The Secrets of Time Perception

Time is a peculiar phenomenon. It’s a concept that has been used to monitor and chart the day since the first established civilisations invented shadow clocks. Ever since those early days of time recording, philosophers have pontificated on the illusion of time. Why does time perceptually slow down or quicken, and can we use our knowledge to make more of our day?

Successful people tend to fit more in to their days than unsuccessful people, and yet both sets have exactly the same number of hours to use. Time is a great leveller; we all have exactly the same amount of a finite resource but some make more of it than others. In order to understand how we can use time more effectively we need to look at the two types of time perception.

In the moment

Scientific research has measured how our perception of time is affected by what we are doing. If we are bored then time tends to move very slowly; one minute feels like ten minutes, yet if we’re actively interested then time, literally, flies.

This is due to attention and memory. If we are breaking up our daily routine, even in some small way, then we will be focussing on the differences and our attention will be on the activity itself. If we do something different then we are creating a new memory. If we use both attention and memory during an activity then time will race by because we are not thinking about time but the activity.

Equally, when we’re bored and we are solely concentrating on the time then it slows down. E.g. doctors waiting rooms, kids looking out the window when it’s raining, a boring lesson. How slow does time take when you’re actually looking at a watch? When we concentrate on time itself we are not using attention or memory in any other area.


Interestingly, it seems to work the other way round when we look back at time. If there is a period of time when you have created more experiences that have used your attention and memory then, when you look back, that period is more memorable and appears longer than others. For example, a weeks holiday looking at the monuments in Rome can feel like longer when you return, and yet a week lying on the beach feels like it past in the blink of an eye when you’re back at work.


Time seems to go quicker, the older I get. Research has showed that older people find it harder to measure time in the moment. This might be to do with less attention and memory being used because the older you become the more experience you have, therefore the tasks you perform are less different.

The Secret

If you want to feel like you are making the most of your time, then you need to simply fill your days with lots of varied activities. Although when you’re in the middle of this it will fly by, when you look back you will know that you’ve achieved a lot. Rather than concentrate on those tasks that you didn’t get round to doing, make a note of everything you have done at the end of each day and remind yourself of what you have achieved.

You’re perception of time is fuelled by what you achieve and, by using attention and memory as much as you can, it is in your power to stretch your minutes in to hours.

What are your thoughts about time? Have you mastered it perhaps?


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