How to Fix Your Broken Perception of Time

Your boss just asked that dreaded question: “When can you get me that report?”

How do you respond? You might answer based on how long it took to complete a similar task. Maybe you’ll try to impress her by promising to get it done today. Whatever you say, chances are your estimate will be wrong.

Let’s face it: humans are notoriously bad at setting deadlines and estimating time. The comforting fact is that it’s largely not our fault.

Many factors play a part in our distorted perception of time, and most are difficult or impossible to modify. Time itself is not something we can change either, despite all our dreams of time machines.

What can we do? To fix our broken perception of time, we can reevaluate our relationship with it, become more aware of how we spend our days, and understand how our perception of time influences productivity. We can also seek time-management methods that will make us feel more in control of our time and less like its victims.

Why Is Your Perception of Time Broken?

Time isn't as fixed as clocks would make us think

Time is a fascinating concept; just thinking about it can make your head swirl. Although it affects us all, not everyone experiences time equally. Our perceptions of time are shaped by our native and local cultures, the languages we speak, our occupation and age, the technologies we use, and above all else, by the processes in our brains.

It’s All In Your Head

We don’t naturally perceive time as a specific quantity. We instead perceive changes that happen as a result of time passing. We observe the duration and succession of events, and translate that into measurement units—seconds, minutes, days. This is the one situation when it’s appropriate to say “it’s all in your head”, because it’s true—your time perception is created in the brain.

Among other things, our perception of time depends on how fast our brains process sensory input. It is also affected by the senses themselves, and studies show that an auditory event can appear to last longer than a visual one.

Chemicals play a part, too, including dopamine. According to recent research, we feel like time is passing faster when we’re engaged in pleasurable, rewarding activities which increase dopamine activity in the brain.

Damage to certain parts of the brain can seriously skew our perception of time. We find examples of this in medical conditions such as dyschronometria, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. A study published in 2015 found that depression can impact the way we perceive time.

Last but not least, our memory is both cause and effect of glitchy time perception. When we experience a lot of changes within a period of time, we tend to remember the event as lasting longer.

Your Body Constantly Changes in Response to Time

biological clock

The human biological clock, via Wikimedia

One of the central questions in time perception research is whether our bodies have a single “main clock”, or if our perception of time is governed by multiple structures in the brain. What is certain is that we have a sort of an internal timing mechanism. Called the circadian clock, it keeps our mental and physiological processes synchronized with the Earth’s day-night cycle. Disruptions in this rhythm can affect our well-being and, consequently, our productivity.

The most obvious way our bodies respond to passing of time is ageing. As we get older, our organisms change, and so does our perception of time, making us feel like time is passing faster. The next time grandma sighs “How time flies!”, remember that it really does—from her perspective.

Your Culture Makes You Do Weird Things

people blur

Running late or early? That may depend more or your location and culture than the clock

Being late is almost never a good thing, but if you’re meeting an Indian colleague, they probably won’t mind if you don’t show up exactly on time. However, if you’re going to a meeting in Japan, you’d better hurry up. In his book “A Geography of Time“, Robert Levine explains how attitudes to time vary across countries and cultures. Western Europeans and Japanese value punctuality, while Brazilians seem to have infinite tolerance when deciding what counts as being late for an event. In Germany, you’re expected to arrive early, and in Mexico everyone counts on you coming late—because that’s exactly what they will do.

The languages we speak and write clearly reflect those differences. People who use a right-to-left writing system map events on a timeline in the direction of their writing, placing the most recent events on the left side.

Levine mentions that tribes and ethnic groups from rural parts of the world measure time by events from their surroundings. Instead of at 7 AM, they meet “when the cows come out to graze”. Another example is Shambala, an East African language without words for past or future—the speakers describe time as “today” and “not today”.

You don’t need to step outside the English language to find proof of this. We ask how far the closest Starbucks is, and our friend says it’s a five-minute drive. Many people in the US and Western European countries use time to express distance. One of the reasons is that they assign a high economic value to time, and tend to filter everything through it. When “time is money” people don’t want to waste it, which increases the general pace of life.

Every culture has its notion of “social time” which comes with a set of behaviors and expectations. It’s important to recognize this when working in a multicultural environment, and respect other cultures’ attitudes to time. In other words, if you’re in Spain and everything closes down for the midday break, don’t fight it.

You’re Not In Sync With Your Surroundings

Of course, living in a particular culture doesn’t automatically make you synchronized with all its people. We know that perception and experience of time are highly individual, and everyone has their own natural schedule. However, if your internal time (the relationship between your sleep cycles and energy levels) doesn’t align with the social time of your current location, you might have trouble staying productive.

For example, you might feel social pressure to be a “morning person”, even though you produce your best work later in the day. Maybe you simply need more sleep than others. Maybe your workplace favors the monochronic approach and expects you to perform tasks one at a time, but you’re a polychron—someone who functions better when multitasking.
Seemingly innocent things like working with clients from different time-zones or living in a country that enforces daylight saving can also unsettle your perception of time. This is related to the competing notions of “clock time” and “event time” which operate on a higher level.

