How to slow down time: The science behind stopping life from passing you by

Photo of author

By Janet Choi

One unnerving aspect of getting older is that life seems to speed up. Feeling that whoosh as time rushes past can be disheartening and may leave you wondering how to slow down time.

Part of the reason time seems to speed up as we age is due to our perception.

“For a 10-year-old, one year is 10 percent of their lives,” says neurologist and neuroscientist Dr. Santosh Kesair. “For a 60-year-old, one year is less than two percent of their lives. We gauge time by memorable events and fewer new things occur as we age to remember, making it seem like childhood lasted longer.”

And there’s evidence that young children actually experience time as moving more slowly.

“Children’s working memory, attention, and executive function are all undergoing development at the neural circuit level,” neuroscientist Dr. Patricia Costello says.

“Their neural transmission is in effect physically slower compared to adults. This in turn affects how they perceive the passage of time.”

Another reason time seems to pass us by is that time seems to constrict when you encounter the familiar, and when you acquire new knowledge, it expands.

“Time is this rubbery thing,” says neuroscientist David Eagleman. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

That relationship between time’s elasticity and whether your brain is processing new information gets at why time seems to turn up the tempo as we age.

As the world becomes more familiar, we learn less, and sometimes we even seek information and experiences that fit within what we already know instead of trying new things. There’s less adventure, play, exploration, creativity, and wonder to invite and engage with newness.

So we’re not doomed to march to time’s relentless beat. Our sense of time is weird and pliable — stretching, compressing, and seemingly coming to a standstill. And we can mold our perception of time, to some extent. In other words, we can slow down time.

bored man on city street

How to slow down time: Don’t have fun?

But if time is supposed to constrict when you’re doing something routine, then why does time seem to drag so slowly when you’re not having fun?

The answer lies in how time feels different as you’re experiencing it versus how you remember it.

According to researchers Dinah Avni-Babad and Ilana Ritov, routine frees up brainpower instead of fully engaging it with new information. “The automatic nature of the routine leaves attentional resources for monitoring time (the watched pot effect),” they write.

If you’ve ever worked a routine job — or actually watched a pot while waiting for water to boil — you’re intimately familiar with the watched-pot effect, where time seems to unfold at a fraction of the speed of regular time. However, changing that routine and time will seem to move faster.

“A watched pot never seems to boil, but go and check your emails and it will be boiling over before you know it,” says Claudia Hammond, author of Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception.

In contrast, remembering how long something took is “a constructive process involving recall of change points,” according to Avni-Babad and Ritov.

Those memory anchors of new knowledge, experiences, and events are what shape how time passes around you, which explains why time seems to speed up when we’re doing something new or interesting, such as when we’re on vacation.

Hammond calls this the “holiday paradox.”

holiday paradox 1

When we’re enjoying ourselves, time feels like it moves much faster than when we’re bored or anxious, but when we look back at a vacation, our assessment of time is based not on how many hours we actually spent on vacation, but on the individual new memories we created during that period.

Essentially, when we’re doing the same old thing every day, we don’t create many new memories. But on vacation, we create numerous ones because everything we’re experiencing is new. And when we look back on that period later, time will seem to have lasted much longer because of that newness.

So while the idiom may be “Time flies when you’re having fun,” luckily, when it comes to slowing your perception of time, there are better methods than simply not enjoying yourself.

alarm clock on table

How to really slow down time: 4 tips

The quest to slow time can lead to a richer, more meaningful existence.

The way you spend your time influences how you perceive it, so the choices you make now affect how you’ll manage your time later. Here are four ways to make your days richer and more memorable so that your sense of time expands and life doesn’t pass you by.

1. Fill Your Time with New Experiences to Counteract Routine.

As we touched on previously, routine and a lack of new experiences are what make time appear to speed by, so it makes sense that the key to slowing down time lies in introducing novelty into our daily lives.

It’s not a new concept. In fact, psychologist William James wrote about the phenomenon of time perception in his Principles of Psychology in 1890.

James identified how the automatic nature of routines means that learning isn’t really taking place over a century before Dinah Avni-Babad and Ilana Ritov tested this phenomenon.

In experiments examining the perception of time in routine versus nonroutine situations, the researchers found that people remembered the duration of familiar circumstances as being shorter.

In one study, participants had to count how many times underlined numbers appeared in each row of a list of numbers and then estimate how long the task took. For the “routine” group, the underlined number was always 5, while it varied for the “non-routine” group.

Even in these simple, nearly identical tasks, the slightest novelty provided by a mix of underlined numbers rather than 5’s expanded the nonroutine group’s duration estimate.

“Unless people experience major changes that break the routine in their lives and provide them with anchors to retrieve from memory, life can become one short, timeless sequence of routine inaction,Avni-Babad and Ritov write.

So, to slow down time and combat the effect of routine, fill your days with new experiences and knowledge to form accessible memory anchors.

Accept challenges, learn new skills, and ask questions. Take a trip or change up your environment by trying a new restaurant or coffee shop.

Embrace your inner child and go exploring. Simply step outside the norm.

You’ll find that life stops passing you by so quickly when you stop underlining the same fives every day.

woman running up snowy mountain

The present moment is where time can be slowed and cherished. You can Do a Time and Motion Study If you really want to make a meaningful change in your life.

2. Make Meaningful Progress.

Context also makes a difference in how you perceive time because it influences what you remember. Essentially, the relevance of events can determine whether time tends more toward squishiness or stretchiness.

2006 study led by Gal Zauberman, from the Wharton School, provides a good example of how this works.

