On “Chunking” and the Passage of Time

Recently I came across an edition of the comic strip Too Much Coffee Man that offered a scientific explanation for the feeling that time seems to pass more quickly as one gets older. This is a syndrome with which I am acquainted, in particular, as it applies to the ever-accelerating pace with which the “holidays” seem to arrive. 

In past issues, I’ve pointed out that annually is simply too often to celebrate, going so far as to recommend a five year cycle as a possible remedy to Yuletide burnout. This is, of course, a political impossibility as the gift-giving aspect has become the linchpin of the US economy, if not all of Western Civilization. 

In the meantime, my perception of time passing accelerates. First, it was the “wasn’t it just Christmas last month?” feeling. That was soon followed by the frantic rush to Get Things Done prior to the big day. Lately, the problem has expanded to include the hurried passage of the day itself, followed by the headlong racing into the next one. My carousel of time is a perpetual blur of rapidly approaching trees that must be trimmed, lights that must be strung and halls that must be decked. 

How did it come to this? When I was a kid, Christmas took FOREVER to come. In fact, the closer we got to it the more time slowed down. Trying to remain on good behavior for what seemed like eternity was torture for a materialist with a flawed character. Somewhere along the way, though, time evened out. And then it began to speed up

Now, it seems, someone has figured out why. 

The trouble with time is ultimately a simple one. We grow accustomed to it. That’s pretty much it. The more familiar we are with the passage of events, the quicker they go by. The technical definition of this process is referred to as “chunking.” It stems from the tendency for humans to take discrete tasks and, over time, combine them into a larger task bundle, or chunk. We experience the chunked activity in the same amount of perceived elapsed time as we previously did each individual task.

For example, when you first learn to drive with a “stick” you start with learning to disengage the clutch, then ease off the gas, then move the gear shift, then re-engage the clutch and finally, re-accelerate. After a few minutes of neck-snapping, gear-grinding, engine-racing flailing about, the driver-to-be combines all five maneuvers into one fluid motion – and a chunk is born! 

The same compression of tasks also applies to life events. The first time you run a mile, it seems like a long way and you are near exhaustion at the end. After you’ve run ten or twenty, in a row, a mile becomes no big deal. Driving to work becomes unconcious. Eventually, so does working. As the activities that make up our lives become routine, the days go by like minutes. And the older we get, the more we’ve been there and done that, the faster it goes. 

So, what can one do, assuming one is not content to zoom towards oblivion at the speed of light? Well, in all likelihood, probably not much. Oh sure, you can stop and smell the roses, and, as long as you didn’t do that yesterday, and the day before that, and last week and all last year – that will help, at least for one time. But that one time is where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. The aroma of those roses is going to pass through your consciousness in a nanosecond by the tenth or eleventh smell. No, aroma therapy, even if performed outdoors, is ultimately not a winning strategy against Father Time. 

Personally, I think your best shot is to mix it up. Fight routine. Usually get fries with that? Try the baked – maybe with salsa! Long-time skier? Try a snowboard. Think of all the things to do you’ve never done – and then set out to do them. 

But just once or twice… you don’t want to get used to it.

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