How We Measure Life & The Secret to Stretching Time

A quick jarring motion sends me bouncing up and down as the sound of jet engines roar outside the small rectangular window my head is resting upon.  It is March 24th, 2010 and I have just landed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the first time I have touched American soil in almost three months.

It’s odd, really odd.

I have this strange visceral sensation.  I’m told it’s culture shock (an odd thing to hear upon returning to your home country).

For the first time in months I can understand everything that is going on around me.  Conversations between passersby used to be nothing more than unknown foreign languages I turned into ambient noise.  Now, every conversation within earshot is comprehendible.  Billboards make sense.  Hotel receptionists speak perfect English.  Menus contain recognizable food.

This newfound feeling of omniscience is perplexing to say the least, but something else is amiss (aside from the massive beard on my face).  All of these new sensations seem too intense for someone who was away for only three months.

It’s as if I have been gone for longer… for… a whole year.

Firsthand Relativity

July 4th snuck up on me.

It marked three months since my return to the U.S. – the same amount of time I spent backpacking alone in Europe.  I sat down that night to write in my journal about my experiences since returning home.  The page sat blank for what seemed like an eternity.  It wasn’t writer’s block, I simply couldn’t remember.  About 30 minutes later I had a total of five things; five solid memories in three months.

I was stunned.

How could this be?  How could three months of my life seemingly disappear?  I could paint the most vivid image of nearly every single day spent abroad, but couldn’t conjure up more than five concrete memories since returning home.

As I stared at my computer monitor I was overcome by a similar feeling I had that bizarre day in Chicago.  Only this time it was the opposite.  The past three months had felt like they lasted no more than a couple of weeks.

My internal clock was fucked.

I found myself frequently living in the past.  I battled bouts of depression for just over a year.  To a lesser degree I still do to this day.

When our concept of time is askew, and we can’t really grasp what happened years ago versus what happened last month, it messes with our minds in very unique and inconceivable ways.  It’s not something I wish upon anyone.

A French chronobiologist, Michel Siffre, conducted one of the most intriguing self-experimentations in 1962.  He spent two months living in a subterranean cave, without a clock, calendar, or exposure to sun in an attempt to discover how the natural rhythms of life would be affected by living “beyond time.”  His findings were fascinating:

Very quickly Siffre’s memory deteriorated.  In the dreary darkness, his days melded into one another and became one continuous, indistinguishable blob.  Since there was nobody to talk to, and not much to do, there was nothing novel to impress itself upon his memory.  There were no chronological landmarks by which he could measure the passage of time.  At some point he stopped being able to remember what happened even the day before…  As time began to blur, he became effectively amnesic.  Soon, his sleep patterns disintegrated.  Some days he’d stay awake for thirty-six straight hours, other days for eight – without being able to tell the difference.  When his support team on the surface finally called down to him on September 14, the day the experiment was scheduled to wrap up, it was only August 20 in his journal.  He thought only a month had gone by.  His experience of time’s passage had compressed by a factor of two1.

I’m not alone!

Siffre had experienced the exact same phenomenon as I had, but in reverse.  Instead of time being compressed, mine was elongated by a factor of 4.  As comforting as this discovery was, I still had questions about how I could remedy this time-warp conundrum a get back to living my life.


Why is it we can remember every single one of the weird, awkward, and embarrassing moments of our entire life yet we have trouble remembering what we did last Wednesday, or the Wednesday before that?

Joshua Foer, author of the phenomenal New York Times Bestseller, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, discusses this phenomenon:

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.  You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one.  If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear.  That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories.  Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Psychological time?  I was intrigued and needed to know more.

William James, author of Principles of Psychology (1890), wrote this about psychological time:

In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day.  Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are something intricate, multitudinous and long-drawn-out.  But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.

The peculiarity of my travel-time in relation to my domestic-time began to make sense.  Each day spent traveling was a new experience – an exploration into the unknown that forced me to pay closer attention, record larger volumes of information, and create more memories.  The majority of my time spent at home was doing the same bullshit day in and day out – working a shitty job, eating dinner, going to sleep, repeat.

It’s a common theme in our society.  At one point or another we’ve all been caught in a monotonous routine.

Don’t get me wrong, routine is great and has its advantages.  If you want to improve a given skill or ability, you need to practice consistently; develop a routine.  I run nearly every day of the week training for my first marathon.  I brush my teeth and floss every single night to avoid having to put my teeth in a glass when I’m 70.

Routines are comfortable.  But when does comfort no longer serve you?

How We Measure Life

Do you remember how you measured time as a child growing up?


For me, life was broken down seasonally.

The school year and summer break became the two standard units of measurement.  Each contained their own unique aspects, but summer break obviously won out as the most fun.  No teachers, no homework, just a big gap filled with pure, unadulterated freedom to spend time with friends.  That usually entailed swimming, jumping on trampolines, or going to the mall to get Orange Julius and play at the arcade.  Despite the routine of school, every day was a new experience.


High school was a whole new world and each year was now broken down into semesters.

“Only one more semester of this bullshit class and then I’m finally free!”  Summer break was still the most anticipated time of the year, but my free time shrunk due to the newly acquired responsibilities of a summer job.  Most days were a new experience.

