The Relativity of Time

July 5, 2006  

Albert Einstein once said, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours.” This is relativity. What if you could change your perception of time?

Here’s an interesting experiment to try when the opportunity arises.

You and a passenger are in a car driving to a meeting or event. Maybe you are running a bit late. As you zip down the highway at 60 miles an hour, you suddenly hit a major traffic jam. When this happens, do the following: check the time on your clock and reset your trip odometer. Then continue through the traffic. When you come out the other side and are back up to highway speeds, check the trip odometer and the clock.

Then calculate the amount time lost in the traffic. To do this, take the number of minutes elapsed and subtract the number of miles traveled. So if 10 minutes elapsed and you drove 3 miles, you will have lost 7 minutes (approximately).

Then ask your passenger, “How much time do you think we lost in that traffic jam?”

I have done this many times and have found that people often guess as much as 3 times the actual time. If 7 minutes were lost, the passenger may guess 20 minutes. Try it.

Recently I flew out of the Orlando, Florida airport. The line through security seemed to go on forever. It went all the way down one corridor, wrapped around another, and then snaked back again. It was long! People were moaning and groaning. People were getting stressed and aggravated, even though they were assured they would make their flight.

Instead of focusing on the length of the line, I chose to turn the event into a game. I kept track of how long it took to get all the way through security. I also listened to the various conversations complaining about the lines.

How long did it take for this line to go all the way through security? Only 15 minutes! I’ve waited longer for a burger in a fast food restaurant. I find it interesting that many of the people who complained about the 15 minute wait at the airport, would have been thrilled to find a 15 minute wait at Disney World’s Space Mountain.

If you have an expectation (goal?) to travel through a line quickly, you tend to focus on the negatives. In doing this, time drags on and the experience is not pleasant. However, if you treat the experience as a game, time passes quickly and you are less stressed. Even better, if you take the time to speak with others who are also waiting, you may make some new contacts. And if the need arises and you require help from a customer service agent, you are more likely to get assistance if you are pleasant.

Time is relative. Rather than worrying about the future and being miserable, be present to the moment and enjoy it.

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3 Responses to “The Relativity of Time”

  1. Elizabeth on July 8th, 2006 10:26 pm

    Reading this really hit home. Although I have purchased an automobile that I dont speed in, I think I am going to give this a try, instead of letting my blood pressure rise. Is this a form of meditation?

  2. Stephen Shapiro on July 10th, 2006 4:38 pm

    It is certainly MY form of meditation.

  3. The Walk More, Wait Less Innovation | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro on August 19th, 2012 9:54 am

    [...] wrote about the concept of the perception of time back in 2006.  I talked about how time passes at different speeds when stuck in traffic versus when moving [...]