Why time flies

FullSizeRender-8As part of writing Off the Clock, I've been reading a lot of literature on time. Robert Grudin's Time and the Art of Living came well recommended, and I enjoyed reading it on the flight to California a few weeks ago. Amazon's algorithm also recommended I pick up a copy of Why Time Flies, by Alan Burdick, a staff writer at the New Yorker. While Grudin's book came out in 1982, Burdick's was published just last week. It explores the science of time, including its measurement and perception.

In many ways, it's a fascinating book (I'll quote Charles Duhigg's blurb: "This book blew my mind.") Burdick recounts what it's like to live in complete light (the Arctic in summer) or complete darkness (the depths of a cave). People have circadian rhythms, but they aren't exactly 24 hours. Without cues, we become unmoored. We turn to social time; scientists in the Arctic camp all showed up, without fail, for the 6:30 a.m. breakfast. Emotional and intense events stand out in the brain more than neutral ones; time seems to bend to catch our attention. The brain takes in information on something akin to a tape delay, and then sorts out the order later. The result is that in the lab, people can be trained to think two events separated by some milliseconds happened at the same time; when the gap is eliminated, time seems to move backward (e.g. a light comes on where you're about to click before you appear to click). People who report that their lives feel busy and they don't have enough time for the things they want to do are more likely to report that the years are passing swiftly. Babies are born with a preference for synchrony; it may be how they match up sounds and actions and learn about the world around them. The world's most accurate "clock" is actually an email report sent around averaging the times reported by clocks around the world.

All this was very interesting, but I have to say that my favorite parts of the book were when Burdick talked about life with his two young sons. Twins, they developed a keen perception of time as relates to which child had gotten some desired Thing the longest: "To the boy without the Thing, the other boy's turn is always longer. Duration is very much in the eye of the beholder, not the holder." Usually Burdick would set an egg timer for 2 minutes. One day, he set it for 4 minutes to buy himself 2 more minutes of peace, but sure enough, one boy appeared at 2 minutes to check in. There are such wry observations, but more wistful ones too. We think time speeds up as we age, but it doesn't. Instead, he simply sees his boys turning from babies to toddlers to school aged children as he takes years longer to write this book than he planned. "Time isn't speeding up; it's pace is cruelly steady, a fact of which I am ever more painfully aware," he notes.

In other news: What's your favorite book about time? Any you'd add to my reading list?

In other, other news: The blurb for Off the Clock: Secrets of People with All the Time in the World, appeared in Publisher's Lunch Weekly, so I guess it's official! Now I just need to write it.

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24 Responses to Why time flies


  1. Monica says:

    I am also fascinated by how we perceive time, and why it does feel that now as an adult it goes by infinitely faster than those long, summer vacations from school as a kid. I am actually currently reading Now: The Physics of Time by Richard Muller. It is rather fascinating to understand time from a physicists point of view, especially in the conditions where it doesn’t exist at all!!

    • @Monica – now that is a concept that blows the mind, that before the Big Bang, there was no time at all. So what was there? Hmm…
      Another fun one: the solar day has shifted slightly over the eons. Only like a millisecond at a time, but there’s been a lot of time since earth started revolving around the sun. So in the time of dinosaurs, a day was closer to what we would think of as 23 hours than 24.

  2. Brooke says:

    “Algorithms to live by” by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths is excellent and thought-provoking. It devotes several chapters to time and scheduling. Interesting that we’d all show up for breakfast at the same time in the Arctic!

    • @Brooke – I will check that one out. I think humans like to have some anchor to their days. I know when I’ve got a long day with little kids I like to subdivide it with things: a morning activity, lunch, nap, a short afternoon activity, dinner, play, bed. The rhythm makes it feel more doable. I imagine in the Arctic, with nothing telling you when to sleep or when to work, anchoring around a breakfast would make it feel like a new day. Also, as people go off on their experiments, it’s nice to know there’s a time when you will see other people, and in fact will see pretty much everyone (who’s not off on a multi-day excursion). Time is social. If you were the only person around, it probably wouldn’t matter when you did anything.

  3. Caitlin says:

    I’m pretty sure you’ve already read Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte, but the concept of “time confetti” (short bursts of free time scattered throughout a day) mentioned there has really stuck with me. I try to avoid losing little bits of time to social media, etc. because it does add up.