Most modern workplaces follow the “clock time”; a system where all activities are strictly scheduled, and tasks must be completed within a specific period. In clock time, there is no room for unpredictable obstacles that can derail our plans and cause us to miss a deadline.

Since our daily lives are a flow of events that drag on, overlap, or get postponed, it would be more natural for us to follow the “event time”, a system that allows us to complete tasks whenever it’s most convenient. However, we often have to adhere to both systems in order to accomplish all that is expected from us. Add to this the demands imposed by social time and our internal time, and it’s no wonder we fail to keep in sync with our surroundings.

Technology Plays Tricks on You

Pebble watch

Technology is a blessing and a curse when it comes to our relationship with time. Clocks, calendars, and their digital counterparts help us make sense of our workdays, but they inevitably influence the way we perceive time. A simple instrument such as a digital clock affects your perception of time differently than an analogue one. The latter represents time as a process, with visual cues as to what has passed and what comes next. A digital clock just shows the time in this moment.

Unsurprisingly, more complex devices have a more profound effect. Many of us reach for the phone whenever we are bored or waiting for something. Using our phones makes time seem to pass faster, creating an illusion of control. We browse social media to fill in the “empty” waiting time and convince ourselves it’s better than “doing nothing”. In this way, social media can blur the line between leisure and work time, between productive activity and distraction.

And yet, we’re not the only ones who practice deception. It’s no secret that designers use certain colors to influence emotion and perception. Using blue and green for progress bars makes people think their files are downloading faster. Some interfaces trick us with animations and lazy loading to make waiting time seem shorter. Many websites provide their own estimates of how long it takes to consume the content. If a promised 3-minute read turns out to take longer, don’t worry. You can always bookmark it in one of the countless apps that strengthen the illusion that you will somehow have more time later.

How Your Perception of Time Affects Your Productivity


The effects of our distorted perception of time spread like a chain reaction. We become prone to biases and time illusions. Those biases then influence our decision-making and time estimates. Since our productivity is directly related to both, it’s easy to see how a distorted perception of time can negatively affect our performance.

You’re Terrible at Estimating Time

We make many time estimates every day; without them, it would be difficult to plan anything. The problem is that they are often inaccurate. A study on time management showed that, in general, people are better at estimating time in passing than predicting the duration of future events.

A well-known bias that illustrates this is the planning fallacy, a phenomenon where we underestimate the time required to complete the task despite our previous experience. However, if we’re motivated to complete the task early so that we can begin working on the next one, we’re more likely to make a safe estimation and say the task will take longer.

Another thing that impacts our estimations is divided attention, which Paul Fraisse highlights in his review of time perception research. When we have multiple tasks going on, it’s harder for us to estimate duration than when we have a single task. We also often forget to include time for breaks into our estimates.

It’s important to realize that our time perception and estimations depend on the context, which encompasses our emotional state, motivation, and type of work. Psychologists believe that our self-perception also plays a key part. If we’re confident in our ability to perform the required task, we are less likely to procrastinate, and therefore our time estimation is more likely to be correct.

Still, positive emotions can be a double-edged sword. If an activity is pleasant, time seems to pass more quickly, or we might not even notice it passing. A study on the experience of “time loss” among videogame players reported that a staggering 99% of participants lost track of time while playing. This also happens when you’re deeply focused on work.You become completely immersed in your tasks and stop paying attention to time; in other words, you enter the flow state.

You Choose the Wrong Productivity Methods

Even when we’re aware of our time-related biases, we don’t always choose the best way to cope with them. Many of us try to compensate by “time deepening“—trying to work faster or juggling several tasks at once. We try sleeping less, or we attempt to optimize our time usage by combining different time-management methods. While the latter is generally a reasonable approach, remember that not every productivity method is suitable for your job, type of task, or your personality.

Some time management tips can even conflict each other. For example, finding your “prime time” and doing “the worst thing first” can be counterproductive if applied simultaneously. If your prime time is in the morning, you will not be motivated to spend it on an unpleasant task.

Other time-focused techniques, like timeboxing and Pomodoro, can put too much pressure on the individual and lower the quality of work as one aims for speed. They can be great for administrative tasks, but creative work doesn’t always play well with constraints.

As anyone who has tried GTD (Getting Things Done) knows, this method makes it easy to fall into the trap of spending time on organizing to-do lists instead of completing them. You will still feel like you used your time productively, but little will actually get done.

What Can You Do to Fix Your Perception of Time?

watch repairman

We’ve looked at the causes of our broken perception of time and the consequences it has on our productivity. Plenty of those explanations might sound like excuses despite their scientific background. While you might not relate to all of them, you can still apply that knowledge to become better at organizing your time. Of course, this process requires a reasonable amount of self-control and a willingness to experiment with your habits.

1. Acknowledge

The first step is admitting there’s a problem. Think of situations where you experienced “time loss”, or instances when you significantly misjudged the duration of an event. What was the context? In which activities were you engaged? Which factors contribute the most to twists in your perception of time? This will help you focus on the cause(s) of distortion.

