How FIRE Changes Your Perception of Time

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Back in 2014, the year before I quit my job to travel the world, there was only one picture on my phone I’d taken that whole year, and this was it:

This was a bacon latte I had at a board game café in Toronto, on a rare weekend where I wasn’t working overtime or writing my first novel, finally spending time with friends. It wasn’t the best latte I’d ever had, but as far as interesting things happening in my life, this strange, confusing concoction (meat and coffee, together at last!) was it.

Life was a blur back then, filled with e-mails, meetings, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and waking up at 3 AM in the morning, stressing about my job getting outsourced.

Little did I know, in just a year’s time, my camera would be filled with so many memories I’d run out of room on my smart phone to capture them all.  

We seemed to experience time completely differently once Wanderer and I retired. Life was no longer a blur. Instead, every day was captured in my mind in perfect clarity. Strangely, while the hours in each individual day flew by because we were having a blast, I still felt like I was living multiple lifetimes.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on how to explain this phenomenon until recently. After watching Season 3 Episode 12 of the “Explained” series on Netflix about “Time”, I finally get it.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, let me give you a brief overview.  The episode seeks to explain why when you’re a kid, it feels like a year lasts forever. When you’re teen, a summer seems like a life time, and when you’re in your 20s, time stretches on and on. But as you get into your 30s, 40s, and beyond, time goes faster and faster. As journalist Andy Rooney puts it “life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.”

As it turns out, this phenomenon is mostly emotional, not biological. And they proved this with an experiment:

Back in 1972, a 23-year-old French scientist named Michel Siffre climbed into a cave in Texas to live in complete isolation for 2 whole months. Why did he voluntarily choose to subject himself to solitary confinement, a technique used to torture prisoners? I have no idea. Scientists are weird.

Anyways, Siffre wanted to see if, without external stimuli like sunlight, clocks, phones, or TVs, will his body still be able to tell time?

Via a two-way radio, he called his colleagues up at the surface every time he fell asleep and woke up. They discovered that sometimes he would be awake for 23 hours straight. Sometimes only 6. But on average, his sleep cycle continued to revolve around a 24-hour clock. Even without outside cues, his body kept track internally and knew when to fall sleep and when to wake up. Turns out there’s an evolutionary reason for this. Our cells need to divide and repair themselves when the sun is down to avoid damage from UV light, so every cell has a biological clock that keeps track of each 24-hour day. This system, developed over millions of years, is called our Circadian Rhythm (“circa” meaning “approximate” and “dian” meaning “day”).

But, what’s even more interesting is that even though Michel’s body knew when to sleep and wake up, his sense of time in terms of days of the month became distorted. Since every day was the same and few memories were stored during this time, his brain thought only 1 month had passed when, in reality, he had been in the cave for 2 whole months.

When you’re bored, sad, depressed, or stressed, time FEELS slower. We all experienced this effect during the pandemic. One of the researchers in the episode explained that being home with her 2 kids made the pandemic drag and she wanted to find out whether this was the case for other people. And of the test subjects they interviewed, 40% said time seemed to slow down during the pandemic, 40% said it sped up, and 20% said it didn’t change from before the pandemic. This led her to conclude that unlike our Circadian Rhythm that steadily keeps track of our sleep and waking hours, our overall sense of time over weeks, months, and years is distorted by our EMOTIONS.

So in other words, “we have the power to speed it up or slow it down depending on how we choose to spend it.” –Creators of “Explained“.

The more memories we accumulate, the longer our lives seem to last. Which explains why childhood feels like it lasted the longest. Because children notice everything and are constantly learning new skills, socializing and having fun, their brains are constantly generating new memories and as a result, that time feels stretched out. As we get older, busier, and settle into routines, we forget to live in the moment. We rush through life, stop making new memories, and as a result we feel it pass us by more quickly.

It also explains why, for many people, each day seemed to drag on during the pandemic, but the year flew by. When we’re happy socializing, time passes faster because we aren’t counting down the minutes. But it also creates landmarks in our memories, making us notice our lives more and feel more satisfied. Lockdowns took all of that away, leaving us with days that just blend into each other, without celebrations to remember them by.

