Slow Down: You Move Too Fast

11th March 2016

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that, as we get older, life seems to just fly by. But why is that?
Claire Moulds has her own theories…

When we were children, the summer holidays lasted forever. It was an eternity from one Christmas to the next – but not any more. Raise your hand if you’ve had a conversation recently that began ‘I just don’t know where this year is going’.

Thanks to major retailers, and each other, we seem insistent on fast-forwarding our lives. Having popped into a popular supermarket chain two days before New Year’s Eve I was astounded to be greeted by shelves full of Easter eggs. Now, getting ahead for Valentine’s Day I could have understood – and even tolerated – but Easter?

Growing up I clearly remember there being a strict calendar of events. Halloween goodies in-store would be replaced by Bonfire treats and then there was, at most, a seven week countdown to Christmas. Now we seem to bypass other dates and the man and his sack hit the aisles in August before the children have even gone back to school.

And the result? Even if you ignore the seductive marketing and insist that you will wait until nearer the date, your hand is effectively forced as others rush to buy the ‘must have’ toy. No wonder it feels as though you no sooner pack the Christmas decorations away than it’s time to take them out again!

Holidays are yet another catalyst for making the year disappear in the blink of an eye. The minute January arrives everyone in the office has a holiday request form to submit and it’s not for just one trip but the entire year. Again, this forces the hand of those who want to ‘play it by ear’, or ‘see how things pan out’.

And it’s not simply about getting the time signed off by your boss. You also need to start early enough to stand a chance of getting a seat on the plane or a room at your chosen destination. Twice last year I was astounded to find that where I wanted to stay was fully booked up for over 12 months.

As it’s getting worse every year, what’s next? Can I expect to see ‘back to school’ uniforms hit the shelves in March? Or will we all be booking holidays two, three years ahead?

Then there is our determination to cram ever more into our already complicated existence and to make life as hard as we possibly can for ourselves, leaving no time to just ‘be’. A child’s birthday cake can no longer
be bought ‘off the shelf’ and has to be carefully crafted over several days and nights to produce a showstopper worthy of Instagram. Courtesy of Netflix, watercooler chats require you to have devoured an entire series of a programme in a single night rather than just an episode. Time flies because there is no spare time to reflect on what’s happening in our lives. We’re on a treadmill that’s going faster and faster and we’re struggling to keep up with everything that we need to do. Or, more pertinently, that we ‘think’ we need to do. There’s a big difference.

It’s not just about the choices we’re making, either. When you’re younger you have few responsibilities and can live entirely in the moment. When you’re older your ‘to do’ list is never ending and you’re always thinking five steps ahead. A house needs to be cleaned, laundry needs to be done and food needs to be bought and cooked. You need to work to pay the bills and the lawn isn’t going to stop growing just because you don’t want to have to cut it.

As an adult, the demands placed on you are huge and it can feel as though what time you do have is being stolen from you. For a child time feels endless because the only barrier to more hours of exploration and fun is bedtime. In contrast, an adult will look at how little time is left for them to enjoy after all the jobs are done.

Ironically, children long for time to go by. When you’re young you constantly want to be older as it seems to be the key to new and exciting things. You’re ‘eight and three quarters’, not ‘eight’ and, if you really want
to make the point, you’re ‘nearly nine’.

In contrast, you hit your twenties and nobody wants to get any older. You’re no longer eager to rack up another digit and you start to fight against time rather than happily going along with it.

Maybe it’s the oft-quoted Peter Pan syndrome, with the younger generation simply unwilling to grow up and take responsibility. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that life still favours the ‘young and the beautiful’ and that as a nation we’re yet to fully appreciate, seek the knowledge and experience of, or care for, our older citizens?

The upshot is though, when you fight against something, you’re even more conscious of when you’re losing.

The experts also have a range of explanations as to why 365 days flies by faster at 50 than when you’re five.  

One is ‘proportional theory’, which attributes this speeding up of time to the fact that we constantly compare time intervals with the total amount of time we’ve lived. Therefore, for a five year old, one year is 20% of their entire life and will feel like a long time. In contrast, for someone of 50, one year is 2% of their entire life and will seem very short.

‘Forward telescoping’ leads people to underestimate the amount of time that has occurred since an event which means they then feel as though time has passed quickly when they discover the true amount. For example, you may recall attending a friend’s wedding three years ago and then be shocked to find it’s actually been five years, and the only possible explanation you can give is that time has flown by.

Finally, there’s ‘perceptual theory’, which argues that time is related to how much information we take in from the world around us. Children experience new things all the time so time passes slowly for them as they have so much to cram in. In contrast, as we get older we have fewer new experiences and our world becomes familiar and repetitive. As a result, we take in less information and time no longer has to stretch to accommodate it all.

The harsh truth is, though, as my mother says, ‘life goes so fast’. And, as with all precious things, we want to make the most of it. Our frustration with how quickly life seems to be passing us by isn’t therefore a reflection of anger at time itself, for somehow cheating us, but disappointment with ourselves for wasting this irreplaceable resource and the opportunities it presents to us.

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