Memories As A Unit Of Time

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.

Well, that’s a splash of cold water.

Tim Urban uses stick figures to shows you several “tail ends“.  The visual is a sticky reminder: time is precious. And like land in NYC, you aren’t getting any more of it. So as real estate folk like to say, let’s see if we can build “up” and improve the time we have.

To do that, we must first understand our dual selves and how time passes.

The “experiencing” self vs the “remembering” self

Daniel Kahneman’s research exposed a duality in our perception of the world. How you experience the present versus how you later remember it.

Consider a study in which people recount their experience of a colonoscopy procedure. It turns out that people’s memory of the procedure is uncorrelated with its duration. The best predictors of how they would later report the experience:

  • The maximum pain they experienced
    • This is now known as the “peak-end rule” in which we judge an experience by its most intense point. In other words, don’t rip a band-aid off quickly.
  • How they felt towards the end of the procedure
This work is a glimpse into how our minds automatically compress experiences for storage.

For more, check out Kahneman’s awesome TED Talk “The Riddle of Experience vs Memory”.

Then consider the question, “would you pay to go on a vacation if there would be no mementos or memories of it?”

Time Dilation

Parents have heard the line, “the days are long but the years are short”. We all know a trip to the dentist or drinks with a friend can both be measured in hours, but a deep cleaning with that metal hook has a funny way of stretching time. An especially perverse distortion is how time seems to pass faster as we get older. Recently, my 6 yr old gets stressed when the schedule is full and “he won’t have enough time to play”. I can’t help but feel some loss of innocence when he acknowledges the scarceness of time. That genie doesn’t go back into a bottle.

Young children actually act like there’s infinite time. Wait for them to put their shoes on at the front door if you don’t believe me. The reason for this is novelty. Everything is new to them. Both engrossing and distracting. Just imagine what the world becomes when you start to read. Suddenly everything from a street sign to a scoreboard is a curious game or challenge often leading to the incessant “why’s”. Adults seem deprived of that level of wonder.

As you get older, you are on autopilot. Here’s a first-world example. Think of how airports curate museum-like exhibits just to keep you amused (SFO has displayed electric guitars and vintage boardgames to my delight). Does a building which triages the miracle of humans crossing skies in reclining chairs with satellite TV need any more bells and whistles? Yesterday’s breakthrough is today’s background noise.

An incurious adult will cruise through life and wonder where the time went.


We have a “remembering self” which doesn’t faithfully record every moment as if it were a GoPro. Memories, not minutes, are our mind’s basic unit of time. Throw in the fact that clock time is a house of mirrors and we are left with a prescription:

You don’t want to slow all time down. DMV visits are long enough. You just want a timeline with more spikiness. More highlights sewn together is not just life but actual living. Maximizing interesting experiences per year. Everyone’s definition of interesting will differ but a fuller personal reel is the way you actually want to slow down time.

Tips to do this:

  • Kill auto-pilot. Small interventions will do the trick. Take a hike or a trip to the library. Mix it up. The more you experience the more frames your memory snaps.
  • Be more like a child. Stimulated. Why travel? When you are in a new city or country the foreign flavors, customs, people, and scenery turn you into a kid again.
  • Experiences > stuff. Fancy stuff becomes background noise quickly.
  • Be mindful that the “remembering self” directs our decisions (“that root canal really sucked, I’ll floss 2x a day now”). That means the way we encode our experiences influences our later actions. By cultivating memorable inputs, you directly guide your future. Your past behavior trains your future behavior. To quote James Watson (of “double helix” fame): “Avoid boring people”. Be careful, his quote intentionally has a double meaning.
I drew a lot of inspiration from this interview titled Wish You Had More Time? What You Really Want is More Memories. A lot of what we take for granted about being pressed for time is debunked. It’s full of surprises and good tips.

My favorite highlights:

  • How people think they spend their time vs how they actually spend it
  • Are parents spending more or less time with kids now compared to 60 years ago?
  • Are you really sleep deprived?
  • Why you probably have more leisure time than you think
  • What’s the difference in people who don’t feel starved for time?
  • How can thinking about yourself as three different people allow for more and better memories?

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