Researchers also discovered that it isn’t about how many people you spend time with. It’s about social satisfaction. Even if you have few friends but better social interactions with them, you will feel socially satisfied. “The more socially satisfied you are, the more likely you will experience time passing quickly during lockdown.” —Creators of “Explained“. And even though your days pass faster, your life seems longer because there are more memories to capture in your mind.

Thus, the best way to live a long life is through altering our perceptions of time. To stretch out the years with social satisfaction, lifelong learning, and memories that make us feel like we’ve lived multiple lifetimes.

This is why buying freedom is the best money I’ve ever spent. Ever since I bought back my time by becoming financially independent, the days feel shorter but life in general feels longer. When I was stressed and working, days dragged on (I was constantly checking my watch to see when I could go home) but the years whizzed by without my noticing.

Since retiring, I’ve found it much easier to stay present and to find like-minded people who give me social satisfaction. That’s why my experience of time has now flipped. The days are short but the years are long. I’ve essentially reverted to childhood (except with more money and less beatings). It’s the opposite of my previous life of workdays being long and years being short.  

What do you think? Did your perception of time change during the pandemic? Do you think becoming FI changes how we view life?


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70 thoughts on “How FIRE Changes Your Perception of Time”

  1. On the edge of retirement, I’ve taken off 3 days per week to use up my vacation time and to work on an interesting project for myself. I noticed my ‘vacation’ work days pass quickly without looking at my watch, while by actual ‘real work’ days are so slow! Thanks for sharing what the day to day of retirement is like.

  2. Interesting article Kristy! I will have to check out the episode of Explained. I have felt that both the days and years since the start of the pandemic have flown by. I think it’s because nothing remarkable has happened for the most part. Looking forward to more memorable days again (soon hopefully!)

    1. Oh for sure, Brycia. The pandemic has warped everyone’s sense of time. At least we can socialize in person again. Back to living a memorable life!

  3. > Turns out there’s an evolutionary reason for this….This system, developed over millions of years…

    Or, we were created this way from day 1.

    🙂

  4. “Life was a blur back then, filled with e-mails, meetings, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and waking up at 3 AM in the morning, stressing about my job getting outsourced”

    That’s a toxic life and career
    I think the truth is that you were in the wrong career and weren’t living a healthy life .
    You really didn’t retire , you love your life now and your new career.
    No such thing as FIRE.

    1. A toxic previous life and career has its own advantages…like pursuing freedom! No wonder they are vacationing for life ever since they turned 30.

    2. I have to agree. Your work life sounds very extreme and toxic. I don’t think everyone experiences this – I have a pretty “demanding” job however it’s also fairly cruisy. There are times when I sometimes can’t sleep as I’m stressed with deadlines but that’s my fault and it’s not the norm – they allocate more then enough time and money for the task (I tend to procrastinate till the last minute) but it’s a good work environment. I have taken 3 months off work atm and am actually quite board and looking forward to returning to the routine.
      Do you feel perhaps Toronto (perhaps like New York or London) is quite a fast past competitive work environment and you may have enjoyed working in a slower past environment or on a part time basis?

  5. Interesting article and I will definitely check out the NETFLIX show. Partially retired in Cabo San Lucas, and the weeks I am here go slower…but days speed by. When in Californnia, seems to be the opposite. Interesting topic.

    1. Had to look up where Cabo San Lucas was. Nice! Glad you are enjoying your time in Mexico. Eat lots of ceviche and tacos for me please!

  6. Was reading your article, and:
    “Life was a blur back then, filled with e-mails, meetings, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and waking up at 3 AM in the morning, stressing about my job getting outsourced.”

    Just yesterday on a walk, musing with my spouse. We have a couple of friends, very happy In their careers and seeming no thought of financial prudence or retirement.
    I was thinking I was jealous of them, in that ”they now have work from home” but what really got to me is their careers are good , decent paying but do not eat up all their mental energy, work for them easily gets turned off.

    I wondered was it my personality that I found my career much like you describe; or was it the industry we were in, they are in Oil & Gas and I was in IT.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that the IT work culture of “always agile” dealing with revolutionary change every few years is the cause of chronic “ “Life was a blur back then, filled with e-mails, meetings, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and waking up at 3 AM in the morning, stressing about my job getting outsourced.”

