What comes to mind when we think about time? Why time is so precious and why do we seek ways to ‘make the most of it’?
Let us go back to 4,000 BC in ancient China where the first clocks were invented. To demonstrate the idea of time to temple students, Chinese priests used to dangle a rope from the temple ceiling with knots representing the hours. They would light it with a flame from the bottom so that it burnt evenly, indicating the passage of time. Many temples burnt down in those days and the priests were obviously not too happy about that, until someone invented a clock made of water buckets. It worked by punching holes in a large bucket full of water, with markings representing the hours, to allow water to flow at a constant rate. The temple students would then measure time by how fast the bucket drained. It was much better than burning ropes for sure, but more importantly, it taught the students that once time was gone, it could never be recovered.
Of course, with the advancement of technology, no one uses water clocks anymore. But the fact that time is so limited remains ever true. Time is our most precious possession because, as with the burning rope or water clock, once it is consumed it cannot be replenished. While you can always work more hours to earn more money, you cannot do anything to gain more time. It is such a slippery resource that is only visible when it passes and only valued when it is gone. Unlike money that can be saved in a bank, or gold that be hidden in a treasure box, time cannot be saved. We have no choice but to spend every moment of it; and every moment that is spent is a moment that is gone forever.
Given that time is more precious than money, it seems entirely irrational that many of us are more willing to spend our time in making more money, but are reluctant to spend more money to enjoy our time. We look for the best bargains and think twice before spending our money ‘wisely’, but often fail to do the same with time. ‘Wasting’ a couple of hours is not as bad as losing a couple of hundred dollars from our wallet, even though in reality, time is far more precious than money. We all have that tendency to spend time as if it costs us nothing.
With that in mind, when you give up some of your time to do something, you have to consider to what extent is the exchange worth it? An interesting 2009 Gallup survey conducted in the U.S. over a period of two years and which gathered 450,000 responses concluded that people are happier and more satisfied with their life as their annual income increased. However, when annual income passed above $75,000, life-satisfaction continued to increase but happiness did not improve any further. Earning more than $75,000 did not contribute further to people’s emotional well-being (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010). If the purpose of life is to be happy, than this implies that spending time on earning more than 75,000 U.S dollars is time that is not well-spent as it does not make us happier. A central question is therefore this: are we making the most of our limited time? How much time is unnecessarily wasted on things that are not beneficial to our life fulfillment and emotional well-being? And what type of activities make us happy and are worthy of our time?
I answer some of these question in my new book ‘The Power of Time Perception”. I cover how our brains perceive time, why it speeds up as we grow older, the various factors that affect the speed of time in our minds, and ways to slow it down so as to make the most of it. I also explore what psychologists found to be optimal activities that give us the satisfaction that time is being well-spent. These activities occur when we are in a mental state called ‘flow’. Briefly, you experience ‘flow’ when you are so absorbed in what you are doing to the extent that the rest of the world seems to disappear. People describe such experiences with expressions like ‘in the groove’ or ‘getting lost in the book’ so that we ‘forget ourselves’. Athletes use the term ‘being in the zone’, artists describe ‘aesthetic ruptures’, or a ‘heightened state of consciousness’, and religious mystics refer to it as a state of ‘ecstasy’. Many famous artists and sports figures, like Tiger Woods and Ayrton Senna, are known to perform only when in a state of ‘flow’. Historical sources suggest that Michelangelo may have painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel while in such a mental state. Actions performed during a flow experience are effortless and stand out as exceptional moments in life. You feel that things are exactly as you want them to be and cannot be any better. Such experiences occur when people are doing their favorite hobbies like gardening, bowling, painting, playing chess, or cooking a good meal. These usually involve a high-motivation challenge and a reward for achieving that challenge. But ‘Flow’ can also be experienced at work, especially when you work has clear objectives and rules of performance, in addition to the reward of achieving certain goals.
“Flow” experiences are the best for creating rich memorable moments. By filling our time with activities that produce such ‘flow’ experiences, the number of memories we collect will stretch the time in our mind. We can then look back at the past week, month, or year, and feel time did not fly but rather was well spent.
If you are interested to find how fast time runs in your mind, check out this new online Speed of Time Test. By answering a few questions, you will receive a detailed report on how your personality affects your time experience and ways to slow down time.
For more information about how our brains experience time and how to slow down time, please check ‘The Power of Time Perception: Control the Speed of Time to Make Every Second Count’ which is now available on: