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How to Slow Down Time

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As I moved from my twenties to thirties I noticed a certain psychological miscalculation happening more often: a day that feels like it was three or four months ago was actually a year ago.

Or I would think back to what I was doing this time last year, then realize that what I’m remembering happened two years ago.

Almost everyone says this effect only gets stronger—time seems to speed up as you age, right until you die. Apparently, by the time you’re ninety, you make breakfast, and once you’ve tidied up the dishes it’s mid-afternoon. Then you read a book for a bit, and when you look up it’s dark.

Supposedly, this speeding-up sensation is unavoidable, because it’s linked inextricably to how increasingly small a year is in comparison to your age. To a one-year-old, a year is a lifetime, but to a fifty-year-old, it’s only 2% of a lifetime. This growing disparity makes it feel like time is slipping away ever more quickly.

That’s the popular explanation anyway—the one I heard, and repeated, for years.

But it’s pure bunk. It doesn’t make any sense when you think about it. How long an hour, a week, or a year feels is something that changes all the time. Five days spent traveling in a foreign country tends to feel much longer than a regular workweek. An hour spent coping with tragic news can feel deadeningly slow, while an hour of frantic cleaning before guests arrive slips away like draining bathwater. 

Our perception of time is psychological and subjective. There’s no reason to assume it’s tied to how long ago we were born. My three-hour flight seemed quick because I was somehow continually comparing it to my entire life? What? Did it feel the the same length to all 37 year-old passengers? Total bunk.

Time does seem to go by much more quickly in adulthood than it did in childhood though, and that seems pretty universal. As a kid, ninety-minute car rides were excruciatingly long, a week was a rich and varied chapter of life, and a year—the distance between birthdays—was an ocean of time.

So what causes this difference, and why do so many people feel like time is gradually speeding up? It’s probably a combination of things.

Why early years seem longer

As we become adults, we tend to take on more time commitments. We need to work, maintain a household, and fulfill obligations to others. Children usually have no time commitments, or if they do, they don’t need to think about them much—someone tells you when it’s time for chores or swimming lessons.

Because these commitments are so important to manage, adult life is characterized by thoughts and worries about time. For us, time always feels limited and scarce, whereas for children, who are busy experiencing life, it’s mostly an abstract thing grownups are always fretting about. There’s nothing we grownups think about more than time—how things are going to go, could go, or did go.

Our early years also seem longer because they contain so many firsts—first thunderstorm, first swim in the ocean, first kiss, first car, first real job—each of which makes the year in which it happened seem more significant to the overall arc of life, creating a strong sense of progress and time well used.

Compare that to the life of a middle-aged adult, which is much more governed by routine and repetition. Day after day, the same tasks are performed, the same roles embodied, the same forms of entertainment enjoyed. At mid-life, chances are you make new friends much less frequently, you move much less often, and you try things for the first time only rarely.

This is very normal. As your career and domestic life stabilize, the years increasingly resemble each other—except, of course, for the age number itself, which ticks over every 365 days just the same as always. This creates the sense that less “living” happens each year, and that there’s more and more you’ll never get around to.

On top of all this, some scientists also say that children simply form higher-quality memories—ones that are sharper and more lasting—than adults do. Certain memory-related receptors in the brain decline with age, making early years seem that much more dense with experience and meaning than recent ones.

So don’t worry. You’re not accelerating towards your grave. It’s just a series of compounding illusions that tend to happen when we habitually ruminate about time. And there are things we can do to see through those illusions.

Lengthening our years by deepening our days

Recently, on a friend’s birthday we had the usual conversation thirty-somethings have about time flying by. I think I said I couldn’t believe I’d lived in my current neighborhood for a year already.

But when I thought about it later, it doesn’t seem like the time flew by. I’m just used to saying that. This past year really felt like a year.

In fact, I’d say the same about the previous year, and that points to the main reason time seems to have slowed down for me: meditation. Over the past two years I’ve greatly deepened my meditation practice. Much more of my life is spent with my attention on present moment experience, and much less is spent projecting, analyzing, rehearsing and reliving things in my head.

This reinvestment of attention in present moment experience really makes time seem to slow down—and that provides a compelling clue about what causes it to speed up.

Adults tend to operate much more on autopilot: performing the super-familiar tasks of domestic life while most of their attention is on some past, future, or hypothetical moment. As children we’re immersed, quite helplessly, in present moment experience, which creates long, vivid days, with many more touchpoints for memory and appreciation.

Mindfulness, one of the qualities developed in meditation, begins to shift the balance back, effectively lengthening our lives by deepening our days and years. The more life is weighted towards attending to present moment experience, the more abundant time seems.

Ordinary life becomes richer and more novel, much like childhood, except that you retain all your adult wisdom. Tiny experiences such as hanging up a coat or getting into your car, can feel quite fulfilling and complete in themselves, because you don’t feel like you need to be somewhere else already.

It is possible to fulfill your adult time commitments with your attention on the experience itself—of working, driving, cleaning, whatever it is. If you make a practice of that, much less of your life will be spent glossing over present-moment experience with compulsive thinking about what’s happening later.

I’m always wary about slipping into meditation evangelism whenever it comes up—you’re probably already either sold on it, or sold on not doing it.

But you don’t need to meditate in order to slow down time. You just need to invest more attention in present-moment experience, one way or another.

Two simple ways to do this:

  1. Do more physical activities, ones that you can’t do absent-mindedly: arts and crafts, sports, gardening, dancing
  2. Spend more time with people you enjoy talking to

Both are memorable and rewarding, and require too much ongoing attention for your mind to slip into rumination. A year spent focusing on things you can’t do absent-mindedly is a long, memorable year that can’t slip by unnoticed.

It’s only when we’re fretting about the future or reminiscing over the past that life seems too short, too fast, too out of control. When your attention is invested in present-moment experience, there is always exactly enough time. Every experience fits perfectly into its moment.

Make a motto of it: chop wood, carry water, be a friend.

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{ 46 Comments }

David Cain May 24, 2018 at 9:02 pm

Hello everybody!

I’m heading off on silent retreat today so I won’t be answering comments till I get back. But please still leave them! Enjoy your week.

{ Reply }

SmileIfYouDare May 24, 2018 at 10:06 pm

As the saying goes…
“The years are short, but the days are long.”

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Rachel May 25, 2018 at 2:42 am

Thank you for another thought-provoking and insightful article. I recently left a job I had held for over a decade and have gone back to study in an entirely new field with the intention of making a career change. I only started studying two months ago and it feels like it’s been about six months at least! I believe it’s due to the fact that I am learning so much that is completely new and different for me, and stepping well out of my comfort zone. Perhaps the newness is forcing me to take one day at a time and be more present with what I am doing in that moment (since I need to concentrate fully instead of just going through a familiar routine). Maybe continuous learning and getting out of our routines when we can is also helpful to keep us from the feeling of time slipping through our fingers.

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 9:42 am

A good dose of newness does make this effect more obvious. New things require much more attention on the real world and we can’t rely so much on going through the motions while our minds wander.

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Curtis M Michaels May 25, 2018 at 2:59 am

Thank you for being a powerful part of my self-maintenance routine.

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DiscoveredJoys May 25, 2018 at 3:45 am

Me and my wife drove to a distant city (in UK terms, about 2 hours driving) to spend the day with friends. It was a pleasant drive there and we spent a pleasant day with our friends. But on the return journey we both discussed how much shorter it seemed driving back, and how this often seemed to be the case.

Was this because the return journey was emotionally flatter, with less anticipation? Was it because we were returning to our home comforts? Was it the discovery and sharing of a tube of Wine Gums? Who can tell.

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Max May 29, 2018 at 12:56 pm

“The third experiment, in particular, strongly suggests that when people are no longer disappointed with the trip there, they take a more accurate accounting of the trip back. Ven and company don’t completely dismiss a familiarity component to the “return trip effect,” but they do think expectations play more of a role. They conclude:

Often we see that people are too optimistic when they start to travel,” he says. So when they finish the outbound trip, they feel like it took longer than they expected. That feeling of pessimism carries over to when they’re ready to return home. “So you start the return journey, and you think, ‘Wow, this is going to take a long time.'”

But just as initial optimism made the trip out feel longer than expected, this pessimism starting back makes the trip home feel shorter.”

https://www.npr.org/2011/09/05/140159009/why-the-trip-home-seems-to-go-by-faster

https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2015/06/why-the-trip-back-always-feels-shorter/395714/

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Sysyfus May 29, 2018 at 4:49 pm

I have often had this same experience. I have chalked it up to the fact that I have to be more alert and focused on my route when first going somewhere I might not have driven before. Also having a sense of wanting to reach the destination at a particular time. So these are stresses that tend to accompany the trip to a destination.

However, the return trip is less stressful as I recognize the route more readily because of having traversed it earlier in the day. (Although going in reverse, it is all still familiar in my mind – signposts for turns are readily identifiable). Also, I don’t need to arrive at a destination at a particular time, so another stressor from the morning trip is no longer relevant. Hence the trip home seems so much less stressful it tends to go by quicker.

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 9:44 am

This is a well-known phenomenon. Return trips seem to go quicker. I’m not sure exactly why but there’s certainly less novelty, and probably more repetitive, mind-wandering type thinking as your thoughts return to more familiar domestic life.

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Accidental FIRE May 25, 2018 at 5:01 am

Great article as always. I’ve been trying meditation but have been failing. I’m persistent so I’ll keep at it. If it can help press the proverbial “pause” button on life that would be superb….

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Maria May 29, 2018 at 11:35 pm

You can’t fail at meditation! If you sit to meditate, or pay attention to even one breath, you have succeeded. It’s all you need do!

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Lisis May 25, 2018 at 5:46 am

I just got through watching Eckhart Tolle’s “Waiting with Presence” clip which was essentially all about this. He mentioned something about how people in Hawaii have a “loose relationship with time”… something I’ve noticed in the deep South too. It got me thinking about how I’ve always had a strict relationship with time (in order to “get things done”), and how much better my life would be if I could loosen those reins. And then you posted this. And now I know I’m on the right track.

I live in a place now where I can be perpetually frustrated by the “lack of efficiency”, or consistently amazed by the ample opportunities to practice Waiting with Presence… being fully immersed in an infinite string of long… slow… present… moments. My choice. My life.

Around here they call this time zone “slow time”, and I see now, this is a wonderful gift, not an inconvenience.

Enjoy your retreat. Enjoy the Silence. <3

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 9:49 am

Hey you!

There are some really interesting differences between how different cultures perceive time (and this also shoots holes in the “proportion” theory). There was a great article floating around a few years ago on this: http://www.businessinsider.com/how-different-cultures-understand-time-2014-5

I think I share your frustration about over-structuring my time. I have poor time-use habits, and so without rigorous scheduling I have trouble getting basic things done (work, laundry). My meditation practice has helped me let go of that rigor though — the better my practice, the better I seem to use time efficiently just through intuition, rather than scheduling. At least part of this is because my bad habits are less compelling when I’m more mindful.

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Rocky May 25, 2018 at 6:39 am

Chop wood, carry water, be a friend…..Beautiful!!

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Rocky May 25, 2018 at 6:39 am

Chop wood, carry water, be a friend…..Beautiful!!

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Danijel May 25, 2018 at 8:35 am

“reinvestment of attention in present moment experience”
Next level of personal banking. Great article, thanks!

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Kathy May 25, 2018 at 8:57 am

Thanks for the article. Is time an equalizer? Your hour is the same allotment as my hour. Do routines/practice create habits (good & bad) and get life’s necessary chores & errands done? What might happen if we challenged ourselves to experience something new for the very first time every month? The popular narrative is filled with judgement of “likes” (or dislikes). Think about the transformation if we lose the judgement.

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Heidi Slater May 25, 2018 at 9:57 am

GOOD READ! I DANCE , SAY MY ROSARY ,
( DAILY ) I GARDEN , PAINT , PICK MUSHROOMS + ( WHATEVER EDIBLE)
ETC…SUCH TRUTH FOUND IN MINDFULNESS , LIVING+ENJOYING THE MOMENT.
CONTEMPLATION OR
MEDITATION=PEACE ☮

{ Reply }

Ken Marable May 25, 2018 at 10:06 am

I’m really fascinated by psychology and neuroscience, and this reminds me of a study that looked at this, but in a narrow timeframe of the sensation of time slowing down when in danger or other moments of high intensity. It’s great how they tested this if you haven’t heard about it – if I recall, they attached small computers to grad students that would flash information by too quick to process normally… and had them jump off a roof into a net. 

They found that they were actually not able to think or process things any faster at all. What seemed to happen, however, is that in that situation, far more of their brain focused on what was happening, and therefore created richer, “thicker” memories. So when recalling those memories, they were so much more enriched that by comparison it seemed as if time was slower in order to fit all of that information in.

On a larger scale, that definitely seems to fit with what you are saying. When we are unfocused with our thoughts distracted by so many other things, or when we are in a boring daily routine, the memories are far thinner and so, which makes it seem that time has sped up.

Another related anecdote is a family member of mine thought she had memory problems for quite a while, especially close to an entire year that she could barely recall. However, after talking with and being tested by psychologists, it became clear that she didn’t have any memory deficiency at all. However, that faint year was before she was diagnosed with depression. Prior to starting treatment, she handled it by dissociating, which led to very few of her memories being tied to any emotions. That just left very faint, weak factual memories if at all. After getting her depression under control and allowing herself to experience emotions more fully again, she stopped having any memory issues.

So the perception of time is deeply connected to the richness of our experiences and the memories they create. Boring, routine, mundane life without much of anything new or lacking the richness of mindfulness leads to very thin memories and this false perception of time speeding up. So from the small scale of a few terrifying seconds to larger scales of years seeming to vanish, there is a rich body of evidence to back up your ideas here!

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Jessica May 27, 2018 at 10:11 pm

Wow. Very interesting. Your comment made me realize some things about myself that I hadn’t seen before!

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 9:53 am

Ah that is fascinating — I didn’t know about that research. And it makes sense that we make more detailed memories in intense situations, because the information retained about them is probably more important (i.e. how not to fall off a building) than the details of the 1500th time we drive to work. Thank you for this post.

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Calen June 10, 2018 at 2:27 pm

This makes sense. In psychology we often evaluate emotions along the dimensions of valence (pleasant vs. unpleasant) and arousal (roughly, how hard your heart gets thumping).

Arousal, in particular, is tired in with the activity of the amygdala, which has been shown to have powerful influences on people’s perceptions and recall of detail.

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Ellen Symons May 25, 2018 at 12:43 pm

It’s perfect to read this on my 56th birthday, May 25, and to realize how much more of my life I am living since I started regular meditation and mindfulness practices, along with doing new things regularly. The other day, someone said to me, “I’m 47, and I don’t know where my life has gone.” And I thought: ‘That could be me, but I know exactly where my life has gone, and I’m so glad I’m paying attention.’ I won’t trade this awareness for anything, now that I know what it’s like.

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 9:56 am

Happy belated Ellen. It’s pretty well-known now that mindfulness practice is “good” for you, but this isn’t one of the benefits that’s often talked about. It does seem to slow down time, and we get more out of it. I’ve only spent about a month on retreat total in my life, and each one of those days there were significant, lasting insights. We get so much more out of time we are aware for.

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Brad Maybury May 25, 2018 at 4:29 pm

I’m reminded of this by Einstein: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

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Donald Bustell May 25, 2018 at 4:39 pm

See Numberphile on Webers law for a counter view:
https://youtu.be/hHG8io5qIU8

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 10:09 am

This is essentially the “proportion” view I dismissed in the post above. I can see how Weber’s law has its uses (e.g. the marketing angle she talked about) but I don’t think there’s any reason to assume our brains perceive time in this way. We already know that our perception of time changes with factors other than our age (e.g. 60 seconds holding a “plank” pose feels much longer than 60 seconds in a warm shower) which undermines the possibility that it proceeds steadily along a logarithmic scale as we age.

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KG May 25, 2018 at 6:12 pm

Time seems to be irrelevant when you live as pure consciousness. When you identify as a person, however, you’re burdened by differences in perception and perspective. Thank you!!

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 10:11 am

That’s a big can of worms there but I agree with you. The illusion of self as articulated in Buddhism creates all sorts of distorting effects on time, and in fact makes us completely misapprehend what it is.

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Nate St. Pierre May 25, 2018 at 8:04 pm

“Make a motto of it: chop wood, carry water, be a friend.”

Where does this come from (or just from you)? Is there more of a story or an extended meaning to it?

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 10:15 am

Chop wood, carry water is an adage (I’m not sure the origin), which is meant to remind us that life unfolds only as present moment experience. So instead of trying to contend with the huge web of concerns and worries that is created when we picture our lives as an abstract narrative (i.e. trying to solve all the potential problems we foresee from where we are) we ought to just concern ourselves with experiencing what we’re doing now, and do the most sensible thing. If it’s time to chop wood, you just chop the wood, rather than absently chop wood while you ruminate about everything else that has to happen.

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Abhijeet Kumar May 25, 2018 at 8:12 pm

There is something about devoting time towards everyday things, instead of always trying to run towards what we are passionate about. It keeps us awake.

