I read a story as a child, from a book I can no longer recall, about a king who asked to extend time. The state of his kingdom was exceptional, but he believed the days were going by all too quickly. He offered a handsome prize to anyone capable of building a day-elongating machine. After several entrepreneurs tried and failed, a man arrived claiming to hold a machine capable of stretching time to infinity.
When the king came to inspect this new contraption, he found a large wooden wheel, with a crank that allowed it to spin on its axle. “All you must do,” promised the inventor, “is, turn the wheel, and time will slow down on its own”. As the king suspiciously inspected the machine, the prize contender added a final note: “in order to ensure the correct operation of the machine, you yourself must turn the wheel, continuously and without pause”.
At this point in the story, the end is clear. As he turned the cranks and endlessly rotated the heavy wheel on its axle, the king discovered time did, in fact, slow down, and quite significantly. The day indeed had lengthened to infinity. He had no choice but to deliver the prize and forgo his ambition to extend time.
Young readers might come to a gloomy conclusion from this story. Namely, that time, the most valuable resource in human life, only seems to drag on in undesirable situations, such as work, a visit to the dentist or an Almodóvar motion picture. But the opposite can be true. And on that note, I present a guide to extending time:
Experience new things. The perceived sensation of time lingering during the first half of a vacation, is due to the amount of new “information” to which we are exposed: the sights, places, smells, tastes, are all new to us, at least for the first few days. We experience life at a much higher intensity. So, to stretch like a piece of gum, experience new things on a daily basis.
Escape from routine. The reason we feel like the second half of our vacation goes by faster than the first half is that we grow accustomed to our new environment. What was surprising and exciting quickly becomes a familiar.
It’s this reason adults tend to report the years as passing by faster than when they were children. That’s because as adults, we tend to develop daily routines: commuting to work, returning home in the evening, watching TV and so on, while our younger selves experienced a lot of the world for the first time. Routine, for this reason, is the greatest enemy of time, often devouring minutes, hours and days, causing them to vanish forever, leaving not one memory of value behind. If we seek to slow the passing of time and endow it with meaning, we must include both random and controlled disruptions in our day-to-day life.
We need to say yes to events we would normally avoid, such as a concert, an exhibition opening, a demonstration, meeting new people, adopting a new hobby or craft. The instinctual reaction of people like myself, who have grown fond of routine, would be to pass on such invitations in favor of the comforts of home. But, when I successfully managed to fight off the natural urge to resist, I found that it was not for naught. The more of these moments we collect, the more our sense of time begins to slow.
But, no number of accepted invitations to enjoy life can help us stretch our perception of time if we don’t show up for those moments fully. In other words, we must be present. An acute, seemingly inescapable sickness of the human condition, is to dwell in the past or contemplate the future, rather than show up for the here-and-now. Pardon my fortune-cookie-esque advice, but doesn’t it seem that the simplest way to stretch would be to be present in the now?
It may sound simple enough, but the ability to quiet down our endless stream of thoughts requires practice. Try practicing for a few minutes a day. When you take your lunch break at work, while en route to grab a bite to eat, don’t think about the list of things to do tomorrow, the tasks left waiting on your desk, or the conversations you had just a few minutes ago. Instead, focus on walking. Step by step. Indulge in the sensation of your feet touching the pavement, the energy of the people around you, the background noise, the feeling of fresh air against your skin. Breath deeply. Be aware of the world that surrounds you, and let the innumerable sensations melt into your consciousness.
You most likely will not be able to maintain such intensity of presence for more than several minutes at a time, but how precious are those minutes! I practice this exercise during my short walk to and from the train station. Time, this way, becomes more voluminous. Let this moment seep in, and you will almost instantaneously feel time slowing down.
It is worth noting that for slowing down time, a paradoxical recommendation is to simply do nothing. Yes, nothing. Put a stop to the frenetic pace of your everyday life. Don’t juggle tasks. Don’t meet anyone new. Don’t fall prey to the common mistake that time is something we must spend efficiently to enjoy it. If we don’t gift ourselves windows of nothingness, moments when the impressions, memories, and experiences of the day can take hold, we’ll be left with nothing but cognitive chaos and smeared silhouettes of bright lights.
These days, doing nothing is no simple matter. Many of us are held captive by a feeling that the human experience requires our constant attention. For this reason, I tend to exaggerate my laziness. We must remember that doing nothing is just as important as doing anything else.
Amit Noyfeld's book "The History of Speed" can be purchased here.