2. Analyze


Successful time management is not only about correctly estimating time. It’s also about accurately keeping track of passed time. If you’re still in the dark about your biggest time-sinks, turn to time-tracking. You can do it actively or passively.

The active approach requires manual input. This can take the form of a handwritten journal, or you can use time-tracking apps like Toggl to log what you are doing. You can set reminders at regular or random intervals, or use an app like SaveMyTime that implements spot checks and prompts you about your current activity. Note that this approach isn’t for everyone, since it interrupts your workflow and might break your concentration.

On the other hand, the passive approach relies on software that runs in the background and automatically collects data. RescueTime is a great option for tracking your online activities.

Once you’ve collected sufficient data, don’t let it go to waste! Time-tracking makes little sense if you don’t learn anything from it. Visualizing data helps you understand it, and you can use Zapier with RescueTime and Toggl to generate neat reports. Create Zaps that will automatically deliver time-tracking summaries to your inbox, add them to Google Sheets, log them to an Evernote note, and more.

Observe patterns in collected data. Does your productivity spike at certain points during the day? Do you tend to work in large chunks of time? How much time do you waste on social media?

These insights will highlight your habits and productivity-related preferences, making it easier to find a productivity method that suits you. You will also become aware of how you spend your time, and hopefully realize what causes your perception of time to clash with reality.

3. Alleviate

When you get a clearer picture of the weakest points in your time perception, you can work on reducing their impact. You won’t become as accurate as a Swiss watch, but you can improve your time estimates and adopt a healthier attitude to time management. Here are some tips to try.

Become More Aware of Time

sand timer

Place a clock (preferably an analogue one) in front of you while you work. Use an hourglass for an even stronger visualization.

Why this works: Visualizing the passage of time increases your awareness of it, since it demands more of your attention. Some people find clocks distracting, or feel anxiety and pressure to rush through their tasks when facing a clock, so this won’t work for everyone. However, it might work for you. Seeing the seconds tick away can urge you to snap out of procrastination and focus on your priorities.

Practice Estimating Time

Work against a countdown to train yourself to always spend the same amount of time on a recurring task (responding to emails, household chores…). If you don’t mind listening to music while you work, pick an album that matches the desired task duration. Before you start working on a task, guess how long it will take to complete it.

Why this works: Task timing helps you establish a rhythm that can make your time estimates more precise. Personal development writer Steve Pavlina suggests that keeping a record of your guesses can help you calculate your “fudge ratio” – how much your estimates deviate from the actual time you spend. You can use this knowledge to combat the planning fallacy.

Change What You Can

Using the insights from your time-tracking experiments, eliminate apps that encourage procrastination (or at least try to minimize their usage). Instead of reflexively clicking “save for later” on every article you come across, stop and ask yourself “will I really read this later?”.

Similarly, you can change your attitude towards unfinished tasks by being strict and honest with your priorities, as Laura Vanderkam advises in her book “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.”. If you often catch yourself saying “I don’t have time for this,” practice framing it as “this is not a priority.”

For a more radical change, consider traveling and, if possible, staying for a while in a country where general attitudes to time are very different from your own.

Why this works: Actively thinking about the tasks you choose (not) to do makes you feel in control of your time, instead of perceiving it as something that just happens to you. A change of environment can make you more aware of how you use your time and inspire you to be more productive, writes Julia Roy at Fast Company.

Try New Things

If you’ve never tried volunteering or meditation, now is the time, as both can positively influence your perception of time.

Why this works: As a study from 2012 says, “giving time gives you time”, which is to say that volunteering makes you feel like you have more free time. Volunteering on tasks you don’t usually do can show you how much you can achieve in a given period of time.

When it comes to meditation, research shows that doing it regularly improves your ability to maintain attention longer, meaning it won’t be so easy to distract you with cat videos anymore.

Trying new things can apply to productivity methods, too. Armed with a fresh understanding of your relationship with time, you can be better at adapting task-management tools to your needs.

4. Accept

No matter how much you tweak your perception of time, there will always be some time lost. You will get stuck in traffic. You’ll have to wait for important files from a coworker. You’ll watch just one more YouTube video.

And you know what? Time will keep passing, indifferent to your struggles.

Perhaps the best you can do is simply accept you’re human. You’re not a robot who can always perform at the same speed, with invariable amounts of energy and enthusiasm. We all get 168 hours in a week, but we don’t have equal resources to help us make use of those hours. Do you have an army of assistants, housekeepers and nannies? Keep that in mind when comparing yourself to other people’s amazing time-management skills.

Establish discipline at your own pace, and don’t dwell on the time you’ve “wasted” so far. Instead focus on the endless potential of the minutes, hours, and days ahead of you.

Image Credits: Title photo by col_adamson via Flickr, Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory via Wikiart, Biological clock graphic by YassineMrabet via Wikimedia, Crowd blur photo via Pexels, Time photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr, Watch repairman photo by Seán Ó Domhnaill via Flickr, Pebble watch photo by Jonas Birmé via Flickr, Sand timer via Pexels.



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