Et. al. presents: On Time


ontime0 This was supposed to be a victory. After my column piece “on tourists,” I was challenged by two fellow students – Ed Miranda and Leah Trouwborst – to take a dose of my own medicine. The challenge was this: in light of my advocacy of the tourist mindset, I ought to spend a day being touristy, and then write about it. It’s a delightful idea that I intend to pursue as soon as I can.

But as the hours and days slipped by and my workload continued to mount, it became increasingly evident that having such a piece ready by my deadline was beyond my grasp. So, I decided to do two things. First, I decided to confess my inability to fulfill the plans I had laid out. Well, I’ve done that. Second, I wanted to talk about something that sprang to mind in the midst of all of this: time.

With graduation, project deadlines and summer quickly approaching, time has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been pondering how this semester seems to be flying by at a dizzying speed while simultaneously  wanting desperately to savor every moment of it. And it’s not the first time I’ve felt this way. It often feels like the days I want to make last never do.

So I did a little research. Well, I Googled some stuff, anyway. The consensus is pretty interesting. Apparently, much of our perception of time comes down to the kind of information we encounter and absorb. The more new, novel information we need to process, the longer time seems to us. On the other hand, familiar actions or experiences seem to fly by, because they require less of our attention. I’ve spend enough hours binge-watching Netflix to appreciate that.

And do you remember how summers used to last so long when we were kids? It felt like every season was a lifetime. Apparently, this is due to the fact that there was so much new information to process and understand back then. To children, the world is a novelty. We’re learning what freshly-cut grass smells like, how to ride a bicycle, or what sidewalk chalk tastes like. (No? Just me? Okay…) But as adults, we rely much more on routines and patterns, and we don’t encounter the unknown or the unusual nearly as much as our wide-eyed younger selves did.

An interesting takeaway from all of this is that we have within our power the ability to control time– or at least, our perception of it. If we pursue novel experiences, our brains have much more new information to chew on, making time seem to move slower. As neuroscientist David Eagleman explains, this can be accomplished in very simple ways, such as switching which hand your watch is on or re-organizing your desk space. On the other hand, if we stick to routine and habit, time will seem to move much faster.

A day will always be 24 hours long, but the miracles of brain science give us an opportunity to have a bit more sway over how each day feels. It’s certainly strange to think that we frame everything around a concept that is so malleable. As graduation and other impending events continue to approach, hopefully I can use what I’ve learned already to use time as an ally, not an antagonist.