We’ve all experienced it; we’re stuck at work, caught in traffic, or stuck at home during a global pandemic, and the hands of the clock just don’t seem to move. We find ourselves staring at the clock face, constantly checking our watch, or closing our eyes and imagining we’re somewhere else.
In this article, we’ll show you how to make time go faster. While, in reality, the passage of time is beyond our control, there are some tips and tricks you can use to hack your perception of time and make the hours or days fly by as though you were beyond them.
First, let’s take a quick look at the scientific reasons behind how we perceive time as human beings.
How we perceive time
Have you ever noticed that some hours, days and even weeks fly by in the blink of an eye, while others are laboriously long and drawn out? For example, when we’re hanging out with fun friends, on a date with a new partner, or doing something we love, such as painting or playing sports, time passes quickly, and we find ourselves wishing we had more of it.
At other times, such as when we’re working on a project at work and can’t seem to make any progress, stuck in a frustratingly long traffic jam, or waiting to hear some important news, time seems to move much slower, as though barely five minutes have passed when it feels like it’s been half an hour.
Time is objective in that it can be consistently measured, exactly, through seconds, minutes, hours, days, and so on. However, time is also subjective in that our neurological and emotional states influence how we perceive it.
‘Perceived time represents the mental status of the beholder’, writes psychology researcher Marc Wittman in his article The Inner Experience of Time. Wittman cites various research papers to show that ‘cognitive functions such as attention, working memory, and long-term memory determine our temporal judgments.’ He goes on to explain:
“Time intervals are judged to be longer when we pay more attention to time and when the load of varying experiences stored in memory is higher. Our subjective well-being also strongly influences how time is experienced. Time speeds up when we are involved in pleasant activities, but it drags during periods of boredom. Thus, our sense of time is a function of the intricate interplay between specific cognitive functions and of our momentary mood states.”
In their article The Time-Emotion Paradox, researchers Sylvie Droit-Volet and Sandrine Gil explain that ‘there is no unique, homogeneous time but instead multiple experiences of time.’ According to the researchers, varying perceptions of time that change depending on context are not a reflection of a poorly-working internal clock but rather reflect the human internal clock’s ability to adapt to the context in which a person finds themselves.
“Studies on the relationships between emotion and time suggest that these contextual variations in subjective time do not result from the incorrect functioning of the internal clock but rather from the excellent ability of the internal clock to adapt to events in one’s environment,” explains Droit-Volet and Gil.
Ways to make time pass faster
Stop looking at the clock
We’re all guilty of looking at the clock when we want time to pass more quickly, but as you may have already somewhat painfully learned, watching the clock doesn’t make time go by faster.
You might find yourself at work, sitting at your desk, or half-paying attention in a boring meeting, just counting the minutes until you can clock out and make your way home. ‘Only 45 minutes until I can go home,’ you think to yourself. ‘That’s only five minutes nine times,’ you tell yourself in an attempt to ease the deep and uncomfortable boredom.
However, if you want time to go by faster, it helps to stop watching the clock and instead shift your focus onto something else. Muster as much focus as you can onto your work or whatever you can find in your surroundings that will distract you from counting the minutes.
If you’re waiting for something to happen, stop thinking about the time and distract yourself with some form of entertainment or reflection. Try playing a game on your phone, thinking about what you’re going to do later, and getting out a journal and writing down your thoughts or sketching a picture.
Remember that the more you stare at the clock, the longer time is going to drag. Engaging with your work or finding a distraction is a much better way to spend your time.
Enter a ‘flow’ state
You may have already heard of ‘flow’. The term has become extremely popular in recent years, and much of its popularity stems from Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
‘Flow’ refers to the experience of being so immersed, focused, engaged in what you’re doing that time becomes irrelevant. You’re not watching the clock or counting the minutes because your attention and focus is not on the passage of time but on something that you’re emotionally and psychologically invested in. Flow is touted as one of the major keys to success in life by creatives, athletes, and top executives worldwide.
When you’re in a flow state, also known as being ‘in the zone,’ time is not a relevant point of focus. At least, the general passage of time is not in focus. You might be concerned with time in the sense that you’re competing against it, as runners do on a track. Still, when you’re in flow, hours can go by without you even noticing.
Flow states are also an antidote to self-consciousness, even if only temporarily. ‘The self expands through acts of self-forgetfulness,’ writes Csíkszentmihályi. When we enter flow, we are disinterested in time and our ideas of self. Our attention is honed on an external act to the point that we transcend concepts and notions of self sound or lack of capability and become one with what we’re doing.
