Time management
min read

How to slow down time: Marc Wittmann on time perception

How to slow down time: Marc Wittmann on time perception

“We live in a world which evolves over time. As an organism we have to anticipate and react to events – so we all inherently have timing abilities to synchronize with the world.” – Marc Wittmann

While it’s not the most obvious time management hack, understanding how your brain creates your sense of time can help you feel more in control of its passage. It can also help you understand the different behaviors and variables that slow down time. Drawing from his research on subjective time, neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann helps explain how time perception works – including why time seems to constantly speed up and slow down.

How does time perception work?

Before jumping into how to slow down time, we need to understand how time perception works. We seem to have three primary psychological mechanisms that work together to construct it:

  • Attention: Our present experience of the present
  • Memory: our present experience of the past
  • Anticipation: our present experience of the future

Together, these mechanisms inform what information we respond to in any given moment. In fact, at any moment we are only aware (attention) of 3 or 4 things. We sew these scraps of information together to give an impression of a whole. We already have a lot of knowledge (memory) and predictions (anticipation) about what will happen. Using our memory, we throw out hypotheses and test them against what we perceive.

Attention is a limited capacity resource, so we selectively attend to relevant stimuli only. Our memory largely informs this, telling us what information is important or novel – and what is ‘uninteresting’, since we can already fully predict it. Given this window of attention is so narrow and so strongly guided by memory, our personal account of time is one configuration among billions of potentials.

Why time speeds up

Unlike clock time, the time you directly experience isn’t steady and constant. It’s continually being influenced and distorted by a huge cocktail of variables linked to the three mechanisms above. But attention seems to be the most important here, since in order to estimate duration we need to pay attention to the passage of time.

“The question of why time speeds up or slows down is all related to attention. So if we attend to time at the present moment, time slows down. But if we are distracted from time – say, we’re in a very interesting conversation or watching a movie – we don’t attend to it, and time speeds on very quickly.”

But novelty also plays a part. When we’re young, we experience everything for the first time, but as we age and do things more routinely, we don’t encode them as vividly in our memory – there’s no great surprising new information the brain needs to respond to. It’s like driving on a motor way: everything along the road looks the same and nothing sticks out as important or interesting. Hours can pass and we have no real content for them.

So we judge time intervals to be longer when our memories for a certain period are denser. A period with relatively fewer memories will seem to pass quicker. It’s a similar case for taking substances that affect how our attentional system performs:

“Drinking alcohol can suddenly speed up time, because your attentional system becomes less adequate and you don’t form such profound memories. You skip a lot of events and retrospectively time seems to have passed very quickly.”

Interestingly, emotions and bodily states can also have dramatically different effects on time perception – with positive ones working very differently to negative ones:

“Very often, when time passes very quickly it’s an indication that we’re in a positive flow state – we are doing some challenging activity and we are so focused on it we lose our sense of self; we don’t feel time at all.”

And, in contrast, events that trigger our arousal system or cause us to wait may be experienced slower.

“When we experience very strong emotions, we suddenly perceive ourselves more clearly. It could be a very highly aroused emotional state, but it could also be waiting for the bus. You perceive yourself strongly in the situation and time passes very slowly.”

How to slow down time

Clearly, time passing quickly can be a positive thing; we might be enjoying an experience so fully that we completely forget about time. But for the instances where it seems to speed out of your control there are a few things you can do to slow down time. As we’ve seen, it largely comes down to getting the most out of your attentional system – creating space to focus it better on one experience and opening yourself to lots of new ones. Here are just a few ideas to get you started.

Professional time:
  • Know how you get distracted to better focus your attention where you want it
  • Change up where you work throughout the week
  • Automate the repetitive, low-value parts of your work day
  • Refresh your daily routine
  • Stop multitasking and incubating on work in your downtime
  • Set boundaries for passive social scrolling and email
Personal time:
  • Find your dead time and fill it with interesting, engaging activities
  • Explore somewhere new, plan a trip, change your scene
  • Take up a new hobby or personal challenge
  • Go to a different restaurant, cook a new meal
  • Change up your running route (or take up a new exercise class)
  • Keep a journal – force yourself to process the day’s experiences
  • Be fully present with the people you interact with
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