Relativity of Time
Between the ages of ten and twenty years old, I doubled the length of my existence. My repository of memories and experiences multiplied, and my potential reference points expanded. Five minutes now appear more fleeting than they did ten years ago. As I increased the amount of time I lived through, I experienced an effect on my perception of the length of time.
Each additional day that we live, the moments that constitute our days become relatively more transient.
This is not merely a subjective feeling; it can be quantified. At the age of ten, I had lived for around 3,652 total days, meaning that one day constituted roughly .027% of my life. At the age of twenty, I had lived for around 7,305 total days, meaning that one day constituted roughly .013% of my life. Thus, the relative value of a day in my life had decreased doubly between the ages of ten and twenty.
It’s important to note that the relative values apply to each day of our lives. Not only is the current day valued at .013% of my life, but each preceding day (at any point in my life) is also equivalently valued at .013% of my life. Hence, the relativity of time should be approached with a present-oriented mindset. As each day passes, the value of each day diminishes; however, only the present day exists within our circle of influence. We cannot change the events of an earlier day, and thus the consideration of the diminished value of past days is irrelevant.
It is only useful to focus on the relative value of a day in terms of the present day, as that is the only day for which we have influence over.
Should we care?
This concept of relativity is certainly not innovative; it’s something we’ve all experienced in our everyday lives. Even if we haven’t observed or contemplated the idea of relative values, our lives and the choices we make illustrate the concept. Life is full of trade-offs. In effect, one choice is two choices. The choice to spend an hour watching TV inherently includes the decision to not read a book for that hour. What we choose to spend our time on reflects our perception of that task’s relative value.
Relative values can be helpful in understanding ourselves and how to improve our lives.
If we enjoy the leisure activities of TV and reading, but we enjoy reading relatively more, then we should spend more time reading if our objective is to maximize pleasure.
So why take the time to examine the relativity of our time?
The idea of relative time is not far from the concept of relative values discussed above; it can help us improve our lives by supplementing our understanding of ourselves. As we live longer, the relative value of a minute of our time (in the sense of its actual length, not its worth to us) decreases. Knowing this, we can begin to use it as a framework for motivation and/or perseverance.
Prior to examining potential applications of the relativity of time, it’s worth noting a few trends that seem to occur throughout our lives.
- People improve: we learn to do more with less in some capacity
- Our number of contacts increase: as we meet more people, we have more decisions to make about who to spend our time with
- Our interests increase: as we are exposed to more activities of interest, we have more decisions about which ones to indulge
These trends are coupled with our concept of time relativity:
- Time relativity: The longer we live, the shorter each passing minute appears to be
We now have to be more deliberate in our choices and how they occupy our time. There are more options to choose from, but the time we have to engage these options is relatively lesser in value.
The application of time relativity to our decisions can be helpful for determining the most worthwhile use of our time.
Knowing that the relative value of each day is decreasing for each additional day that I live, I can examine my activities to diagnose how I can spend my time more effectively.
Does the amount of time that I have in a day change? No, I still have 24 hours in a day
But has my perception of that time change? Yes, those 24 hours seem to be shorter in length
Thinking about my time through this lens can help me be more effective and focus on the activities or relationships that matter. As we previously discussed, everything is a trade-off and locking into this mindset is a way to engage in a thought experiment that amplifies the effects of trade-offs. This amplification mechanism works to separate the vital few from the trivial many.
By conducting an analysis on our use of time while understanding that each day is relatively less valuable, we can learn what we should focus on, and more importantly, what we should omit.
This analysis doesn’t have to be formal or dry. It takes place through the simple exercise of asking ourselves questions that revolve around our core values. For instance, a question I might ask myself is: am I spending my time on projects/tasks which lead toward engagement and connection? My answer allows me to determine the true value of an examined activity, and it ultimately leads me to adjust my days to focus more or less on an activity.
The contemplation of time relativity works as a catalyst for accessing the mindset that allows for a constructive magnification of trade-off effects, which allows us to focus on more worthwhile endeavors.
A Mental Model
I’ve found mental models to be useful for quick bursts of motivation, among other things. Mental models are essentially oversimplifications of reality; a basic model of a real world scenario. Our concept of time relativity can be used similarly as a basic mental framework for approaching obstacles.
We all have moments in which we lose sight of ourselves and slip into a framework of negativity or uneasiness. In a similar fashion to our earlier decision analysis, we can also apply time relativity as a catalyst for entering the mindset that allows us to tolerate short-term pain or discomfort.
While the moment may feel agonizing or uncomfortable or laborious, our pain is just as ephemeral as our pleasure. It can be difficult to recall the ephemeral qualities of pain (both emotional and physical) when we experience it, but a targeted effort to do so may increase our tolerance of the discomfort.
The idea with this mental model is to lock into the framework of relatively valued time so as to use it to our advantage. Generally speaking, we experience more hardship the longer we live. The more experience we accumulate overcoming discomfort, the more adept at tolerating additional discomfort we become.
“A wise man will be the master of his mind. A fool will be its slave.”
If we remember that we were able to endure a day of discomfort when the relative value of our day was .027% of our life, then we should be able to endure a day of discomfort when the relative value of our day has decreased to .013% of our life.
Obviously, the pain we experience may be different, or more intense, but a quick recall of our ability to endure discomfort when our days were relatively more valuable can be a forceful source of motivation. It’s a quick mental trick that can propel us forward in times of uncertainty and discomfort.
- It’s all about how you apply a concept; if you can figure out how to apply a concept to your life in a way that motivates you towards your end goals, then the concept becomes far more useful to your life
- Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism is a great exploration into decision analysis and distinguishing the trivial many from the vital few