    I know another couple in the Oil and Gas sector and it seems the same for them, a balanced between work and life, good pay, some satisfaction, however everyone I know in IT seemed to be on career treadmill to lifestyle hell.

    Just pondering.

    1. Hi.
      Interesting question, and I’m not sure I know the answer.
      I’m a software developer, been at it for 20 years now.
      There are a few things about the field that make me think it’s not a good choice for a lot of people. The constant change might be exciting for some, but it can be exhausting – you feel you never know enough, and if you are finally mastering something, there is something else newer replacing it.
      It’s a bit anti social – I’m a mix of intro and extrovert and I find I don’t have a ton in common with most people I work with deep down, amd many of them just don;t make great conversationalists.
      Just working in front of a computer all day I find quite annoying – I feel so much happier outdoors.
      For the last 3 years, I’ve been working part time – as little as a day a week, but usually about 3. This has really changed how I feel about my work – I still don’t love it, but it’s not consuming all my time. And when I am doing it, I do actually get some benefits like the intellectual challenge, but I’m also happy to drop it for other more fun things like walking dogs and hiking.
      I think a lot of people chasing FIRE might be better to look for a different job (e.g. a not for profit, or just a different domain instead of a big multi national) or else change career – I mean, that’s what a lot of people reaching FIRE end up doing anyway!

      by the way, interestingly I also have friends in the Oil and Gas industry that are paid really well, and still using the same skills learned many years ago, it does seem like a much easier career!

      1. In my town the Oil & Gas workers have been getting every second Friday off for decades, in addition they ushered in the “Casual Friday” norm.

        With Oil & Gas
        – Now a mature North American culture industry, perhaps a general consensus has formed between employer and employee . You got educated and committed to this specific industry and therefore you received a “good” career.
        – Most of the O&G executives rose through the ranks of that Industry.
        – The Industry is “small” so everyone knows what every other company is like.

        With IT:
        – It is new , really took off in late 90’s.
        – For most businesses, IT was a supporting function for the “core” business, a cost centre.
        – Business leaders seem to want to think it can be outsourced well.
        – Lot’s of young people try and get in the IT field, so good supply of workers and schools, (makes IT staff more replaceable\disposable?)
        – A lot is project\temporary initiative based surge staffing
        – Most of my executives in IT have been Finance Bean Counters not IT people.

        No One should have to work where; “Life was a blur back then, filled with e-mails, meetings, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and waking up at 3 AM in the morning, stressing about my job getting outsourced.”

        But that was my IT career.

        As you observed and I concur: as an outsider I noticed and contrasted with IT experience: my Oil and Gas industry friends: are paid really well, and still using the same skills learned many years ago

        Yes I am jealous 😊

        1. I think we naturally do not like change, we want to feel comfortable, and when IT needs are changing rapidly, it becomes stressful. In our 20’s and 30’s its exiting, but once you become an old dog, you want to eat the same food from the same dish. I slowly climbed the ladder in IT from soldering circuit boards to a senior position, and have no regrets, but not without a lot of stress. Agile, ITIL, PIMBOK, SDLC, CCNA, every year its something different. Thats why I like old cars, they don’t change, still work, easy to fix, no computers.

          The good news is you can change it… It all changed when I hit 60, and now I am on a different adventure. One where I am actually building something of my own… Reading MR has helped with that journey, and now I am only 12 months away from FI, I have lots of interesting quests ahead of me.

      1. YAY! It’s J.Money! How are you doing? Whenever I see your profile picture, I think of Bryce saying “It’s J.Money! You’re a shark!” and doing a shark impression with his hand on his forehead at FinCon. So embarrassing.

        Hope you and your family are well!

        1. Bryce is the best, haha… Believe me, I’ve been called worse 🙂

          Family well here after a long hard Covid Christmas!! Now it’s just all the snow getting in our way of school and parent down time 😉 But we’re all healthy again so that’s good! Hope to see you two (in person) this year!

