By Rebecca Heiss
How do we get our brains to allow us the time to make the best decisions? To rewire your survival instinct, you’re going to have to learn how to bend time.
Remember that time is a human construct. As such, its perception by any individual can be manipulated by a number of factors. When Einstein ﬁrst published his Theory of Relativity, his secretary was so overwhelmed with reporters asking her to explain the theory that Einstein reportedly gave her the following summary to parrot: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”
Consider the context
What I suppose Einstein meant is that time is relative. We experience it differently depending upon the context. The more we can learn how to control how we experience time, the better decisions we can make independent of the stressor in the moment.
Time perception is often described in two forms: a retrospective and a prospective experience. A retrospective experience of time is how we interpret time that has already happened. Our recall of the past. Prospective time, on the other hand, is when you look forward: What’s coming down the pipeline? What does our day hold? What is the next emergency we are going to have to clean up? When we are feeling busy, always looking to the next task, time ﬂies by. We never feel like we have enough of it to accomplish what we need. Ideally, we’d all be capable of staying in the present moment for the majority of our experiences, but too easily our minds slip toward worrying about the future or ruminating on the past.
Ironically, technology contributes to this time-stressed feeling. Psychologist Aoife McLoughlin has demonstrated through multiple studies that our addiction to technology has an unexpected time cost. When we are regularly checking our social feeds and texts, our perception of time speeds up. Our intentions may be only to check our phones for a brief minute, but when we look up, we’ve lost half an hour.
Additional research ﬁnds that when we believe there’s insufficient time to complete a task, we perform much worse—even if we actually have plenty of time. Taken in conjunction, our addiction to technology has created an environment in which our brain perceives time scarcity, and as a result we fail to perform at our highest levels.
Georgetown University professor Cal Newport addresses this challenge in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, in which he emphasizes the dire need for us all to find ways to move away from shallow work. Shallow work, Newport says, includes “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Think: email, text messages, social posts. Turns out, the ﬁve seconds you decide to take to quickly scan an incoming message doesn’t just cost you ﬁve seconds. It actually costs you about twenty-three minutes (twenty-three minutes and ﬁfteen seconds to be exact) on average to return your full focus back to your original task.
Gloria Mark’s empirical study that ﬁrst uncovered this massive time cost also found that interrupted workers then tried to compensate for the time lost by working faster, leading to more stress, frustration, and effort for lowered productivity. The subjects in this study (and maybe you and your colleagues) all need a little festina lente.
Festina lente is Latin that translates to “make haste, slowly.” We’ve all heard the “slow down to speed up” adage, but in a world that’s spinning ever faster, slowing down seems like a sure way to lose the race. The key to helping your survival instinct work with you rather than against you lies in festina lente.
Rebecca Heiss, Ph.D., has dedicated her life to understanding why we behave in the bizarre, unproductive, and potentially damaging ways we do. She is an evolutionary biologist specializing in stress. This article was excerpted with permission from her book, Instinct.