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Time awareness

By Mastery4 min read

My watch broke a few weeks ago. No big deal. However it’s summer, the children are at home, and my wife has broken her watch too (careless you might say). The effect has been dramatic. We get hardly anything done; routine has disappeared; days race by in a flash; and we are loving our untimed life. So I started thinking about time, or more particularly, time awareness.

Time is weird. We sense it, yet we have no sense organ to detect it. It’s fixed and regular, yet we know it’s relative. It doesn’t exist in any concrete sense, yet our lives are built around it. Time affects everything. Specifically, our awareness of time also affects our productivity, creativity and happiness.


Time Flies when you’re Having Fun

Unless you enjoy passing away the time looking at obscure, out-of-date car or home improvement magazines, time probably seems to slow when you’re in a doctor’s waiting room. Boredom slows those second hands like little else (apart from anxiety and depression). If those magazines happened to be erotic, on the other hand, research suggests that the time would fly by – or indeed any other type of magazine that genuinely interested you. You can think of your internal sense of time as being like a ticking clock. We make judgements on time by how many ticks we notice. When we are bored, we really notice the ticks, so time seems to drag. When we’re amused, we don’t notice many of the ticks, so time disappears. Put another way, awareness of time slows it down; awareness in time speeds it up. A watched kettle never boils.

In fact, we get so used to the time flies when you’re having fun effect, that we begin using speed of time to judge our enjoyment! People doing something boring were told the task had only lasted half as long as it had actually taken. They rated the activity significantly more enjoyable than those who weren’t tricked in this way.


On the other hand…

I was on a great stag do cycling on the Isle of Aran many years ago. At the end of the 2 days I found it hard to believe that only 48 hours had passed. Listening to the internal clock is not our only approach to perceiving time, memory plays a part too. We judge time’s passage by how much we can recall of a period of time. The brain makes a simple assumption that sheer quantity of memory is a good yardstick of how long something took. Remember a lot, it must have lasted a long time.

Deep attention on something, good or bad, creates more memories. So if you’re actively engaged in something, or doing something amazing (or really scary) at that moment time may seem to fly, but the overall passage of time seems long. This is why the first week of your holiday always seems to last longer than the second week: the experiences are more novel and therefore more memorable. It is also why, when trying to explain the duration of a holiday, you may find yourself saying how quickly it went, but at the same time, it seems ages since you arrived.


Using Time

Given how full our lives are, an increased awareness of time can give us a little buzz, a shot of urgency. It draws attention to how little time we actually have, and in so doing, increases our pace and our focus. Can this be helpful? Research has fairly consistently shown that heightened awareness of time increases productivity. So if you want to increase the amount of stuff you can do in a day or a meeting, increase your awareness of time by putting a big clock on your desk for example.

On the other hand, increased time awareness has a downside: research in the field shows that people think less deeply when focused on time. This is particularly the case with creativity. The cognitive processes in creativity involve exploration, kicking things around, going back to the start. They are messy. They are also time consuming and seemingly inefficient. Increased time awareness drives us to increase our efficiency, so we play around less, take a more direct route, and produce more mundane results. I also have a hunch that it’s harder to simply be in the moment if you are highly aware of time. An awareness of time pulls the focus of our attention to the future (or the past) but out of now. As we mark time we observe our seconds, minutes, hours and days pass, but maybe we miss the moments. We become less good at hanging out, relishing, or connecting. Put another way, an awareness of time is great for doing, and bad for being.


My Watch As for me, will I get a new watch? Of course I will (I’m no hippie!). What this period has made me mindful of is how to use time better: how to use my watch as Red Bull, stimulating me to clear my to-do list; and how to untime key chunks of my days, to allow me to dive deep into thought or the moment. Don’t wear your watch tomorrow.

(Thanks Jeremy Dean for the inspiration – @psyblog)

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