My attempt to slow down the perception of time

Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas (c. 1671) is reduced to three essentials: Life, Death, and Time (Public Domain)

Time is a slippery thing. It’s hard to grasp the concept of time as it is to grasp time itself. How can we hold on to something that’s for the most part beyond our understanding?

As we each spend more time on Earth, our perception of it shrinks. At first, it’s by small degrees. Then suddenly, a year seems like a few months. It’s frightening, disorienting, and it seems the harder we try to hold on to it, the more quickly it slips through our fingers.

I grew up pre-web and remember having to be home to answer a phone call. We had to drive to Blockbuster to rent a movie and go to the library to look up random facts. As teenagers, we spent endless hours “hanging out” and talking. I spent my afternoons zoning out to music in my bedroom. For us today, it would seem a drag. But how I would love to feel time drag today!

Undoubtedly, our constant interaction with the internet is the number one culprit in this acceleration of the perception of time. It’s no secret we are overstimulated. Our human brain could never have prepared for this onslaught of information. Even my ten-year-old nephew is reduced to tears when he can’t fit everything he wants to do in a day. How tragic is that!

My upcoming novella, Popsicle, is about this epidemic of cerebral overload. I had been working as a digital marketer for many years and noticed how excessive exposure to the internet was not only making me agitated and restless but also making the day slip away in what seemed like hours. Most of my clients were podcasters with one or more episodes a week. I was a hamster on a wheel of endless deadlines, always in a rush to get to the next show done so I could experience a brief moment of accomplishment before the cycle began again.

We only have one life, and mine felt like a runaway train, hurtling toward its end. I had difficulty enjoying a quiet moment and always felt I had something I needed to do. I had taken to speed reading and forgot how to read at a normal, leisurely pace. I had become accustomed to listening to audio at 1.5 or 2 times the speed to transcribe shows faster, so I also got into the habit of listening to audiobooks and my favorite podcasts faster. Everyone chattering like chipmunks. It was insanity!

Last year, I was let go by my podcast clients. Even though I missed the income, it was the best thing to happen to me. I was burning out and had forgotten how to have fun. Luckily, we didn’t need two incomes in our household at the time, and I could work at a minimal level. I thought, hallelujah. Now I will get off the crazy train and catch my breath.

I stopped my obsessive, super-detailed to-do lists. I laid off goal-setting (of course time seems to go faster with that eternal dangling carrot in front of you!). I stopped posting and commenting on social media. I let go of everything. And I let go some more. I watched all the balls I was juggling drop.

It wasn’t easy. I had to ignore the impulses to do the next thing I thought I had to do and wait for what was most important to surface from the muck.

Meditation, journaling, and reading were prioritized. I forced myself to periods of doing nothing. Have you heard the saying that goes something like, you’re not a human doing, you’re a human being? I practiced being okay with just being. I planned more unusual activities and new experiences, including those in The Artist’s Way.

I knew it would take a while to adjust to my newfound freedom. The strange part was, even after months, time still seemed to pass too fast. I expected to feel like I was in an eternal lazy summer break afternoon. I was disappointed when the days still seemed too short. And I accomplished little. This realization was both disappointing and freeing.

Through the Waking Up App, which has been life-changing, I listened to a talk by Oliver Burkeman about his book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. What he said turned my mindset about time managment upside down. We only get 4,000 weeks of life on average, if we’re lucky enough to live our full lifespans. How do we fit in “all the things”? This was the most crucial issue in my life, and I bought the book straight away.

Does this book reveal the magical method to organizing your days and to-do lists so that you’ll get everything done?

No. I will tell you right now that it does not. Quite the opposite.

What it does give you, in very stark realistic terms, is the fact that we’ll never get done all we want to. That we’ll never “be on top of things.” That we don’t ever get any time back. And it’s up to us to decide what to do with our most precious and few hours on this earth.

For me, personally, this meant to stop spending idle time on the internet. Stop reading books that have little depth. Stop consuming digital junk. Turn off movies and shows that are shallow and stupid instead of waiting for them to get better and wasting a lovely evening mildly entertained. To let the house get a little dirty so I can focus on stuff that matters (also, hire a maid). Let my business get a little messy. Let go of answering ALL the emails. Absorb people when I’m talking to them, giving them my full attention, reading what’s behind their words and behavior instead of reacting to them. Not taking anything for granted. Being happy with what I have instead of waiting till the someday when everything is perfectly in place to enjoy life.

This is it.

Right now.

So, in a way, my experiment failed. I did not succeed in slowing down my perception of time in a significant way. But, knowing that it’s impossible and accepting this dismal reality frees me to stop worrying about how to fit everything in and feeling guilty whenever I don’t. I’m off the hook! It has helped me realize that, each minute, I make the micro-decisions that will determine the fullness of my life.

I have gone back to my to-do lists, though now they are much shorter and include more calls to my family or emails to friends I most care about. I am going back to full-time work to provide for my future self, and I’ve set new goals—loose goals that leave room for serendipity to work its magic.

It’s not the mythical work-life balance I idealized. It’s learning to adapt to life in a way that’s most beneficial for me personally and as part of the world. To work with the flow of the universe instead of trying to stubbornly steer everything in the direction I think it should go (because, what do I know, right?). I am now more aware of when and how I am wasting time and stop myself as soon as I get sucked into something that doesn’t enrich my life in a positive, useful, or enjoyable way.

So when you catch yourself mindlessly scrolling through TikTok, playing games on your phone, or reading inflammatory, vapid content instead of participating in your life, stop and think:

What’s the next most important thing to do?

What would I do if this was my last day on Earth?

What matters most to me and is this helping me with that?

Suggested content

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

Time Management for Writers (Exclusive Writers’ Mastermind Video Course)

The Waking Up App