white and brown analog wall clock at 10 00

100 Things You Should Know About People: #59 — Time Is Perceived as Relative



Picture of a wall clock
Time Is Relative

Has this ever happened to you? You are traveling 2 hours to visit friends. It’s two hours to get there and 2 hours to get back, but the trip there feels much longer.

It’s about the mental processing — In his interesting book, The Time Paradox, Philip Zimbardo discusses how our experience of time is relative, not absolute. There are time illusions, just like there are visual illusions. The more mental processing you do, the more time you think has elapsed. If people have to stop and think at each step of a task, they will feel that the task is taking too long. The mental processing makes the amount of time seem longer.

It’s about expectations — The perception of time and your reaction to it, is also greatly influenced by predictability and expectations. Let’s say you are editing video on your computer. You’ve just clicked the button to produce the video file from your edits. Will you be frustrated by how long it takes to produce the video? If you do this task often, and it normally takes 3 minutes, then 3 minutes will not seem like a long time. If there is an in-progress indicator, for example a bar that is moving, or a message that says “2 minutes 48 seconds left to completion”, then you know what to expect. You’ll go pour yourself a cup of coffee and come back. But if it sometimes takes 30 seconds and sometimes takes 5 minutes, and you don’t which one it is going to be this time, then you will be very frustrated if it takes 3 minutes. Three minutes will seem much longer than it usually does.

Time expectations change — Ten years ago if it took 20 seconds for a website to load you didn’t think much of it. But these days if it takes more than 3 seconds you get impatient. There’s one website I go to regularly that takes 12 seconds to load. It seems like an eternity.


  • Always provide in progress indicators so people know how much time something is going to take.
  • If possible, make the amount of time it takes to do a task or bring up information regular, so people can adjust their expectations accordingly.
  • If you want to make a process seem shorter, then break it up into steps and have people think less. It’s mental processing that makes something seem to take a long time.

What do you think? If you are a designer do you take time, or the perception of time into account in your designs?


10 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #59 — Time Is Perceived as Relative”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Delicious Flavour, wearemore. wearemore said: #psych 100 Things You Should Know About People: #59: Time Is Perceived as Relative http://ow.ly/1bkEll […]

  2. Elliott Avatar

    wow very interesting post – it hits on something that i think of a lot as a music producer. sometimes i’ll be working on a song that seems to be dragging on. but for the listener it might not be as difficult. it’s hard to put myself in their shoes though.

  3. Leigh Avatar

    I think it also depends on the degree of mastery the user has over your system. Say you have a sales site — a multi process listing step may be helpful for new users but experienced users will quickly become frustrated and demand a one page process.

    Mastery speeds up perception time.

  4. Danny @ Firepole Marketing Avatar

    Is that the same Phil Zimbardo from the Stanford Prison Experiment?

  5. Pamela Wilson Avatar

    As usual, Susan, awesome stuff!

    I know this as a consumer, and it’s a good reminder to keep it in mind as a person who designs information that will be consumed.

    I love the idea that setting expectations will improve the user’s perception. It’s easy to do, and very smart.

    Thanks — as always — for your insights!

  6. Régis Kuckaertz Avatar
    Régis Kuckaertz

    Oh why yes I do! Very good point, I first encountered time as an crucial design factor in John Maeda’s “The laws of simplicity”, where he goes a long way explaining the various aspects of having to wait. And, oh coincidence, I just download “the psychology of waiting lines” by Don Norman.

    I know Amazon and others are playing with time by setting delivery times a bit later than items actually arrive—therefore they not only set clear expectations, they also exceed them.

  7. Susan Weinschenk Avatar
    Susan Weinschenk


    Yes, the same Phil Zimbardo as the prison experiments.

  8. Jessica Avatar

    I come from an Internet Marketing background and I have helped clients get more ROI by placing progress indicators. It’s sad that lot of them still think it’s a waste.

  9. bygbyt Avatar

    Verry inportant & funny :)

  10. Thom Holland Avatar

    Very thought provoking Susan….I like your style.

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