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It often feels as though time speeds up as we age, with each season and year seemingly passing by more quickly than the last. And, according to some psychologists, in addition to aging, the way we interact with technology could also have a profound effect on the way we experience time.
Sitting in front of computers all day, we’re constantly confronted by a clock telling us what time it is, and it’s no different whether we’re at home or on the go: 60 percent of Gen Yers (ages 18-30) find themselves compulsively or subconsciously checking their smart phones for emails, texts, or social media updates.
This ever-present technology is changing not only the way we perceive time, but also the way we think, according to Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford and author of The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time That Will Change Your Life.
“[Technology creates] a funny kind of obsession with time, but it’s this very short-focused, immediate-present time,” Zimbardo says. The way we perceive and experience time can have a profound psychological effect. Far from being objective, time is, in fact, a highly subjective experience, one that’s subject to technological and cultural influences. In The Time Paradox, Zimbardo argues that we all operate from one of three primary time biases. Those who tend to think of their current experiences in terms of what they’ve already experienced are past-oriented, those who focus on the immediate are present-oriented, and those who think in long-term projections are more future-oriented.
“Time has a powerful effect on our lives that we’re unaware of,” says Zimbardo. “I argue that it’s the most powerful influence on everything we do. It’s so powerful because we get programmed very early in life to be in one of these ‘time zones.'”
The ideal balance, Zimbardo explains, is to be moderately future-oriented (enough to be motivated to work towards our goals but not so much as to breed workaholism), moderately past-positive (when we look back on our lives, we have a generally positive outlook), and moderately “present hedonistic,” meaning that we take time out for friends, family, and fun, but are not so pleasure-oriented as to have addictive tendencies.
But over-reliance on technology — constantly checking email and social networks, and being distracted by alerts on our mobile devices — can take us out of both the past and the future, and into a state of heightened “present hedonism” in which we’re constantly focused (in a sometimes compulsive way) on what’s either right in front of us or coming immediately afterwards.
“We’re simply being in that moment to take the next action,” says Zimbardo. “It’s really minimizing the quality of life. It’s minimizing the joy that we ought to be getting from everyday life.”
Here are four things you should know about how technology affects your perception of time:
Being connected can speed up your sense of time.
Our constant access to virtually unlimited amounts of news and updates can create a need for immediacy that speeds up both our information intake and our perception of time.
“Our personal ‘time zone’ can be modified by technology, because it speeds up our internal clock,” says Zimbardo. “Technology makes us impatient for anything that takes more than seconds to achieve. You press a button and you expect instant access … so technology is pushing more and more of us into a very immediately-focused time zone. That means that we tend to ignore the future consequences of our behavior.”
Because we’re used to being constantly occupied, many of us have a hard time slowing down or waiting.
It can trap us in the ‘next’ moment.
Technology can trap us in a cycle of instant gratification — we’re stuck in a present moment in which we are not fully present because we’re also anticipating the next moment. Being plugged in keeps us focused on the next thing, looking at the future in a very short term sense of waiting for the next update.
This present-orientation can make us more susceptible to instant gratification.
We live in a world of temptation, and being future-oriented — meaning that we act in the interest of our more long-term goals and values — is what keeps us from giving in to our momentary desires. In order to get to any long term goal you have to have plans, an agenda, a to-do list. Future-oriented people are very good at getting these things done. But when we become excessively present-orientated and focused on instant gratification, we’re more susceptible to compulsive behavior.
You can expand your present moment through mindfulness.
We have to take a time out from obsession with time. Sometimes it’s to do nothing — to rest, take a walk, do some breathing exercises. Through mindfulness practices like meditation, we can bring ourselves into a truly present — rather than divided and distracted — moment. And that can literally slow down time. “Zen has another kind of present orientation called the ‘expanded present,'” Zimbardo says. “It’s not present hedonism — it’s awareness of the self, and ultimately, losing the self.”