  7. Can confirm.

    Corp life seemed to drag on, and on, and onnnnnnnnnah. Probably because I could get my work done in 10-20 hrs a week but I had to hold down a chair for 50. Perhaps I should have taken on more work but since I was burned out after year 1 of a 25 year career that wasn’t going to happen.

    The first 5 years of FIRE were BUSY but fantastically satisfying. Finally found the right gf, convinced her to leave work and come play with me, full time international travel, full time RVing, built a house together, now “vanlifeing” a few months a year. Check, check, check – or tic, tic, tic if you’re Alan/Katie :-).

    Trying on all these different lifestyles was immensely educational, fulfilling and memory making. COVID actually changed almost nothing for us but it did force us to rest, regroup, center. We really needed that.

    Now on to the NBT (next big thing) – fitness! Hired a coach, bought Garmin watches, and a smart scale, structured training 6x a week. No. More. Love chub. ….and lots more memories. I believe progress and self improvement creates life satisfaction which is a necessary ingredient for real happiness.

    1. For health improvement, take a look at Oura Ring. I geek out on self-improvement toys, and this one is still not boring after a year of watching it’s data stream. No conflict of interest, I just enjoy this toy and recommend it.

      1. I keep hearing about that and wonder how different it is from the Garmin “Body Battery” – that said my coach has one and loves it as well so I’ll have a look.

    2. “COVID actually changed almost nothing for us”

      Wow. You’re the only person I’ve ever heard say that. Amazing.

      Glad you are enjoying FI life!

  8. Definitely makes sense! I am so grateful for your article! It’s super motivational to keep on track of our fire plans.

  9. I used to work 6 days a week but now, I’m a SAHM. The day goes by so fast but the year seems long. I’m loving every minute of it, although we might not do anything exciting on the daily. My husband works from home and he loves popping in and out on the kids. We feel so grateful and blessed to have this lifestyle. Money we can always earn more, but time and health is limited. We will reach our FIRE number eventually but we’re enjoying every minute with our kids along the way.

    1. Awesome! Glad you are enjoying life! Yes, time and health is definitely limited. Can’t buy health and can’t buy love, as Warren Buffett says.

  10. I have been retired now for more than 4 fantastic years. What I found was that after the first 6 – 8 months, my mind just started to “slow down”. I don’t mean intellectually, I mean it allowed me to literally take time to smell the roses. When I was working my mind was in hyper-drive. Always thinking about what I had to do, where I had to be and how much time I had to do it. Now that I am retired I truly LOVE being able to take the time to enjoy all of the things around me without that constant buzz in my brain. From that perspective the concept of “time” …and awareness…has greatly improved.

    1. Nice! Glad you are enjoying retirement life! It’s very hard to “shut off” our overactive brains when we’re working.

  11. It would be awesome if you guys can do a post on if you decided to get married this year what would be the most cost effective way you guys would do it. Haven’t seen a wedding post yet from you guys. I’m stuck with the tough decision this year lol help me out. I’m just curious what you guys would do if you haven’t gotten married yet and were going to this year.

      1. Good question. I don’t think I would’ve bothered with a 120 people reception. It was more exhausting than fun. And it was mostly for our parents. I would’ve just stuck with a small wedding (less than 50 people) with close friends and immediate family. The wedding itself isn’t that important. Your marriage and the rest of your life together is.

        1. Oh I second that, my advice to people is send a note out that says “Grab a bucket of KFC and a lawn chair, meet us at central park by the duck pond at 1:00” apparently public parks cannot chase you away, and its free.

  12. I always thought each year felt faster because it was a smaller percentage of total life memory. While this is generally true, the amount of memories being made (and perhaps the quality of sleep, which forms long term memory) can affect the actual percentage of perceived and retained memory. Good insight!

    1. Yeah, until that documentary, I always thought it was logical rather than emotional/perception, but now that I know it’s emotional, I can actually control it and it makes a big difference.

  13. This post really resonate with me. I literally hated my time at work. Worst part of my life. And the time seemed to go so slowly, day by day. Yet, 15 years went by almost without me noticing.

    On the opposite, I liked college and university. Best part of my life. Had a lot of fun with friends, and lots of activities. That was 7 years in total. Each day were passing by very fast. Yet, in my memory, this seems to be the longest part of my life.