    • cathy says:

      I read it not long ago; unfortunately can’t really remember any points about it – but i know it was a good book because I read it fairly quickly.

    • @Caitlin- I enjoy Brigid Schulte. I found parts of Overwhelmed hard to read because I felt she was playing a type: the harried working frazzled working mom who feels she’s failing at everything. This while she won a Pulitzer. I feel like she ultimately came to the right message: that we do have time for whatever matters to us. And I love the image of “time confetti.” But unlike real confetti, which is pretty useless, I feel — as you do — that these pieces can add up.

      • Caitlin says:

        I agree that Overwhelmed was hard to stomach at times–the stereotype bothered me and reading about the craziness of her life stressed me out. The other part that bothered me was that I felt like her husband was very unhelpful, and that’s another stereotype I’m really sick of. I know we only saw a part of of what he does/doesn’t do and so it wasn’t a complete or fair representation, but still. At the same time, she’s a grown woman–if he’s taking time for himself, so should she.

  4. cathy says:

    I’m on page 130 of Time Warped by Claudia Hammond. Did you know that we actually all time travel? We can time travel to the past or to the future – in our minds. I can’t wait to read the next chapter – why time speeds up as we get older. I’ve put both the books you mentioned in this post on my to read next list.

  5. ARC says:

    A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking might be another good background read though not especially relevant to real life time management 🙂 I would also like to add that age 3 for both of my daughters were particularly LONG years…

    • @ARC – ha, yes, sometimes the days are long AND the years are long.

  6. But this ‘time’ that we are talking about. I think that it is suspended in space and it is just an illusion because we tend to become so focused on the past or future. The only thing that is real is the ‘now’ that is in front of us. When we focus on that and the quality of our actions in the ‘now’, then time doesn’t really matter.

  7. Lily says:

    I’d suggest ‘Momo’ by Michael Ende – the author of ‘The Never-ending Story’. I’ve found it hard to get my hands on a copy but would love to re-read it.

  8. Time is a funny thing. Once you get ill and start thinking that you don’t really have that much time in your life, the speed of time accelates like crazy in such situations. Then once you recover from a desease or some other problems get settled, you start treating time like it’s not finite at all. I guess the best way to stay aware that time flies is to make a reminder on your iPhone or laptop so that you remember about it all times. Do you have a trick that works for you?

    • @Vitaliy- I’m not sure I’d want to set an iPhone alarm to remind me of the time, but I’ve found that tracking my time does the same thing. Every time I open the spreadsheet and write down what I’m doing, I’m reminded of time and how I am spending it. I find it really does help with mindfulness.

  9. jennie says:

    I think sometimes “time” is felt very differently by what we want out of it. I tend to be an experience seeker and if I do not experience novelty regularly I become depressed and feel that time is fleeting by. My husband, on the hand, enjoys monotony and routine. If he has too much novelty thrown into his life, his sense of time speeds up. A good week for me would include normal work and childcare, but at least 2 or 3 novel experiences such as a new restaurant, a new book, or music, an interesting play, or even a conversation with someone I don’t normally talk too. This “slows” my time down. My husband would feel this the opposite.

    • ARC says:

      ooh, this is intriguing. I think I’m the same as your husband – even in a week where I’ve got multiple fun things planned, at some point it makes me feel harried and rushed even though they’re things I enjoyed and the week goes by in a blur. I think I need large spaces of unclaimed time to feel like I have a lot of it 🙂

      • Caitlin says:

        Very intriguing ideas! I think I’m somewhere in the middle. Lately I’ve been feeling like I need one entire weekend day at home and that’s just not happening for a bit, but it’s due to fun things so I’m trying to embrace it.

  10. Gwyneth says:

    Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel chronicles (so to speak) how a clockmaker eventually (after 40 years) triumphed over astronomers to win the cash prize offered by Parliament in the 18th century to anyone who could devise a more accurate means of measuring longitude at sea.

  11. Beth says:

    For sure Senaca On The Shortness of Life I Also found Viktor Frankel’s observations on provisional existence helpful in Man’s Search for Meaning (the problem of directionlessness).

  12. Kathy says:

    I enjoyed Timeshifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life, by Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D. when I read it a few years ago.

  13. Heather says:

    Have you read Internal Time? Some of the anecdotes are a little contrived, but the baseline information on how people interact with day/night cycles is fascinating.

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