’m good, thanks. How are you?”

The social contract I’m violating is similar. It’s not as obvious that this is like the above example. I mean, these things aren’t written down anywhere – that would be too easy. But it seems to be less about exchanging information and more about deepening the relationship. And that question/statement is:

“Geez, can you believe it’s already March?”

To which the suitable reply is something like:

“Haha, yeah, this year is flying by.”

Except I can’t answer like that. Not honestly, anyway. 2017 isn’t flying by; it’s a delightful, relaxing stroll through the weeks. So instead of giving the expected reply, I have the irresistible urge to blurt out, in defiance of the contract:

“It’s funny that you say that. There’s a part of Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer where the legendary mental athlete Ed Cooke says he plans to slow his perception of time. Ever since I read that, I’ve been thinking and reading about how to do that. I’ve tried some things and it works – time feels comfortable and slow now, rather than weeks seeming to race by. Besides, think about how much has happened to you since New Year and I’m sure you’ll agree that… hey, where are you going?”

Psychological Time

Einstein showed that time is relative, overthrowing the Newtonian view of absolute time. Even before then, people knew that time seemed to flow at different rates. Time feels different based on your thoughts and mood, regardless of what the clock says. Lose yourself in a wonderful conversation and hours feel like minutes. Do something tedious and minutes feel like hours.

At the extreme end, when you enter a flow state, you lose track of time. I mean that literally and entirely. The only clue that time has passed is it’s suddenly night-time and you’re thirsty.

And does time feel like it’s generally getting faster? When you were young, a month was this huge block of time. If you are surprised that it’s already March, that’s two months that have flown by. For most people, each year feels faster than the last.

What’s happening?

It’s all in the details.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist writing that. But it is all in the details. Your brain tracks time – which gives you your sense of how fast time flows – not in seconds, but events. If you notice ten events, that will feel the same whether three seconds or three hours pass.

Remember when you first drove a car? I bet 15 minutes behind the wheel felt like hours. Everything you did was an event. Check the mirror? That’s one. Indicate? That’s another. Passenger yells at you for almost getting them killed? One more. You notice each and every action, thought and observation because it’s all new to you.

As you gain experience, you can blur out these details. ‘Drive to work’ can become one event, made of many actions that you don’t notice. If you’ve ever sat behind the wheel then found yourself at your destination, this is what has happened. The details of driving a known route are familiar, so not worth paying attention to.

The How and Why of Time Travel

Knowing this, can we slow our perception of time? Related question: do we want to?

How to slow time is easy to say but harder to do. It involves unlearning an old habit and learning a new one. That is hard enough at the best of times. But this is a habit of thought – subtle, invisible and constant.

If you like the term ‘mindfulness’, then it’s like that. If not, then it’s way better than mindfulness. The new habit is to pay attention to your senses. Really pay attention. Look at a familiar object – a chair, a mug – like you are seeing it for the first time. As if it is fascinating. Drink in the details. What’s the colour? Is it bright or dark? Smooth or rough? Hot or cold? Loud or quiet?

The more you practice this, the more naturally you will do it during your day. This has many benefits, one of which is slowing time.

But you might wonder if you even want to slow time. After all, time drags when we are bored. An hour of queueing is far longer than an hour of video games. The goal is not to make time drag, though. It is to expand and enrich each moment. If time flies during something fun (a great conversation; video games) then noticing details will expand the pleasant experience. If time is dragging during something dull (waiting; chores) then noticing details will enrich the experience. You might be surprised by how pleasant paying attention is.

Slow time is pleasant time. But there’s a bigger, better reason for wanting to slow time. Two decades from now, do you want your time to have blown by in a blur? Or do you want it to seem full, rich and overflowing with details?

Do you want to treasure time or let it evaporate?

I’m not an expert on this technique. I suppose it’s lucky that you don’t have to be. Practicing even a little, works. Doing more is even better.

Now, let me leave you with one last thought. The great thing about the third month is that its name is also a verb. That lets you lip an observation about time flying away from you into great advice.

Already March?

All ready. March!

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This post is part of Brain Month at Mindwalker Training.

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