If you’re having a great time playing at the beach or camping with your family this summer, the day might zip right by. But the long drive to get to your fun destination might seem to take forever.
To understand why time seems to change based on our activities, I asked my friend Alana Anderson, who just earned her Ph.D. at Washington State University. Anderson studies how people, especially babies and little kids, manage their behaviors and emotions.
The way we experience time has more to do with our attention than the activity itself, Anderson said. When your brain is occupied by what you’re doing, you’re not going to think about how many minutes or hours are ticking by.
It doesn’t even have to be something you think of as fun. When Anderson was a kid, she played the piano. Practicing was hard work, but she gave it her full attention, and the time flew by.
Excitement helps time fly, too. If your body and brain are expecting an activity to be enjoyable, you’re more likely to focus on it.
It’s easy to get excited about something like a vacation or an afternoon at the swimming pool. But what about tougher things, like practicing a skill or finishing a homework project?
Anderson said you can make decisions to trick your brain into making a less-exciting activity go by faster.
Turn off background noise, like TV or music. Don’t try to do a bunch of different things at once. What we sometimes call “multi-tasking” is really a way of taking attention away from the task in front of you.
“Try to minimize your distractions and just do exactly the one thing that you want to be doing,” Anderson said.
You can even help time fly when you don’t have anything fun or important to do.
Some of Anderson’s research has to do with the way small children respond to boredom. Scientists who study boredom have discovered that people who don’t cope with boredom well are more likely to make risky decisions.
Anderson suggests that you can beat boredom—and the long, slow hours that come with it—by being prepared. Practice recognizing what your brain and body feel like when they’re bored, so you’re ready to notice the feeling and find something to do. You can even make a list of fun options ahead of time.
“When you’re in that really boring state, you don’t have to do all the work of finding something to do, but you can grab something that’s there,” Anderson said.
You can also try thinking of a boring activity in a new way. It’s tough to make a long car trip fly by, but you can remind yourself that it’s necessary to get where you’re going.
You could even fill up your bored moments by imagining what it would be like to be a scientist who studies boredom—or getting curious about any questions that make your mind excited.