In this experiment, participants estimated how many months had passed since the date of certain news events, such as Barack Obama’s presidential bid announcement, Britney Spears’s head-shaving, and Anna Nicole Smith’s death. Participants also had to rate whether these target events triggered subsequent developments.

The result? People underestimated the passage of time by about three months.

But if people felt that certain events triggered a greater number of subsequent events, they believed that more time had passed. Related events act as memory anchors, stretching out your sense of time, while unrelated events don’t have this effect.

So if you’d been paying close attention to Obama’s first presidential campaign but didn’t follow the many public trials and tribulations of Britney Spears, you would’ve thought that more time had passed since the bid announcement — even though the two events took place within a week of each other.

Making related memories and building upon knowledge, then, can help expand time. What does that mean for you?

To slow down time, fill it with meaningful progress.

meaningful progress

The wistfulness and disappointment you feel when life seems to speed past arise because you’re noticing the passage of yet another anniversary or birthday, but you haven’t really made any strides on the things you’ve wanted to do.

The counterintuitive lesson from Zauberman’s research is that time seems to pass by quicker because you didn’t take action. So the trick to slowing down time? Simply increase your productivity, and make progress on projects and goals.

Making and recognizing progress not only builds up intrinsic motivation but also prevents you from slipping into the hollowness of automatic, forgettable routines.

When you think about how you first started learning a new language or working toward a goal, like getting in shape, it seems like forever ago because you’ve made a lot of progress. There were lots of memorable milestones along the way.

man sitting on dock looking at mountain view

3. Practice mindfulness.

There’s been a lot of talk about mindfulness in recent years, and it’s often discussed in terms of meditation. But if you’re interested in slowing down time, you don’t necessarily have to start meditating. You simply need to become more mindful.

Mindfulness essentially means that your brain is wholly focused on the task at hand. You’re fully present, aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and not overwhelmed by what’s happening around you.

That might sound easy enough, but when was the last time you were fully engrossed in only one activity? As you read this, are you also eating lunch or assembling a to-do list?

When you’re driving, do you find your train of thought meandering far beyond the road before you? If you’re like most people, multitasking is a way of life. Mindfulness is the opposite.

vector illustration of work life balance concept with business woman meditating on yoga mat holds laptop and flower in hand

When you’re fully engrossed in what you’re doing, when you notice the little things you may take for granted, such as the feel of your shoes as you walk, it changes the brain and can have a positive effect on the body as a whole. Studies have found that mindfulness meditation prevents the thinning of the frontal cortex.

In fact, a Harvard Medical School study found that participants in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction program experienced changes in the concentration of gray matter areas in the brain responsible for learning, memory, and emotion regulation.

Mindfulness has been linked to major health improvements in everything from irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But what does practicing mindfulness mean for our perception of time? It’s essentially the tool we can use at any time to press pause, take stock of where we are, and notice both ourselves and our world.

If you’re new to mindfulness and aren’t ready to dive into meditation just yet, try the 54321 method, a common sensory-awareness grounding exercise. Here’s all you have to do:

  1. Name five things you can see.
  2. Name four things you can touch.
  3. Name three things you can hear.
  4. Name two things you can smell.
  5. Name one thing you can taste.

After completing this exercise, you should feel calmer, more grounded, and, hopefully, more mindful.

“The more engaged we are with our experience, the longer it lasts,” writes Dr. Diana Raab. “In other words, time slows down if we pay attention because we tend to notice more.

adding photos to journal

4. Start journaling to practice reflection

The idea of journaling may evoke memories of scribbling in a diary during middle school, but journaling can be anything you want it to be: a stream-of-consciousness flow of thoughts or simply a daily gratitude list.

Regardless of how you journal, the benefits of taking time to reflect on your day are numerous — and they can help you slow down time.

“Journaling allows you to really dig into your thoughts,” writes blogger Ryan Reeves.

“Journaling allows you to slow down and reflect which is key for personal growth. It will truly stop you from just going through the motions of life.”

In addition to making you more mindful, there’s also scientific evidence that journaling has other benefits.

It boosts memory and communication skills, and studies have also found that consistently writing in a journal leads to a stronger immune system, better sleep, more self-confidence, and even a higher I.Q.

Not sure how to get started? Check out these journaling prompts for self-reflection and self-discovery.

If journaling isn’t for you, you can also reap the same time-slowing benefits by reflecting on life in other ways, whether by talking through experiences with a trusted friend or pausing to look through photographs and tapping into the emotions of past events.

“One other way [to slow down time] and recall the details of experiences is to share them with others — verbally, in writing, or through photographs,” writes Dr. Raab.

start journalling

Live life slowly

When you make a habit of inviting new experiences into your life, take time to celebrate your progress, practice mindfulness, and give yourself time to reflect, you’ll create a succession of memories to look back on when you think about the passage of time. You’ll no longer feel left behind.

live life slowly

Though you might feel like you have less and less time, don’t mourn the fact that life’s passing you by. Instead, be proactive by spending your time thoughtfully and creating new memories.

Fill your life with new experiences and all sizes of milestones, and you’ll find that you’re marching, ambling, and skipping to a slower, richer beat. Essentially, you’ve learned how to slow down time.

Images: [1] Aron Visuals/Unsplash [2] Julian Howard/Unsplash [3] Brandi Redd/Unsplash [4] Simon Migaj/Unsplash [5] mauro paillex/Unspash [6] Emma Dau/Unsplash


Boost Your Productivity In 5 Minutes

Get daily tactics, insights, and tools to get more done.