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The Science of Why we Never Have Enough Time

Our perception of time is an intriguing paradox. Philosophically, we understand that time is a constant, a steady progression in which each moment follows the last at a predictable rate. Yet within our subjective human experience, time often appears to be a fickle, unreliable and elusive entity, expanding and contracting in a seemingly whimicket manner. In this context, the old adage – “time flies when you’re having fun” resounds with irresistible relevance.

The fluidity of our perception of time is not an illusion tricking our minds. It is a result of the complex interplay of cognitive processes, neurological mechanisms, and environmental factors. The cognitive neuroscientist’s toolbox has expanded dramatically in the last decade, allowing unprecedented insight into the neurological underpinning of time perception, reaffirming the age-old lament - why do we never have enough time?

At the heart of this conundrum lies the role of attention and memory. The relationship between attention and time perception is inversely proportional; the more attention we pay to a given task or event, the slower time seems to pass. When we are engrossed in an engrossing movie or deeply involved in a philosophical discussion, time seems to stretch and dilate. Conversely, when we are distracted or multitasking, time seems to contract, giving the illusory sense of never having enough time.

This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘time pressure’, was studied by Dawna Ballard and Paul Hudak, who found that our perception of not having enough time is exacerbated by the modern culture of busyness and the glorification of a fast-paced life. Our constant exposure to various stimuli, our continuous bombardment by information and media, and our tendency to be engaged in multitasking, all distort our perception of time and increase our feeling of time pressure.

In this regard, ‘mindfulness’ is an antidote. It brings our attention back into the present moment and slows down our perception of time. Through practising mindfulness, we become more attuned to the passage of time and less likely to be swept away by the incessant rush of events and tasks that promise to fill our time but usually leave us feeling as if we're running out of it. Thus, mindfulness offers a path towards counteracting our perception of never having enough time.

Our memories also play a significant role in our perception of time. Events brimming with new experiences, information, and emotions tend to be implanted in our memories with more detail and richness. Consequently, when we look back at such periods, they seem longer because our brains equate the volume of stored memories with the duration of time. This explains why vacations or periods of intense learning often feel longer in retrospect.

It’s worthwhile to note that human time perception is subjective and relative. It’s shaped not only by our internal mental state, our attention, memory and emotional state, but also by external factors such as culture, social norms, and societal pressures. Our perception of time is influenced by our sociocultural context, including work conditions, societal pace, and cultural values about time-use.

Moreover, our biological makeup also influences our perception of time. As we age, our metabolism slows down, and biochemical changes in our brains make time appear to speed up. Hence, as we grow older, our perception of time becomes increasingly condensed, contributing to the feeling of time scarcity.

In final analysis, the science behind why we never have enough time is rooted in both our neurobiology and our lifestyle choices. Our subjective time perception is shaped by various cognitive processes and environmental pressures, often creating an illusion of time scarcity. However, by employing certain practises such as mindfulness, and re-evaluating our external stimuli and internal mental state, we can better navigate the ebb and flow of time and diminish the nagging feeling of never having enough of it. The science underscores the value of present-moment awareness and, ironically, the need to slow down in our fast-paced world, to better grasp and appreciate the unfathomable nature of time, and thereby enrich our existence.


Is this news? I guess not really. Just funny and interesting stuff.