How to Stop Life From Passing You By

One unnerving aspect of getting older is how life seems to start speeding up. Feeling that whoosh as time rushes past you can be disheartening as you wonder where the days, or months, or even years go.

Yet we’re not doomed to march to time’s relentless beat. Your sense of time is weird and pliable — stretching, compressing, coming to a standstill. And you can mold it, to some extent, to move to your own beat.

When you encounter the familiar, time seems to constrict and when you acquire new knowledge, it expands. Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains:

Time is this rubbery thing…. 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 starts to become more familiar, we learn less and sometimes even seek information and experiences that fit within what we already know. There’s less adventure, play, exploration, creativity, and wonder to invite and engage with newness.

The way you spend your time influences how you perceive it. So the choices you make about what to do now impacts how you’ll manage your time later.

Here are ways to make your days richer and more memorable so that your sense of time expands and life doesn’t pass you by.

Fill your time with new experiences to counteract routines

Time speeding up as we grow older is nothing new. In 1890, William James described this exact experience in his Principles of Psychology:

In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous and long-drawn-out.

But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.

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 perception of time in routine versus non-routine situations, the researchers found that people remember the duration of familiar circumstances as 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 five 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 fives expanded the non-routine group’s duration estimate.

Echoing James, Avni-Babad and Ritov summarize how learning and new experiences draw out time:

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.

To combat the effect of automatic routines, fill your time up with new experiences and knowledge to form accessible memory anchors. Turn your brain resources on with new challenges or projects and learning new skills. Ask questions and exercise your curiosity muscles. Take a trip or change up your environment more often. Embrace your inner child and go exploring, even if it’s just to stretch yourself a little.

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

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