This week, Science of Us is exploring time: what makes it feel like it’s speeding up or slowing down, how we learn to tell the difference, and how we can learn to control it either way.
You know what feels like a little bit of a rip-off? Sunday night prep. And I use that term liberally — I’m talking about meal planning, house cleaning, getting a jump-start on your work to-do list, even taking off chippy nail polish and replacing it with a fresh coat. Yes, I do all of these things because they are practical and they’re a good way to ease into Monday morning. I’m not disputing their usefulness — just that we have a limited number of weekend hours at our disposal, and yet we’ve all collectively decided to spend a chunk of them being weekday-style productive. Wouldn’t the weekend feel so much longer if we spent it, well, weekending?
Sort of. As it turns out, my bitterness is slightly, but not entirely, misplaced: Dedicating every Sunday evening to the same old routine really does make it seem like the weekend is rapidly disappearing from under you. But then again, lazing around in your pj’s has the same effect.
If you really want to make your days off to pass more slowly, explains neuroscientist David Eagleman, a professor at Stanford University and the author of The Brain: The Story of You, the key is to seek out newness — new settings, new activities. “When you go and experience something novel, it seems to have lasted longer,” he says, because you’re more focused on collecting the unfamiliar information into a memory. It’s why time seems to fly by so much faster as an adult then it did when you were young: “When you’re a kid, everything is novel and you’re laying down new memories about it. So when you look back at the end of a childhood summer, it seems to have taken a long time because you remember this and that, this new thing, learning that, experiencing that,” Eagleman says. “But when you’re older, you’ve sort of seen all the patterns before.”
The same thing holds when you consider a much smaller stretch of time — meaning that if you really want to stretch every hour to its fullest potential, you’re going to have to make some plans. A weekend getaway, for example, will seem much longer than a weekend spent at home. A weekend spent at home, if you spend it exploring new neighborhoods or trying new restaurants, will seem longer than one where you hole up in your apartment with a book. And a weekend holed up in your apartment with a book, if it’s a new book, will seem longer than one where you reread an old favorite for the hundredth time.
A caveat, though: Unfortunately, this is only true in hindsight. “It’s exactly the opposite when you’re looking forward in time versus looking backwards,” Eagleman says. Come Monday, you’ll remember a novelty-packed weekend as feeling like more time. But in the present, you’ll feel like it’s going by too fast — time really does fly when you’re having fun, and it really does seem to crawl when you’re bored. (The reason, as you may have suspected, is that you’re not paying attention to the passage of time when you’re enjoying yourself; when you have nothing to distract you, on the other hand, you log every tick of the clock.)
To better understand how this works, Eagleman says, think of the last really long flight you took: When you’re actually in the air, “it seems to take forever to get to your destination. You can’t believe that only two hours have passed.” But once you’ve landed and left the airport, “it seems like it was super fast, in the sense that you don’t have any memory of it … There’s nothing novel about the experience, so time kind of disappears there.”
In other words, strategizing for how to make the weekend feel longer isn’t specific enough. You have to choose how you want the weekend to feel longer: in the moment, or when you’re back to the daily grind and wistfully looking back on it? The latter will probably leave you feeling more refreshed longer into the week, but if you want to spend a Saturday afternoon (and Saturday night, and Sunday morning) doing absolutely nothing besides reveling in your own laziness — well, at least it’ll seem like a luxurious amount of time to do all that reveling in.