How to achieve ‘flow’
Csíkszentmihályi outlines some key factors in achieving the flow state. These are:
Setting clear goals
Csíkszentmihályi explains that we can increase our chances of achieving flow when we have clear goals in mind. Achievable, short-term measurable goals that lead to a greater overall goal make it easier to stay focused on what we’re doing. Our focus and attention are rewarded by intermittent achievements, which reward the brain and motivate us to keep going.
Distractions are obstacles to achieving flow. For example, if you’re writing an article for work or a paper for a college assignment, a buzzing phone, and a noisy environment may distract you from the task at hand and make it harder to pay attention. Not only will these distractions take your focus away from your work and disrupt your flow, but they will also draw out the time it takes to complete the task.
Achieving flow is a combination of taking on a task and using our skills to complete it effectively. Without a challenge, it’s easy to get bored or become disengaged. To achieve flow, the full use of our skills and a healthy degree of challenge are necessary.
You’re more likely to achieve flow and transcend the monotonous passage of time by engaging in something you love and are passionate about, rather than something of little interest or importance to you.
On doing things out of passion and enjoyment, Csíkszentmihályi writes: “Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are, by necessity, diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.”
Listen to music or podcasts
An effective way to make time pass faster is to alter your environment, so that whatever you’re doing becomes more enjoyable. Time slows down when we’re bored or when we have to do something unpleasant. Changing your environment or your surroundings can help make the experience more pleasant, which in turn distracts from time’s slow movement.
Try listening to music you like or your favorite podcast. While background noise might distract and hinder the flow state mentioned above, it can also help you flow. Research has found that relaxing, classical music has improved attention, cognition, and feelings of rest in study participants.
It’s also important to be mindful of how you choose to alter your surroundings; music, podcast, or even a tv show you like can be a great way to ease your boredom and make doing whatever task needs to be done a little easier. Still, it may also serve as a distraction and prolong the time it takes to complete whatever you’re doing.
Still, we’re talking about the perception of time, so even if listening to music or a podcast means you spend a little more time working, it will help if it makes you feel like time is moving faster.
They say time flies when you’re having fun. As Marc Wittman explained, ‘time speeds up when we are involved in pleasant activities.’
In describing the flow state, Csíkszentmihályi explains that flow, and therefore a faster-perceived passage of time, is more likely to be achieved when doing something we enjoy.
One of the reasons why doing things we enjoy makes time pass more quickly has to do with our neural mechanisms and chemicals. Neuroscientist Joe Paton conducted a study on neural activity in rodents and found that the faster brain cells interact with and activate with each other, the faster we perceive time.
In another of Paton’s rodent studies, he and his colleagues also found that the release of the brain’s reward chemical – dopamine – influences our perception of time. When we engage in tasks and activities that we enjoy and that we’re passionate about, the brain releases more dopamine than it would if we were to engage in things we found disinteresting, boring, or monotonous. The more dopamine that gets released, the faster we perceive the passage of time.
Create a to-do list
Time usually feels the slowest when we can’t see any progress in what we’re doing. Whether it’s writing an essay, cleaning the house, or working on a shared project, a lack of progress makes the minutes drag on.
Instead of pushing forward blindly with what you’re doing, zoning out for a few minutes, then coming back to your senses and realizing you haven’t made any progress and time seems to be standing still, it helps to create a to-do list.
Write down the big tasks you need to accomplish, then break those tasks down into smaller, more achievable tasks. Break those down further into individual steps you can take to achieve your goal.
Following a clearly outlined and achievable; plan of action keeps you focused on the task at hand, takes your attention away from the clock, and helps you track your progress.
By creating a to-do list each day, you’ll eventually get into a routine. You’ll become more familiar with how long certain tasks will take, which informs later decision-making regarding how you should spend your time.
It might seem counterintuitive, but relaxing can actually make time go faster. When we’re stressed, such as when we’re trying to finish a project at work or an assignment for school, we get ourselves into a state of heightened arousal and might even panic. We rush and scramble to get things done, often losing our focus and clarity in the process.
If instead of rushing, you take a moment to step back, take a breather, and clear your mind, you give your mind a chance to reset and better focus on the task at hand. With greater focus, you can immerse yourself in what you’re doing with more ease, which in turn takes your attention away from the clock.