The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once. — Albert Einstein
This week, I had one of the more grueling experiences of my life: job interviews.
Most of us have been there (except for my brother), where you’re sitting in a hotel room, three faculty members lounged on the bed, you in a suit, while you flip through printouts about your research as these brilliant minds try to trip you up with theoretically pointed questions.
Oh…that’s not your experience with interviews? Yeah, academia can be weird.
But, for as tough (and sweaty) as these interviews were, they seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. And although the adage goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun,” could the opposite be true? When time seems to fly, will we infer that we had fun?
TIME’S IN THE EYE OF THE FLY
Time perception (i.e., how quickly or slowly you think time passes) is a very subjective, and at times, very wacky experience. For example, people taking psychedelics often report that a mere 30 seconds can feel like 30 minutes. But even for the sober mind, time perception can play some tricks on us.
For example, a team of researchers wanted to know if they could trick you into thinking time had passed quickly during a task, would you then infer that you enjoyed doing the task?
To test this, researchers had participants complete read through a text and underline all words that contained a double-letter combination (e.g., mammal). After ten minutes of doing this, the researcher then came back into the room and told the participant they had been doing the task for 20 minutes (the “time flies” condition) or they had only been doing it for 5 minutes (the “time drags” condition).
Then, they had participants evaluate how enjoyable the task was.
For those who thought the time had passed quickly (i.e., those who were told 20 minutes had passed when only 10 actually had), they rated the task significantly more enjoyable than those who thought time had passed slowly. In another study, the researchers replicated this effect with music. When participants thought they had spent less time (vs. more time) listening to a song, they reported the song as more enjoyable!
Because we have such a strong association between “time passing quickly” and “having a good time,” when we’re made to feel one has happened, we think the other has happened, too. In fact, researchers measured participants’ endorsement of the statement “time flies when you’re having fun,” and they found these effects were strongest for those who really believed this adage was true.
IT’S NOT ALWAYS A GOOD TIME…
As I mentioned earlier, time perception can have a lot of different effects. And in a busy world such as ours, one’s time is increasingly important—which is why so many of us turn to calendars and schedules. Although this time planning may make us more efficient with our time, research has shown downsides to doing so.
Particularly, when it comes to scheduling your free time.
That is, researchers have found that when we specifically schedule our leisure time (e.g., we plan exactly when we’re going to take a lunch break, play a game, do something fun, etc.), we actually enjoy that activity less.
For example, when students were asked to specifically schedule out their leisure time, they enjoyed that time less than when they did it more spontaneously.
In fact, in one study, researchers gave students a ticket that allowed them to come over to a stand to take a break from studying with free hot chocolate and cookies. In one condition, that study told participants a particular time (e.g., 6:30pm) to come to the stand, whereas for the other students, they were given a “rough time” to come over (e.g., between 6:00 and 8:00pm).
The researchers found that students enjoyed their time significantly more when it was only roughly scheduled compared to when it was precisely scheduled.
The researchers found that when we schedule things—even our free time fun time!—it puts us in a “calendar mindset,” which is something we closely associate with work (and dislike). Moreover, when we schedule free time, it feels less “free-flowing” and more structured, which also works against our enjoyment.
THE TIME, THAT IS WHAT HE’S REFERENCING
So, when it came to my own interviews, did I find them enjoyable because the time flew by? Was I less likely to enjoy them because they were very scheduled? All I can say is this: I’m happy they’re over.
Psych•o•philosophy to Ponder: Although we’ve talked about some different effects of time perception, there are so many more we could cover. So I’m interested: When are some times you’ve found that time was operating weirdly? Were there certain instances you thought it was passing slower than it should? What about faster than it should? What were some circumstances surrounding those instances? Along these lines, what are some times where maybe the above theories wouldn’t hold? For example, if you’re spending your time daydreaming in class (and so you feel like it goes by quickly), would you still say you enjoy the class? Or would it depend on what you’re evaluating–the class specifically versus how you spent your time? There are always more questions than there are answers…
Sackett, A. M., Meyvis, T., Nelson, L. D., Converse, B. A., & Sackett, A. L. (2010). You’re having fun when time flies: The hedonic consequences of subjective time progression. Psychological Science, 21(1), 111-117.
Tonietto, G. N., & Malkoc, S. A. (2016). The Calendar Mindset: Scheduling Takes the Fun Out and Puts the Work In. Journal of Marketing Research, 53(6), 922-936.
I’m a drummer and when I was younger, I frequently felt a sense of “weird time.” Drumming with one of my old bands, I would use a metronome for both rehearsals and live shows. I noticed a strange feeling the first few times I played live with that band. My adrenaline would be high as I was anxious and excited to play in front of other people. When adrenaline rises, people tend to rush (play at a faster tempo than normal). However, I had a metronome to keep my time in check.
As we started playing a show one night, I can remember the feeling of the metronome clicking really slowly. I looked down and saw that it was the right tempo, but it just felt so unbelievably slow. It scared me at first, but then I realized I was experiencing time slower than everyone else around me. It started to become a really comfortable feeling, as I felt I had more time to think about what I was going to do, and didn’t feel rushed at all.
As I’ve gained experience playing over the years, that feeling has gone away, but I’ll always remember feeling like a superhero who could slow down time for myself.
That was awesome, wow, thank you for sharing. I WISH I could have had an experience like that. In fact, I tried to train for a while with a metronome to see if I could make them sound like their beats were coming slower, but I was never successful. I read that experts at mediation are able to slow down their perception of time, which makes sense why I wasn’t able to haha It’s interesting to think of the different factors that contributed to your own experience of it. I know I, too, would be hoping to relive that superhuman experience. You’ll have to share again if you do!! 🙂
Fascinating study that was done on people reading and listening to music, and I know it’s true. I felt like I was reading this post for ten minutes or more but when I looked up it turns out it was only a few minutes, the normal time. Oh well!
Also, my ‘friend’s first big magic mushroom trip felt like he was traveling through time and that it lasted a really long time.
I read an interesting physics article that asked questions around why time even exists in the first place, like why it is needed or where it came from. A question I’m not able to answer!
Great post as always, keep at it!
PS Marines DO have to interview to become a 2nd Lt., but the interview sounds a bit different than yours!
PPS hope you got the results you were looking for during the interviews
Well, first, thanks for the great reply 🙂 Second, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! This was a fun one to write about. That magic mushrooms experience of your friend sounds about spot on from what I’ve “heard,” too. And just as trippy, though, are those physics questions about why we need time. When I start thinking that abstractly/deeply, it’s like my brain just goes, “Nope. We’ve done enough thinking for the last five seconds.” Crazy. But as for the interviews, that’s a great point about my brother haha Fortunately, he hasn’t had to interview for that position, so my jab still stands (he made a comment the other day how he’s never had a “real” job ha); and as for me, well, only time will tell how they ended up… But I will say that I felt like I put a good foot forward rather than upward into my mouth 😉