Time savers and time wasters

According to a study by German company Brainstream, women spend 76 days of their life looking for things in their handbags. The company’s automatic handbag light aims to remove the need for rummaging by helping women to find everything they need right away.

Of course, this raises the question of what they could do with all the time this frees up – some 1,824 hours or 109,440 minutes. Or, to put it a different way: Is time actually worth saving and can we make meaningful use of it, or are we fundamentally inclined to fitter it away? To use a slightly old-fashioned turn of phrase, are we bound by our nature to dally away the day? We put these questions to Dr. Joachim Hass, Professor of Methodology at SRH University in Heidelberg.
His research focuses on the perception of time.

OPEN: Dr. Hass, do we actually perceive the time we save as a win, something we can put to good use? Is there actually any such thing as saving time or is that just an illusion?
JOACHIM HASS: I can answer this question from my own personal experience. In my view, we save time above all when we don’t notice it ticking away because we’re occupied with an enjoyable or fulfilling activity. Any time we can keep free for that sort of activity – whether in the context of work or in our free time – is time saved. Routines can be useful if they help us to complete more tedious tasks (when we are more conscious of time) more quickly.

So, can you waste time?
Wasted time, in my view, is time that is not used for either meaningful activities or enjoyable indolence. In the worst case, we stumble back and forth between the two without doing either properly.

But aren’t we hamstrung to an extent by social circumstances?
Time offers a framework that is, in principle, identical for every one of us: we all have exactly 24 hours a day. However, not everyone has the same degree of autonomy to determine how they use this time.

Does our perception of time have something to do with metabolic changes as we grow older?
It has less to do with metabolism and more to do with the volume of memories we amass over the course of our lives. We tend to perceive new and interesting things as lasting longer. When we’re younger, lots of things are new and interesting, so time seems to pass more slowly than when we’re older, when many things have become familiar and routine.

Does the happiness hormone dopamine influence our perception of time?
Do positive experiences pass more quickly and seem to take up less time than negative ones, or is it the other way round?
The notion that dopamine influences our perception of time is now beyond dispute. A higher dopamine level (or, more accurately, increased activation of the dopamine D2 receptor) causes subjective time to pass more quickly. The opposite applies for a lower dopamine level (or inactivation of the D2 receptor). Exactly how this influences things is still not clear. Nor is how the effect of dopamine relates to our assessment of an event as positive or negative. Such effects do exist but they are rather complex and contradictory. I’m currently conducting experiments into this phenomenon.

Is it possible to control one’s own perception of time, perhaps by concentrating on it?
Not that I’m aware of, no. Instead, our perception of time appears to adapt flexibly to current requirements.

Thank you for speaking with us.

Dr. Joachim Hass is Professor of Applied Psychology at the University of Heidelberg.