A french chronobiologist (he studies time and living things) named Michael Siffre once conducted a hell of a self experiment. He spent two months in a cave alone. No clock, calendar, or sun light. He did have artificial lights, food, and a journal though. His experiment is covered in the excellent book ‘Moonwalking With Einstein’. It makes some pertinent points more eloquently than I could, so I will quote it at length right now.
“Very quickly Siffre’s memory deteriorated… Since there was nobody to talk to, and not much to do, there was nothing novel to impress upon his memory. There were no chronological landmarks by which he could measure the passage of time… When his support team on the surface finally called down to him on September 14th, the day his experiment was scheduled to wrap up, it was only August 20th in his journal. He thought only a month had gone by. His experience of time’s passage had compressed by a factor of two.
Monotony collapses time. Novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthy and live a long life while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. That’s why it’s important to…have as many new experiences as possible… Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perceptions of our lives.”
I remember the first time I read that passage. I sat on my couch and soaked in the implications. I had visions for how it might change my daily life. Over the months, however, the ideas from that passage became — as ideas are wont to do — rather intellectual. But recently I had an experience that brought them to life again. I understood them personally and viscerally.
For 13 weeks, I averaged 12 hours each day focused on one goal. Specifically, it was spent learning software, but it could have been anything. Painting, accounting, writing; any deep pool of knowledge would do. What I learned is that the passage of time isn’t constant. In fact, it’s under your control. You just have to pull the right levers.
There’s a lay theory that as you get older, time seems to speed up because each passing year is a smaller and smaller percentage of your life. That the year from 9 to 10 represents 10% of your life, but the one from 33 to 34 is only about 3% of your life. It’s intuitively appealing because it explains the universal feeling in a way that puts no fault on ourselves. It’s just math, nothing I could have done to stop that inevitable speed-up of time. But I don’t buy it anymore.
Your sense of time is actually answered by a simple question: how much are you learning? Each thing you learn is another ‘hook’ you give to your memory, and each hook is another time marker. When you have a lot of markers, time feels slow. When you have few, life starts to feel a lot like driving down the open, straight roads of the midwest. Hundreds of miles will fly by because you don’t have to do anything except keep your foot on the gas. The sad part is you still feel like you’re going somewhere.
While I was at Hack Reactor (an intense programming school), I was learning a metric ton each day. I felt so disconnected from other responsibilities that it felt like a different world. We had a 3-week personal project period where I was given (basically) free reign to build anything I wanted. I built a tool that visualizes, in 3D, a two-handed piano performance of any song, given a MIDI file. It required some complex algorithms, and new technologies I hadn’t used before. I was working on it so much that my brain had no choice but to show it in my dreams each night for 3 weeks. I also learned more in those three weeks than about any other time in my life.
And here’s the paradox: while in these periods of ‘flow’, time moves fast. The hours cruise by, and your 14 hour day of work feels like a pittance. And yet, I look back for even a second, and it feels very slow. I have so many memories and associations for those 3 weeks that it feels more like 3 months. And that was the pattern at Hack Reactor. In fact, after a few weeks, we were so deep and disconnected that fellow Hack Reactants and I would joke that we had no lives before HR; and ‘this is all that has ever been.’
Which is funny, because there’s the old adage about cherishing time, “The days are long, but the years are short”, but, actually, it seems when you do things right, it’s the opposite: “the days are short, but the years are long”.
This theory also explains the child/adult time gap phenomenon. As kids, we all learned a lot each day. New words, new skills, new social rules. As you become an adult and leave school, that slows down. Certainly we learn, but less so than before, so time flows faster.
So how do you slow down time? A cliché would be dangerously easy here. ‘Live life to its fullest’ or some garbage like that. But dig in a bit, and it goes deeper than that. Your perception of life is built exclusively from your memories, which are in turn built from surprising experiences. I purposely didn’t say ‘novel’, because hell, your commute to work each day is technically novel, since I guarantee you don’t see exactly the same people on the way, or hear exactly the same broadcast, etc. But surprising captures the reality better. You must have experiences where you aren’t totally sure what the results of your actions might be. Where maybe, you’re even a bit uncomfortable. Such experiences often happen when learning a new skill, or traveling, but they can happen everyday in the strangest of times if you go after them.
For instance, there’s a bakery just around the corner from my house. I’ve always heard that bakeries tend to just give stuff away at the end of the day, because they’re gonna throw it out anyway. I didn’t know for sure though, partly because I never go to bakeries, but also because I’m shy about asking for things that shouldn’t obviously be mine. But I was walking home late at night the other day, and I saw the bakery owners closing up shop. The lights were on, but the door was locked. I thought, hell, why not try this out? I knocked and pointed at the doughnuts. They were hesitant, but opened up, and asked in broken English, “What you want?” I asked for 2 chocolate doughnuts. They put in 3 and threw in 2 bear claws too for free. It was the most exhilarating doughnut purchase of my life. I finally learned the truth of this ‘free baked goods myth’. It was true, and I didn’t even have to ask. I did have to knock though.
Ya know, fruits and veggies are great, and I eat them every day so that I’ll stick around. But that night, I think the doughnuts lengthened my life more