Saturday, June 23, 2012

slowing down time and getting better at what we do

So we’ve all heard that time is relative. Einstein proved that if you ride through the universe on a star and eventually pass the speed of light, a) time will go backwards, b) time will cease to exist, c) you will crash and burn. One of those.

What we know, without being scientists, is that time passes differently depending upon what we are doing (Time passes more quickly when you’re having a good time.) and upon our age (The older we get, the more slowly time passes.) The good news is that the first of these italics is not true: the experience itself may seem to pass quickly, but an accumulation of such experiences will slow time. The bad news is the second is true: as we age, our brains experience the passage of time as speeding up. Or so it seems. But let’s see if we can reverse this.

Why does time’s passage change with age? What scientists have found is that we slow time down when we are having new and exciting and engaging experiences. (I would also suggest that we slow time when we have many such experiences to anticipate.) Hence children—whose lives abound in these—experience the slow grind of time towards holidays and birthdays. On the other hand, us older folk—who tend to have settled into routines of fewer and more familiar activities (with not as much to look forward to)--experience the unbearable swiftness of time’s passage . . . especially unbearable because we know the hourglass to be more than half empty.

So it isn’t exactly age that speeds up time: it’s how we behave as we age. The good news, then, is that we can slow the progress of time. Whether in knitting or in life, all we need do is look for new and exciting and engaging experiences!

And how does this relate to getting better at what we do?

As we approach competence in some skill or activity, we go through the following three phases:
  1. cognitive (in which we learn how to do the thing)
  2. associative (in which we gain proficiency)
  3. autonomous (in which we go into auto pilot).

Okay, so the first two make sense. (And related to the subject of time, you might see time moving more slowly through the first and then speeding up through the second.) But what of the third? What is this, why do we do it, and what does it mean for our experience of time?

Once we get really good at something, we go into what’s called the OK Plateau. Once our brains have decided we’re good enough at this, it doesn't try to get better, but it does allow us to do the activity unconsciously so that we can direct the brain’s important energy towards doing other things at the same time.

All this means that, if we stay at that OK level of proficiency,
  • we’re never going to get better at this activity,
  • unless we do something new and exciting and engaging at the same time, time spent in this proficient activity will pass more quickly.

How to override the speed-up of time? We could make time pass more slowly by doing something else (reading a great book) while knitting. But that’s not going to make us better knitters.

How to become better knitters? What we most need do is challenge ourselves by going back up to step 1—the cognitive stage— to challenge basic assumptions, step outside established comfort, ramp up expectations. The experts say that To improve, we must watch ourselves fail and learn from our mistakes. This means forcing ourselves back to the learning-how-to-do-something phase, and only by doing this can we get better at our activity.

But consider this: while challenging ourselves, we’d be involved in something new, exciting, and engaging, which would slow down our experience of time passing! And we'd be eagerly anticipating the results of this new thing! The result would be a classic two-fer (also known as a win-win)! Life is precious: why not get better at it and slow down time while doing so?

In case this seems like a recurring theme for me, it is: see Be wrong as fast as you can and Who do we follow patterns? and My most common knitting mistake (where I bemoaned the knitting of simple things from which I did not learn and that I do not wear). Clearly, I’ve talked about this before and will likely do so again.

(The research stuff in this post came from Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.)


  1. I totally agree, Sally. I always have some auto-pilot project on the go for those times when I don't want to concentrate too hard. But I am also always on the lookout for something new and challenging. My next project with this in mind is going to involve stranding (I have done this a few times so I hope to become more proficient) and steeking (completely new to me). Must keep those brain cells active!

  2. Good on you to have figured this out.

    In classes I tell people to always have at least 2 or more projects on the go--as you have figured out--one no-brainer and one that challenges.

    One woman asked me if I could write a note to this effect for her to show her husband!

    Thanks for writing!