How we experience time – A timely message for the season

//How we experience time – A timely message for the season

“Woah, 2019 just flew by!” I keep hearing this as we get closer to the end of the year, but what if I told you the secret to slowing time down?

Understanding the way we experience time can help us be purposeful in slowing our sense of time, and of course, for me that’s an important tool I use in designing the employee experience.

I want to share with you three concepts that shape how we experience time – Memory, and The Blur of Routine and the Blur of Change.

Memory and Time

When you’re five years old, a year is 20% of your life, but as you get older each year becomes a smaller percentage of your life. We naturally compare each year against our whole experiences, making each year feel like smaller, and hence faster. But there’s a little more to it than that.

The link between our experience of time and memory is not a new one. St Augustine explored this topic in his book Confessions over 1600 years ago. We perceive time by comparing and looking into our memory and experiences. The strength, order and uniqueness of our memories play an important role in how we experience time.

Unlike how we measure speed in real life (the more we travel in a period of time the faster we are going), our brains interpret the sensation of time in the opposite way. More key memories in a period is experienced and remembered as a longer period of time.

Think of memories as landmarks. If we only have a few memories, the trip from one landmark to the other feels like a “short” trip – hence to your brain and memory it happened quickly. If there were many meaningful landmarks in the memory trip, your brain tells itself “this trip must have taken a longer time”.

Our society has a number of landmarks built in to it, the Christmas and New Year period is one of them, birthdays are another. If not many memorable events have happened between these landmarks, the experience of the gap between them is diminished, and hence it feels like the time has “flown by”.

The Blur of Routine

The brain likes to pay a lot of attention to new and different experiences – it asks itself “is there something that could harm me here, is there some advantage for me here?”. But once a pattern is established and the brain can predict what will happen, it goes on automatic mode and produces less memories.

The time spent in routine blurs together, producing no meaningful landmarks in our memory and ultimately producing the feeling of “where did the time go?”. Less memories, less landmarks, time “flies by”.

Now think about what happens to people as they get older, do they create more routines or less routines? Think of a person in a job, do they create more routines or less routines?

The Blur of Change

Surely that means that if we introduce a whole lot of changes rapidly that we’ll experience that as slowing time, right? Well, nope. The key factor is creating landmark or meaningful memories, if we are bombarded by information and changes without the ability to reflect, make sense of the changes and form memories, we can equally create the feeling of time blurring.

Are you or your teams constantly in situations bombarded by information and changes? Are you noticing that your attention span is decreasing? These are “blur of change” signs and they will create the feeling of time flying by.

So what are some ways we can stretch our time?

Producing meaningful, unique and new memory landmarks, stretches out our experience of time. Here are some ways you can do that for you and your teams.

Create Landmark, Meaningful Memories on Purpose

Plan to create landmark and meaningful memories on purpose – preferably positive experiences. Identify points in the year where you will do something meaningful together. Retreats have often served this purpose, but it doesn’t have to be that big.

You could bring your family or team together and share what you appreciate about each person. You could take your team to a client site and show them the impact that their work has on others. Make experiences meaningful or surprising and they will be remembered.

A good example that highlights this is the change a large consulting company made to their employee volunteering program. In this organisation each employee is able to take a day and volunteer to a cause they believe in. The problem was that this would interfere with projects, people would be waiting on others to come back etc. So they decided for the whole organisation to take the volunteering day on the same day. Not only did people feel more comfortable to take the day (since everyone else was), but it created a landmark memory for all involved.

Break Routines

Identify where you have routines in your work and life, and change things up. You don’t have to be radical, but by breaking routines you’re getting your brain out of the automatic mode and helping it create more memories. Take a different way home, change the way you run your team meetings. Make changes on a semi-random basis.

Have you ever driven home a different way and felt like it took so much longer, but when you looked at your clock it was actually about the same amount of time as your normal way? This is what breaking routines does to your time.

Learn Something New

Learning a new skill is also a great way to lengthen your experience of time. Adding to your skill stack not only improves your career prospects, it can provide new insights and solutions for challenges you’re dealing with (increasing your sense of meaning), but it can also connect you with you people and create new experiences (breaking routines).

Make sure that you’re not just reading about a new skill, but instead make it a whole body experience to increase your memory of what you’re learning (a more significant landmark).

This year I learned to swim, to play the ukelele and I started sailing lessons. What will you learn in the new year?

Reflection Time

Increasing the time for reflection adds meaning to our lives and work, but it also lengthens our experience of time. Reflection allows us to dwell on prior experiences for longer, helping them to move into our long term memory. Reflection also allows us to make more sense of our experiences increasing the meaning we receive from them.

It’s important to reflect on what is positive, because you are strengthening these as memories. This doesn’t mean ignoring painful or negative experiences, but instead of beating yourself up or focussing on what was out of your control, seek to find a resolution or acceptance of what is beyond your control, identify what you have learned and how you will do things differently in the future and identify what you are thankful for.

Create times to reflect at the end of projects or periods of time and go through a process of celebrating wins, identifying lessons learned and being thankful.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

As we come to the end of 2019 we at Musketeers want to wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We encourage you make the most of this special time, reflect, create meaningful memories, and identify what new skill you’ll learn and routines you’ll break.

Here’s to a long, meaningful and fruitful 2020.