Slowing down time

In today’s post, we’re going to develop super powers. Well, one power at least: the power to slow down time.

Most people feel, as they get older, that time passes more quickly. Blink and three months is gone. Scratch your nose and two years have flipped by. It’s an awful feeling when some annual event–like your birthday or Christmas (hello, timely post!)–comes around and you think “Bloody hell, already? Where did the time go?” Today I’m going to share my experience with trying to beat that feeling.

And I’ll try to be brief, because hey, time is short!

Where did the time go?

Most of us are creatures of habit, whether we like to think so or not. We get up at the same time each day, brush our teeth and commute to work by the same route and mode of transport. We greet the same co-workers in the same way, discuss with them the same basic subjects, do the same basic work tasks. We eat the same lunch, or lunches. We head home, cook, watch TV, read or play some video games and then we go to sleep at roughly the same time every night (often making the same promise that it’ll be earlier the following night).

Sure, some Fridays we’ll spontaneously get a takeaway, or there’ll be particularly bad weather some idle Tuesday morning, but by and large, by nature, we humans love our routines and stick to them like glue, with very little (unforced) deviation. If you don’t believe me, think of how difficult it is to change what time you go to bed or wake up at, or even to start cooking some new meal you haven’t cooked before. We start out strong but often, without extreme willpower, we will slowly slide back towards our old habits.

This is, I believe, the root of things. Habits, research has found in recent years, often involve our brains running on a sort of auto-pilot. We don’t need to think, we just follow the same chain or chains of habits we always have as we move through our day until we sleep–the routine around it and time being usually products of habit. Our brains mean well–following habits is a great way to conserve willpower and energy and keep us alive in the most efficient way possible, and I love the power of purposefully-built habits that improve our lives–but they aren’t great for keeping us engaged and mentally active.

Think about how often you may have driven or walked home and arrived to find that you have no real memory of the journey. You didn’t take any of the interesting sights or sounds in. At best you had some interesting daydreaming and managed to hold onto some of the thoughts, but often there’s just a blank, dead zone where that journey was. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing–downtime is great and daydreaming is fantastic–but this lack of presence and awareness is, I believe, part of what speeds time up so much.

Building memory landmarks

The answer to slowing down time lies in breaking our brains out of these easy-but-disengaged habitual tracks on a regular or semi-regular basis. In doing so, we can build what I think of as “landmarks” in our memory banks–strong focal points for a day or week or month to coalesce around when we look back at them. With enough landmarks, you can look back on a year and it appears jam-packed with interesting stuff, lots of spikes in the otherwise fairly flat graph of your year.

What kinds of things make good landmarks? That depends on you, and what is normal for you. I’m a big believer that voluntary discomfort makes for good growth and also, handily, good memory landmarks. When I say discomfort I don’t mean something that is unenjoyable. Often, really enjoyable things can be uncomfortable, or preceded by such feelings. I would say that when in doubt, look to the things you’ve always wanted to try but make you nervous.

It’s even better if these things involve you putting some money where your mouth is, or doing something very public. Both make it harder for you to back out in week two or three when things start to get hard and the shine comes off the apple. Often this is precisely the time to push through and where a lot of the memories and growth occurs. The extra impetus of knowing you’re throwing money away if you don’t carry on, or that you’re going to be embarrassed when your friends ask you how x is going, can often be the edge that gets us to continue.

You can even do totally mundane-sounding small things, taking that 1% approach. For example, go home from work a different way, taking the smaller road rather than the main road or taking a different bus. Try a different fabric softener. Eat at a new restaurant, or try a fancy new beer. You’ll be surprised how much more memorable you can make otherwise entirely homogenous days with little choices and touches like these.

This year I’ve strived to take this approach to my life, embarking on a number of new activities that I was nervous about. In some cases (hello, improv class and radio appearance), it was something so far out of my comfort zone that I felt physically sick with nerves beforehand, and sometimes the discomfort was a little bit of cold weather.

Here’s a few of the things I’ve done this year that were both uncomfortable and fun, in no particular order:

I hope that gives you a few ideas–absolutely none of these are anything that anybody else could not have done.

A funny thing to note is that each individual thing flew by, as all fun and exciting events tend to do. But when you take their measure in hindsight, and look back on months or a years filled with activities like them, suddenly you have these landmarks or tentpoles to build the memory of a long, exciting year around. I doubt I will do a proper “blogger annual review” on here, but if I do something even remotely similar, I have lots of things to talk about in it. That’s a satisfying feeling.

It doesn’t feel like “just another year”, or worse, “just another wasted/boring/average year.” And the most important point here is that there’s no reason why you cannot do this too and make your next year an incredibly fun, memorable experience.

In fact, you may even now be able to look back at your past year and pick out stories from it that you had not really given credence to before, and realise that actually the year wasn’t as empty and fast as you thought. If not, you know how to fix it next year, and develop your own amazing time-slowing super powers.

And now that we know how to slow down time, maybe we’ll finally get to bed at a reasonable hour, eh?