Young Adulthood


A paradoxical era in the life of a young American where time continues to move forward yet somehow bends backward toward our childhood where every day was a new experience.  There is no more adult supervision or phone calls home if we miss class.  We are now responsible for feeding ourselves.  We either learn to cook or become best friends with the drive-through attendant at Taco Bell.

Binge drinking, partying, some higher education, and a lot of exploration (of ourselves and our fellow coeds) ensues for 4+ years.

With so much going on during this period in our lives, college has the ability to stretch our psychological time much longer than four years.  In relation to the rest of our life, this segment consumes a large percentage of the time we’ve been alive (22 years ÷ 7 perceived years = 32% of our life).  I believe this is one of reasons why so many individuals (myself included) yearn for those romanticized days while having difficulty dealing with change and adjusting to post-college life.  This goes for any stretch of time in our lives that is filled with positive memories; especially as adults.


School ends.

Whether we like it or not, we are catapulted into the “real world” and met with responsibility, career paths, insurance, and something called professionalism.

The Fork in The Road

It is at this point, in early adulthood, many Americans make a decision as to how they will measure and value their time for the rest of their lives.

Will you choose a life of routine and comfort or a life of uncertainty and adventure?

Of course these two are not mutually exclusive, but similar to politics we tend to lean toward one side more than the other.

I’ve lived in both realms and neither is right nor wrong, but identifying more with one mindset may begin to explain whether you’ve lived a life that feels longer or shorter than you believe it should be.

Uncertainty breeds new memories better than anything else.  Most days are a new experience, but this comes with a price: stress.  Not knowing how I’m going to pay rent each month isn’t as fun as it sounds (and it sounds horrible).  But the adventures and challenges encountered along the way are life changing.   You can experience the whole spectrum of emotions in a single fleeting moment.  In this realm, time typically feels longer.

Routine provides a sense of stability, financially and professionally.  But for many, time will now be primarily measured in PTO (Paid Time Off).  Week long vacations will be a new experience and serve as a large source of memory anchors.  In this mindset, time typically feels shorter.

As easy as it is to seek comfort, it can lead to a trap.  We become scared of change and our rate of growth – mentally, socially, intellectually, professionally, physically – is stifled.  We become stagnant creatures floating through space.

Even if we have chosen this path early in our adulthood, be it consciously or subconsciously, it is never too late to tweak our mindset and rewire how we operate.

Stretching Time

In three months I’ll have spent 29 years roaming this planet.  I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and be 75 years old, baffled as to how I got there.  I’m fortunate enough to say that it doesn’t feel like three decades have passed.  I want the rest of my life to feel this same way.

I’ve learned a lot in the three years since my travels abroad.  I’ve experienced heartbreak, success, failure, happiness, sadness, loss, gain, excitement, pain, and joy.  Though I’ve battled moments of despair and thought about simply giving up, I’m so thankful I didn’t.  As I sit here and write the conclusion to this piece a sense of calm, happiness, and appreciation falls over me once more.  I realize one important fact that I have been overlooking for far too long:

I have lived.

I’ve filled my internal photo album with a massive collection of unforgettable memories.  I’ve been on exciting adventures around the world.  I’ve built relationships with the most amazing people.  I have jumped between routine and uncertainty and loved every second of it.  While in the moment I may have absolutely hated some of these experiences, they have nonetheless sculpted who I am today.

So here is my one piece of advice:

Live more.

Experience as much as possible.  Even in a lifestyle filled with routine there are very small, very simple changes that can be made to stretch our notion of time.

Drive a different route to work.
Use a different means of transportation (bus, bike, run, rollerblades).
Eat something different for lunch.
Wear different clothes.
Try a new restaurant for dinner.
Meet new people (on the bus, in the lobby, at parties).
Do something, anything that you normally wouldn’t do… especially if it’s something you’ve been putting off or something that scares the shit out of you.

There is a caveat.  Don’t mistake quantity for quality.  You’re more than welcome to go out and do as much as you can as fast as you can, but there’s a good chance you’ll burnout.

Living more is about appreciation, taking risks, altering your perspective, and seizing opportunity.  That’s how you stretch time.

Just because I have lived doesn’t mean I want to stop living.  Whether you embrace comfort or adventure, the future is uncertain for all of us.

Life has no guarantees.

I’ll be creating fantastic memories every single day until the end… I hope you’ll join me.

I want to live to 150.


Enjoy The Journey

Steve O'Neill


1from Moonwalking with Einstein (paperback), pp 76-77
Photo credit (creative commons): Michael Dales

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  1. Rod says

    Awesome post… I’ve experienced that dead time feeling after returning back to North America after a long time backpacking abroad. Very disconcerting and demoralizing. You offer a great roadmap for navigating out of that experience.

    I often wonder about what makes time seem to speed up as you get older as well. I think the lack of new experiences has a lot to do with that … makes sense after reading your post. Keep up the great writing.

    • says

      Thank you so much for the comment Rod. Crazy how coming “home” can feel so foreign, right?
      Now that we have an idea of what makes time speed up, the hardest part is actually doing something about it; creating new memories and new experiences as often as possible.
      Let me know if you come up with any great ideas and I’ll do the same.

      Thanks again Rod!


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