    How strange. But exactly like you describe in your post.

    1. It’s weird phenomenon isn’t it? I always thought passage of time was a logical concept not an emotional one. But now that I can control my time, everything’s different.

  14. Meanwhile here in the US, we’re facing the worst inflation in 50yrs and the disastrous Biden administration is doing nothing. People are getting angry!!!!!! Mid terms will be something

  15. I wonder if when we reach FIRE (~3yrs) and all my time is “downtime” will I use it differently than I use my downtime now. Am I using all my motivation on my work (which I enjoy btw, but wouldn’t do for free) and I don’t have any left for my non-work activities? What have your experiences been when moving from working to FIRE?

    1. That’s a great question. Guess you won’t really know until you get there. (congrats on only being 3 years from FIRE, btw. Huge accomplishment!)

      In my experience, it is a big transition going from work life to FIRE life. You have a bit of an identity crisis at first and worry a lot. But overtime, it gets easier as you learn to “be” instead of “do” all the time. What helped me a lot was finding a community of like-minded people–aka my Chautauquan family, and meditation (I read a lot of books by Thích Nhất Hạnh). Community and mindfulness makes a huge difference in life satisfaction and not giving in to fear.

  16. Love this! Curious to know if your time perspective has shifted from traveling non-stop to then being in lockdown and staying in one place? Anything specific stand out that you realized during this time? Miss you both!!

    1. YAY! It’s Mrs. Wow!

      Being locked down forced me to slow down and focus on family and friends for a while instead of accomplishments. I did a lot of inner reflection, helped parents with health issues, and made a group of very tight knit friends in Toronto. I’m still a traveller at heart though and I miss it. The hard thing is that going forward, our parents will need us more and more as they age. Maybe going forward, I’ll go 50/50 and become part-time nomad so we can come back and spend time helping out with family more often.

      Miss you and Mr. Wow too. How is family life?

      1. That sounds like the perfect combo. A little travel, a little family. We’re doing well. Enjoying (and being challenged by) the first year of parenthood. We are itching to travel, so much so that I have been devouring travel shows, but it surely makes us thankful for the travel opportunities we had pre-covid. Camp FINK!

  17. Great post that certainly describes my feelings pre-retirement. I cannot wait to create memories and enjoy my days once more.

  18. How fascinating! I now work 4 days with 3 day weekends. I find that more “events” actually slow my perception of time way way down….just lime when i was a child, fully engaged in the moment. At work everything is same same sNe and time speeds up for me.

    1. Events definitely have a way of doing that. The fact that we collective missed out on so many celebrations during the pandemic made it seem like the 2 years just flew by. At least we can now get back to that and creating more memories.

      1. Freedom wise it’s been great. 15 years on the road exploring all of North America in our 40′ motorhome. Financially it’s been great also. Started out Jan 2008 with $1.5M portfolio. By Feb 2009 it had fallen to $864K due to the financial crisis. By the end of ’09 we were back over $1M and as of today we are north of $2M. And that’s after having spent $1.4M ($100k per year) in retirement enjoying life. Along way we have acquired a home in Mexico for cash and another home in Lead, SD for a no-money down VA loan ($290K). So we are selling the motorhome next month and will begin the next chapter of our lives as snowbirds flying between our two homes with occasional cruises and long vacations to Europe. Life is good 8^)

        BTW, enjoyed your book and have shared it with several family members. 8^)

  19. Exciting blog for n number of reasons. Envious of your timely decisions in life 😊

    can you guide, how to invest in canada in one equity index fund and one index debt fund. have an account with scotia bank.

    you, few years back wrote detailed posts on this topic.

    may be link to updated post may suffice.

    regards

    1. Don’t like to read much, do you? Or do own research? Would you also like it on a silver platter? Or gold preferable?

      1. Will like it on diamond platter from knowledgeable originator.

        Will excuse self from anything from irritated, third party, uninvited paserby.

        Regards

  20. Oh my gosh, yes. I “retired” four years ago at the age of 32. It’s so hard to explain that each individual day passes quickly…but when I think back a month or year it feels like such a long time ago because of all the adventure, learning, and exploration. Thanks for concisely verbalizing this bizarre phenomenon!

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