Understanding How Time Perception Flips at Midlife

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perception of time
Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash
Author Ann Douglas

By Ann Douglas, author of Navigating The Messy Middle
This article was originally published by PsychologyToday.com in March 2023.

Did you know your time perception flips at midlife? Instead of focusing on how long we’ve lived, we start thinking about how many years we have left—and how we want to use that time. Midlife is a time of self-reflection—a time in your life when you’re likely to find yourself thinking about who you’ve been, who you are, and who you are becoming. It’s a time for connecting the dots between past, present, and future: allowing yourself to reflect on all that learning and growth while also daring to imagine new possibilities into being. It can feel exciting and more than a little overwhelming. There’s just so much to think about.

Your time perception is wrapped up in a midlife identity quest

If this sense of restlessness and curiosity feels familiar, it’s because you’ve been here before. You’re basically revisiting the identity quest of adolescence, but this time from the vantage point of midlife.

The challenge, of course, at this point in your life, is in finding the time and space needed to engage in this process of deep reflection—no easy task during a life stage when you can find yourself juggling a mind-boggling number of commitments. But if you can find a way to hit the pause button—even just for a few minutes—the experience can be really soul-nourishing, allowing you to notice and appreciate how much you’ve learned as you’ve journeyed through life and to consider what you want for yourself moving forward.

It’s the ticking of your midlife clock

A funny thing happens to our time perception when we arrive at the vantage point of midlife. Our time perception flips. Instead of focusing on how many years we’ve lived through, we start thinking about how many years we have left. It’s almost as if a lightbulb goes off in our heads, forcing us to admit to ourselves—perhaps for the very first time—that none of us has endless time. The question then becomes: “How do I want to spend that time?”

Related: Ann Douglas: The Truth About Midlife

You might think this would be a depressing thought, but it can actually be incredibly clarifying and life-enriching. This new-found sense of urgency can encourage you to zero in on the relationships and activities that matter most to you. As psychologist Laura L. Carstensen of Stanford University (whose work on socio-emotional selectivity theory helps to explain how our goals and motivations shift as we age) put it in an interview with Forbes, “Time horizons have powerful influences on people’s goals and motivation.”

Are you wondering what this means in practical terms?

For me, it has meant making a conscious effort to stay connected to family members and friends across the miles: writing letters, scheduling video chats, and getting together face-to-face as often as possible. These people matter so much to me. I don’t ever want to take them—or time—for granted.

It’s also meant actively pursuing a life-long dream—writing a novel—as opposed to allowing that dream to languish indefinitely on a “someday” list. Last summer, I applied to (and was accepted into) a “Novel in a Year” program. I’m continuing to make steady progress on my novel.

So here’s my question for you: if you found yourself with the gift of a day that you could spend doing anything you wanted, how would you choose to spend that time? Would you spend that time by yourself or with other people (and, if so, who might those other people be)? What activities would you be doing? For best results, assume that money is no object and the usual restraints of daily living have magically melted away. This isn’t about limiting your thinking to what’s easy, practical, or even possible: it’s about daring to admit to yourself what you really want—and then reflecting on what that actually means.

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