The Science Behind Our Perception Of Time & How To Make It Pass Faster

mbg Contributor By Carina Wolff
mbg Contributor
Carina Wolff is a freelance writer and blogger who covers food, health and wellness. Her bylines have appeared in Bustle, Reader’s Digest, FabFitFun, and more. Carina has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology from New York University.
Expert review by Wendie Trubow, M.D., MBA
Functional Medicine Gynecologist
Wendie Trubow is a functional medicine gynecologist with almost 10 years of training in the field. She received her M.D. from Tufts University.
Repeating Analog Clocks

We all know that a day consists of 24 hours, but the length of a day spent at the beach usually doesn't feel the same as a day waiting in line at the DMV. It's no fun when time seems to drag on, and you might be left wondering if it's ever possible to make the time pass more quickly. Here's an overview of how time perception works and some strategies to help you make the time go by faster.

The science behind our perception of time.

Although standard measurements of time like minutes, hours, and days exist, the way you perceive these temporal units can change, depending on what you're doing and how you're feeling. "What's so fascinating about time is that it's both objective and subjective," psychologist Logan Jones, Psy.D., tells mbg. "It's a measurable unit and metric, in which seconds and minutes tick by with predictable, meticulous precision, yet our experience of time can be expansive or constricted depending on our neurological and emotional state."

Throughout a typical day or week, the way we perceive time usually roughly matches up with the objective time of clocks and calendars. But when routine is broken in some way—whether it's a novel experience, an intense emotion, or lack of activity—how we perceive the passage of time is affected.

Michael Flaherty, Ph.D., a sociologist at Eckhert College who has studied the perceived passage of time for the last 30 years, has one theory for why this happens. The way we experience time depends on what he calls "the density of human experience," which measures the volume of both objective and subjective information.

The density of human experience is high when a lot is happening. But paradoxically, the density of experience is also high when seemingly nothing is going on. This "empty" period of time is actually filled with subjective experience. You're turning inward and concentrating on your own actions and surroundings. When you experience an intense psychological reaction, whether it's boredom, shock, fear, or anxiety, the density of human experience is high, and time seems to pass more slowly. 

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The role that stress plays.

Negative emotions, like stress, can cause our perception of time to slow down. "Some researchers theorize our cognitive reserves are depleted under stress and simply make it harder for us to process time accurately," psychologist Alton Bozeman, Psy.D., explains. In some cases, time slowing down in stressful situations can actually be useful, such as in a dangerous moment when you have to act quickly. "When we're in danger and reaction time is most important, time seems to slow, giving our minds a chance to strategize," says Jones.

However, the situation is much different when you're sitting at home anxiously pondering your future or waiting for someone to text you back. "When we become stressed, our brain takes notice of everything around us," psychologist Amy Altenhaus, Ph.D., adds. "Every detail and memory that is contributing to our stress is documented by our brain, and it creates a huge number of mental snapshots in a very short time span."

Ways to make time go faster.

Since perception of time can be so subjective, different strategies will work for different people. But overall, it's about getting into a routine or a flow where the density of experience is low and your negative emotions are reduced. Here are some activities that can help:

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1. Create a routine.

According to research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, time is perceived as going by much faster when people are engaged in a routine. Density of experience is low in a routine situation since it doesn't require extra attention. Creating a daily routine in which you can get into a state of flow can help reduce boredom and make the time go by faster.

2. Keep busy.

When you're busy, you're less likely to notice the passage of time as much as when you have nothing else to focus on. "You may not be having fun at work, but you are busy," says Jones. "There are workdays and weeks when you'll wonder where the time went because you were so engrossed in what's in front of you. It's when you're bored and uninspired that you become more preoccupied with time intervals because there’s nothing else to focus on."

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3. Do something rewarding.

We all know that time flies when you're having fun—but it's the type of fun that really matters. According to a study published in Psychological Science, you should focus on "goal-motivated" activities that you actually enjoy. "The more we perceive something as exciting and rewarding, the more powerful its impact on how quickly we experience the passage of time," says Jones.

4. Improve your mood.

Since negative emotions cause time to crawl, engage in self-care habits that help eliminate stress and anxiety. "Activities like listening to music, reading books, and seeking new experiences will help reduce anxiety and make the time seem to pass faster," says Bozeman. "These activities address general mood and well-being. Interacting with others and physical activity fall into this category as well."

Any time you're in a unique situation where a lot of emotions are dredged up, time can seem to slow down. Rather than twiddling your thumbs and watching the clock, try to focus on the present moment and fill it up with a regular routine that keeps your mind occupied and your mood high—time will pass by before you know it.

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