We currently find ourselves in northern New Mexico, about two months into our Gap Year Adventure. Starting from Seattle the first week of February, we’ve now driven over 6,000 miles starting down the west coast, heading east to the heart of Texas, and now making our way back west to see some national parks we skipped over.
Despite being less than 2 months into the road trip portion of the trip, it feels like we’ve been traveling WAY longer! As we’ve been experiencing completely new things on a semi-daily basis, our perception of time seems to have slowed down considerably.
I’ll expand on this small phenomenon from our perspective below and tie it in with a recent book I read about memory below.
What Day of the Week Is It?
Ever since leaving our full time jobs that forced a bit of routine into our weekly schedule, it’s been very difficult to keep track of the day of the week. Of course, it’s simple to find out by glancing at a watch or phone, but we no longer wake up with a sense of what day it is and how that relates to our schedule.
Luckily, we don’t really need to know what day it is in most cases! In fact, the primary benefit of paying attention to days of the week is being able to avoid unnecessary crowds. Anytime we go to an attraction, park, or museum of some kind, it is almost always a better experience Monday morning through Friday afternoon, specifically when most people are working.
Several early retirees mention this as a significant benefit of getting out of the 9-5 grind. Living life in the opposite hours of everyone else means less traffic, less crowds, less waiting, and more enjoyment. We couldn’t agree more.
Slowing Down Time
We first noticed this phenomenon when highlighting some of the favorite stops on our trip so far with friends in Texas. For example, after being asked how long ago we were at Carlsbad Caverns, my mind’s gut response was around a month. After taking a moment to think about it, we’d actually been there just 8 days prior!
Somehow, my mind had taken an event from just over a week ago and mentally moved it much further in the past. My best explanation for this is that my brain’s rough estimation of how many days/weeks/months have passed is loosely based on how many new experiences we have. The experiences in those 8 days managed to push the caverns memory a little further into the perceived past.
Over the past couple decades of my life, there was always a significant structure to every year as a whole. Many years of schooling with summer activities turned into college with summer jobs, eventually leading to full time work. There was never a long period of time where we got away from routine and this makes it easy for memories to get jumbled together and condensed.
For example, thinking back to my job in Seattle that I held for 4.5 years elicits various memories, but there are only a handful of specific days that stand out from the rest. The rest kind of blur together into a rough outline of the routine that I followed in a typical day.
On the other hand, the couple of months we’ve spent on the road so far have led to dozens of extremely unique memories that we can look back on in isolation. There’s no blurring the Redwood forests of northern California with the White Sand Dunes of New Mexico. I don’t think I’ll ever mix up the Alien Museum of Rowsell with the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose in my memories.
In a typical year of the past, let’s say we experienced something significantly new once per month (and that might be generous). Therefore, a dozen new experiences would be tied to about a year’s worth time in our minds.
Now that we’re having significant new experiences multiple times a week, we’ve managed to “slow down” time in our heads. In other words, we’ve potentially filled our heads with over a year’s worth of memories in the two short months we’ve been on the road!
I use the word “potentially”, because everything I’m discussing has only been observed over a short time frame so far. Anyone would expect recent memories to be more vivid and distinct from older memories, so only time will tell if this “slow down” effect will continue throughout the rest of the year and even beyond once we settle down in one place for a while.
Can You Extend Your Perception of Life?
One reason I’ve been paying a little bit closer to memory lately is a book I read: Moonwalking with Einstein.
The book follows a journalist’s journey learning about savants and various mental athletes, then eventually training and competing in the US Memory Championships himself. One of the characters in the book remarks that he is “…working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer.” He continues that he is specifically trying to “…avoid that feeling you have when you get to the end of the year and feel like, where the hell did that go?”
One particular passage stood out to me:
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.
Assuming that lengthening our perception of time is a good thing, then taking this Gap Year may be one of the best decisions we could have made.
Early Retirement As the Double-Edged Sword
By extension, early retirement can either be an amazing opportunity to maximize new experiences in life, or a dangerous tool that leads to life shrinking right before your eyes.
By using the newfound freedom of time towards travel, creative pursuits, and trying new things, one has the ability to extend their perception of life. I believe this is what many perceive to be a “more fulfilling” life, but that is extremely subjective.
Looking at the opposite, if you settle into what many view as “traditional retirement” activities of sitting on various beaches, golfing, and sitting around watching tv all day, then years might start to fly by without you noticing.
It’s no surprise that common early retirement advice is to retire TO something rather than just FROM something. If a job is the only thing creating new experiences in life, then you might want to think twice before pulling the plug without a plan in place to start creating those new experiences yourself.
Finding a Balance
Taken to the extreme, you might think the best option would be to pack as many new experiences into every possible moment of every day. Personally, that just sounds exhausting.
I also wonder if every day was packed to the brim with unique experiences, that those days would begin to blend together in our minds as “those days with lots of unique experiences” and holding onto all of the specific moments would become rather difficult.
I’m not an expert on the subject, but I can only assume the trick is to find the right balance (like most things in life). A workout routine that is consistent week over week and blends into itself certainly doesn’t seem like a bad thing because of the numerous health and other benefits that come from it.
The trick seems to be to prevent your entire life from becoming routine. It’s okay to build and maintain healthy and productive habits to help you achieve larger goals, but it’s also important to get outside your comfort zone every once in a while.
Visiting new places is our current form of creating new experiences, but you shouldn’t even have to leave your hometown to mix things up a bit in your own life. Have you ever checked out the “Top Things To Do” on TripAdvisor (or similar) for your own hometown? I’d bet there’s at least something on that list you haven’t tried yet!
I’ll close with one of the favorite quotes I picked up from running numerous Tough Mudder events (that I think can be attributed to emcee Sean Corvelle):
When was the last time you did something for the first time?
Don’t be afraid to share your response below in the comments!