Time is a fickle beast.
Specifically, our perception of time is riddled with inconsistency.
We experience time in two ways: through our remembering self and through our experiencing self.
For our experiencing self, time seems to fly when we are highly engaged. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s calls this feeling flow and described it as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies.”
For our experiencing self, the passage of time is determined by how engaged we are in the activity. Engaging activities pass quickly, while boring activities crawl slowly past.
Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s take on the experiencing and remembering self
Our remembering self recalls events and crafts the stories of our experiences. For our remembering self, periods of life with variation are remembered as lasting longer than periods of routine. Our experiencing self is adept at recalling unique events, but has trouble distinguishing between similar events.
Consider the experience of dinner. You may find it easier to recall a dinner party with new company in a new city than remembering a typical dinner at home from the same time period.
Our remembering self’s perception of time is captured beautifully in Josh Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein where he says:
“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. It’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.”
Not all time is experienced or remembered equally. In the moment, engaging activities seem to take less time than boring activities. In the past, routine experiences seem to have taken less time than novel experiences.