Why Does Time Fly and How Do We Slow It Down?

Maybe it is just me, but I was shocked to find out September started this Tuesday! I had been checking my town’s recycling reschedule and thought I’d flipped two pages together. September—how on earth could it possibly be the ninth month of the year? Where had the time gone?

When I lived in South Africa, the start of September meant the beginning of Spring (which in Cape Town was really just a milder version of winter) and not much more than that. We were about three quarters through the school and work year, and ahead was a smooth run down to the end of the school year and the Christmas and summer break. 

But moving to the northern hemisphere, I quickly learned the full weight that the start of September carried. Countless times, I was confused when people would say, Oh, we’ll tackle that in the new year, or let’s get back to that in the new year. Often, we would be months away from the next January and I’d be surprised by the suggestion we wait that long.

I assumed a new year meant exactly what it says, the moment the year moves ahead by one. It wasn’t too long before I figured out that Americans have two calendars: the yearly calendar, January to December, and the academic calendar, September to early June. Suddenly, September was not just the 9th month; it was the beginning of the entire academic and work year—a whole new year.

To me, life in the U.S. felt like a giant clockwork machine. Over the summer, the machine wound tighter and tighter, ready to set off at the start of September. Labor Day (the first Monday in September) would arrive, and the machine would roar into life. The “season” (I.E., summer) would end; lifeguards would leave beaches, pools, and summer homes would close, and the work/study year would kick-off. From then, it would be a dizzying cycle of life jammed with events. There was so much to learn, and every day seemed to last 48 hours. 

But now, late August of 2020, I stood, the calendar limp in my hands, and wondered where the last six months had gone. It was a blur, and I struggled to recall what had happened in May or July. Did we, in fact, have a June? Now, this may sound like someone who was sleeping away the time, idling away the hours drifting through days. But, in terms of work, I have never been busier. 

It has been decades since I’ve sat at a desk for a full seven hours, but I quickly established a routine and dealt with the uncertainty by sticking to it—where else was I going? Monday looked a lot like Tuesday, which looked a lot like Wednesday which, you get the picture. If I thought back to previous years, by the time September arrived, I knew I had nine full months of living under my belt. 

Was this blurring of time due to age or due to Covid? Surely, I couldn’t have aged that much from 2019 to 2020!

As we get older, we all notice how time speeds up. Summers, as a child, last forever. Summers, as a working adult and parent, fly past with only a week or two’s vacation when time seems to again slow down to a delicious crawl. Speak to much older people, and they will vouch that time speeds up as each year passes.

So why is this, and how do we slow down time?

The why: Ingrained routine and endless repetition, life-lived-on-a-loop, will result in time compressing; one day it’s a Monday, then suddenly, it’s Thursday. Imagine one day repeated over and over again.

The how: to slow down time, you must live a life punctuated by novelty:  the quality of being new, original, or unusual. Living life in a series of “firsts” will cause the time to slow. Think about your childhood, teenage, and college years, even your early adult years. There were so many firsts. Your first day of school, your first kiss, your first day at university, your first apartment of your own. 

When we do something for the first time—regardless of age—we create detailed memories, and the moment seems to last longer, say zip-lining for the first time at age 50. The brain absorbs every detail, building layers of sights, sounds, smells. 

But, the more familiar we are with something, say, driving the same route to work, the less your brain takes note of it, like that moment at 10am when you have to run your tongue over your teeth to check you actually did brush. Cleaning our teeth is something we do on autopilot, so we have no real memory of that’s day’s brushing. The brain lets the event slide past like a drop of water off a leaf.

For many of us, the last six months have seen our environment largely unchanging. I only need to go to certain key places to keep ticking over, and few of us have the option of changing the scenery. This sameness has enabled us to create very rigid routines, and these routines have become mindless. Just like the very old among us, our days hold no novel events, and therefore, one runs into the next—and suddenly, it’s September.

Once I had shaken off the oh-my-goodness-it’s-September fright, I decided to look into ways to slow down time.

If novelty was one of the keys, I needed to introduce more of it. My main source of new experiences, and my greatest passion, travel, was closed to us, but this didn’t mean I couldn’t try new restaurants or new walking trails. 

Even if in April you embraced lockdown-life by learning to bake bread or knit socks, these have probably also become a little more routine. Time to take on something else new—again.

Try keeping a simple journal. Nothing fancy, no need to worry about grammar or spelling, simply note down the things you did. Describe the meal you ate out or what you saw on your run.

But one of the most effective ways to slow time is simple; notice more! Just as before, when we couldn’t recall driving the route home from the office or if we’d watered the potted plant, we now need to pay attention to what we are doing to create a memory. Mindfulness, even about the smallest of tasks.

I challenged myself not to read the newspaper when I eat lunch, but just to sit and look out the windows or around the garden. When you get to the point in your day when you are ready for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, stop everything else and simply savor every mouthful. Step away from the T.V. and take a walk. Leave your music at home and listen to what is around you. Watch the birds on your deck. 

We all agree a routine and structure is necessary, but how about shaking up the pattern? My friend moved her early morning workout to late morning, then took a midday shower. If you can move some of your work away from your desk, try answering emails in the garden. Walk the dog after dinner rather than after your work day ends. 

Ask yourself:  When was the last time you did something for the first time?  Even the smallest change can count as a “first time.” See how many you can add back into your life.

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