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Andrew May 26, 2018 at 1:53 am

Great post and is a good challenge to received thinking. I believe the brain just edits out what is common, understood or repetitive to handle the firehosing off information it receives all the time. It’s seen in image recognition in crowded places and hearing things in parties for example. As we grow older there is more repetition and understood activities that don’t need to be filed in detail. The rate of memorable activities being filed seems to act as a measure of time perhaps. So I like your recommended mitigation’s. They fit. Now off to try some

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David Cain June 4, 2018 at 10:17 am

It makes sense that the brain would flag certain experiences as more worth remembering than others. So when we look back at our lives, the periods with more of those memories (probably experiences that are novel, dramatic, or highly compelling in some way) it would seem like more stuff happened then.

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john k coyle May 27, 2018 at 12:28 pm

Spot on! Memory is the key to “chronoception”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlEnevzmTac

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Diego May 29, 2018 at 1:09 pm

I started living in a new continent for the last 9 months, and I tuly feel like this and last year’s events in my life had passed a longer time ago than the events I lived in 2017 and 2016 while in my country.

All the new culture, life styles and language asimilation had really impacted the way I perceive time, and if you add that where I used to live we have pretty much the same weather and sun light cycles the whole year it also seems like a while ago when I was shoveling snow in my driveway where I currently live and not to far ago when I was walking around at the park back at my country.

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Stethur May 29, 2018 at 1:35 pm

In my experience to slow down time is to be ahead.its quite easy learn to give yourself reasonable adequate time to prepare for and to arrive at your destination without having to rush .Also you can slow down the process of time by being deliberate about certain aspects and actions of your life which wouldn’t hinder or cause harm to others( mindfulness).

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Norman Cavior May 29, 2018 at 4:20 pm

If you want to experience time slowing down, experience and live with boredom a few times a week instead of trying to get rid of the boredom. Time seems to drag when we feel bored. Time seems to go by faster when you are very busy.

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John W May 29, 2018 at 4:42 pm

I am pretty sure there is more to this change in perception of passing time than us being more inwardly focused. From what I remember – and I will poke more into it later, even if just for myself – that as we get older our minds no longer have to process the same kinds of information we do process as we age. We are born with no real understanding of how we fit into life as we know it. We are less equipped than most living things to go it alone shortly after birth: many things need to be filled in, rather than depended upon by “instinct”. It was put to me like this: In a “frame-rate” analogy, what we physically experience – see, hear, smell, touch, etc. – as children needs to be integrated into who we are in a far more intense and deliberate way than when we are older: We don’t need to continually “see for the first time” a bush, dog, escalator, etc., as they all get assessed for their physicality, their relevance, frequency of interaction, etc., etc. So, out minds don’t have to run at that high frame rate any longer and can then focus its energies on things we now think about more and more, like bills, what’s for dinner, family problems and so many other things. It makes logical sense. And further corroboration can easily come for the oldest, clear-headed person you know. They will tell you – not matter what they do day in and out – there’s no escape from this phenomenon. Anyone got a handle on this concept?

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Robert R. Jones May 29, 2018 at 4:59 pm

Time goes faster the older we get, is a common and natural thing.

When we are five years old, a year is 1/5 part of our life. At 25, a year is only 1/25 of our life. At 82, a year is only 1/82 of my life which is a very small part of my life. Consider life is a pie, 1/5 of a pie is a large piece, but 1/82 of a pie is extremely small. If we are late 5 minuets for church we think nothing of it, however, if we have to wait just two minuets for a traffic light to change it seems to be an eternity.

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Jilly May 29, 2018 at 8:51 pm

Interesting read!. I found time sped up when it was no longer my own. When I had to be here at this time, start work, and end work at this time. Get up at a set time in order to do work for someone’ elses schedule. And so on. No joy in that. I find time does lengthen when I’m creating.

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Wildly Imperfect May 30, 2018 at 10:30 am

I suspect our obsession with time alone is a major culprit of it seemingly going so quickly. I try to minimize commitments in general but this is not easily done in today’s world. I love the idea of “Lengthening our years by deepening our days”. Another reason to remain consistent with my meditation practice and to practice presence and attention in everyday moments.

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Faye May 31, 2018 at 6:29 am

Thanks for yet another thought-provoking article, David. It’s been read and re-read here, by both my partner & me. We have quite different approaches to and attitudes about time, which makes life interesting sometimes!

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Alex June 6, 2018 at 2:10 am

I enjoyed this so much. Thank you for your thoughts :)

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Michael June 6, 2018 at 9:56 pm

I slow my day down by doing as much as I can differently each day. When I travel, 2 weeks feels like 2 months. Every day is a new experience. When you see the same 4 walls, the same people, etc., your mind doesn’t remember as much.

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SoPurple June 11, 2018 at 3:53 pm

Cool!

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