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Why Time Has Slowed

Time seems to have slowed down.

March felt like it lasted longer than some years. February feels like a different lifetime.

It’s not just you. Everyone I talk to feels the same.

There’s a well-known idea that time feels like it speeds up as you age. Summer break feels like an eternity when you’re nine years old but your 60s can skip by in a flash.

The leading theory for why this happens is that the perception of time relies on the number of memories formed in a period, and memories are encoded from new and surprising experiences. The monotony of commuting to work on the same road for 20 years passes without leaving a mark. But every day is a memorable surprise to a child experiencing her first summer camp, or learning how big the universe is for the first time.

Time slowed in March because for the first time since childhood many of us are being bombarded with new and surprising experiences.

We learned that shaking hands can be deadly.

That the economy can stop overnight.

How much people can come together, and how isolating lockdown can feel.

Derek Sivers once wrote:

People only really learn when they’re surprised. If they’re not surprised, then what you told them just fits in with what they already know. No minds were changed. No new perspective. Just more information.

Daniel Kahneman elaborates:

A capacity for surprise is an essential aspect of our mental life, and surprise itself is the most sensitive indication of how we understand our world and what we expect from it.

Two things seem likely given how surprising the last month has been.

Surprise will sear the events of the last month (and coming months/years) into our heads permanently.

The slower time feels the more likely we are to be left with permanent scars.

I’ve heard people say the economic damage this leaves depends on how long the shutdown lasts. The idea is that if, in theory, everything reopens tomorrow we’d go back to business as usual; only if this drags on for another six or 12 months will we’ll be forever altered.

But I think the amount of surprise we’ve all felt in the last month means this is already a life-defining event. The consequences will be different, but I believe more than ever that Covid-19 will end up similar to the Great Depression, World War II, and September 11th in its ability to reshape the world, driven by a generation that will go on to view everything else in life through the lens of their experience. Too many critical assumptions of the future have already been upended for it to be any different.

Surprise will increase demand for forecasts at the moment they may be the least reliable.

Kahneman says “the correct lesson to learn from surprises is that the world is surprising.” But the natural reaction to surprises is to cling to any remaining impressions of certainty.

I have never seen so much interest in GDP forecasts than in the last month. I’ve never had so much interest in them myself. The irony is that the accuracy of those forecasts is pitiful in the best of times; today it’s a guess with an ego. Estimates of Q2 GDP range from -8% to -50%. A gap like that has never existed, because the future has never been so uncertain. But the desire to know what will happen next has never felt so urgent.

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