Soukie's Place

keeping track of random thoughts

The Relativity of Time

a train rushing behind watches

Time is peculiar. Given how many things depend on, or are linked to time, there is very little we know about it for certain (on scientific and philosophical level; we usually know plenty enough about time when we are running late for a meeting). Despite the pseudo-technical title, this article offers observations on the nature of time as it appears to us, humans. Having enough time is not trivial and it plays an important part in the quality of life. As Seneca said: “There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living.”

For a 5-year-old, one year increases life experiences by 20%

Most people agree that time moves in one direction only, just like an arrow. Not only does it fly like an arrow, it flies at different speeds. And no, you do not need to be on a spaceship travelling close to the speed of light to witness this fact. For example, time is moving slower for children. This can be easily proven. Not only did you probably have “more time” when you were a kid, the feeling of slowly passing years had a reason. For a 5-year-old, one year increases his or her life experiences by 20%. For a 30-year-old, by just over 3%. If you look at the diminishing portion of new things you encounter on average, the time must feel accelerating: If the past month was filled with mostly routine things, these memories will occupy little space. In retrospect, it probably went by faster than a week-long vacation.

Waiting for something without nothing to do feels as if the time almost stops. A watched pot never boils. (And in quantum physics, this could be the case quite literally.) In real life, it was proven that whenever people are occupied by doing something challenging or engaging, their sense of elapsed time shrinks even when you tell them in advance they are going to be asked for their estimates.

Most new technologies claim to be saving our time. And many of them really do (take the washing machines for example). So how come with all these great gadgets, we have less and less time on our hands? Because we can do more, we request and expect more. Computers and phones are so fast that we can’t catch up with the things coming our way. By entering the race to speed things up, we get easily caught in the wheel.

We live faster but as it is often pointed out the human brain—while being incomparably more powerful than dumb microchips—cannot compete with the speed of data processing and multitasking. When we try to compete on these two fields, we get quickly exhausted without increasing our productivity. All in all, the saying “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” should be modified to “the flame that burns twice as fast not only burns half as long but none-the-brighter.”

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. I would say that all tasks do, and not only do they expand, they also contract. Throw three things to do into your day, and they will probably expand just enough to fill it. Throw in fifteen, and they might also fit in. The question is whether something will not be lost in that compression. It is up to us to judge how many will have the best result.

If you are gullible enough to take time management advice from someone who is totally swamped right now (and aware that time as such cannot be managed) here you go: Keep learning and trying new things; eliminate boredom and excessive workload by scheduling the right number of tasks for each day; and remain the master, not a slave, of technology. These measures should bend the time arrow in your favor. I wonder where the time spent reading this entry fits for you.


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Steven Richards, September 5, 2009:

Pavel, your articles are amazing, you are a very smart man, this article on time is very interesting, thanks for sharing your thoughts with the world, keep writing!
-steven richards


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