How the pandemic will change our relationship to time forever

Welcome Summer

Here’s a test: Without checking a calendar, try to guess how many weeks it’s been since you’ve been in quarantine. Now think back to St. Patrick’s Day, and estimate how much time went by between that and when you started quarantining.

Objectively speaking, most people in the U.S. were told to stay at home about a week after St. Patrick’s Day. Yet subjectively speaking, from within the trenches of quarantine, it feels as though St. Patrick’s Day— or a time when you could go outside whenever you wanted — happened several lifetimes ago.

Even more strangely, on a moment to moment basis the days spent in quarantine can often feel like they drag on forever. Yet somehow, the six to ten weeks since most lockdown and stay-at-home orders went into effect appear to have gone by in the blink of an eye.

The outside world is a distant memory.

The outside world is a distant memory.

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

Our sense of time is broken. But that doesn’t stop the hours and weeks from continuing to tick by like, well, clockwork.

“We’ve got this objective time construct, measured by clocks and calendars. But that doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Melanie Rudd, a University of Houston psychology professor who studies time perception and social behavior. “We all get 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year. But we all experience that same amount of time very differently.”

On top of every other disruption brought on by coronavirus, this clash between objective and subjective time is sending people into a tailspin.

We’re not sure what the fuck day it is, how long it’s been since this all began, or the precise moment when time lost all meaning anyway. But we can say for sure that we now exist in a reality where one of the main organizing principles of life and society has collapsed.

We now exist in a reality where one of the main organizing principles of life and society has collapsed

“We’re not used to this type of uncertainty. Our lives are much more structured and scheduled than we tend to realize,” said Simon Grondin, a professor of psychology at Université Laval in Québec City currently conducting a study on the pandemic time warp, and author of The Perception of Time. “But now we don’t know when quarantine will end. We can’t plan for the future. So we’re suspended, like we’re frozen in midair. And people are very surprised to discover how different that is, that our relationship to time is very complicated.”

On the surface, it’s not hard to explain why time seems to have gone out the window. 

The pandemic put a halt to routines like work and school, which differentiated our nights from our days, our weekdays from weekends. But it’s even bigger than that, too, negating everything from entire seasons of sports to mother nature itself (sorry, folks, but summer’s probably canceled this year).

“Our brains tend to track intervals of time through distinct events, and we don’t have many of those right now,” said Heather Berlin, a psychiatry professor at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and neuroscientist studying the mechanics of how our brains perceive time. “It’s very hard to estimate how much time has passed if there’s nothing to demarcate it. If it’s all the same and blends together, then it can feel like just one really long day.”

Well, you can say that again.

Social distancing and quarantine haven’t only shattered all illusions of time as any sort of reliable, objective metric. While this pandemic time warp won’t last forever, the cognitive effects of its interruption could very well stay with us in the distant future.

The paradox of quarantine time distortion

To be clear, time distortion is a normal thing that happens all the time. As Grondin pointed out, losing track of time while on holiday is often seen as part of the charm of a vacation. In one study, Berlin also even found that healthy brains actually experience certain types of time distortions more than brains with injuries or other psychological afflictions.

Like many of the effects of the pandemic, though, what’s different about it now is the extremity and more dire circumstances, and how nearly everyone around the world is experiencing some version of extreme time distortion together.

That’s not to say we’re all having the same collective time warp. Far from it, actually. The way we perceive time is always very personal, Rudd said, and those individual variables are even more pronounced in quarantine. 

What are holidays, even?

What are holidays, even?

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

On the whole, people tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum of two distinct pandemic-time distortions right now. 

You have some folks juggling more than ever before, like essential workers or parents who are not only working from home but also expected to be teachers to their kids. For them, time-stress is high, overwhelmed by the amount of different tasks they need to accomplish, causing feelings of time scarcity. It seems like there’s barely enough hours in the day to get everything done. 

Then there are those who can’t work, stuck at home (often alone or close to it), with nothing to fill their time aside from TV show reruns, movie rewatches, books, or video games — and that’s only if they can find the will to focus on them. This time affluence might sound lovely by comparison, but that boredom often breeds a sense of hopelessly endless days with no beginning or end in sight. These are also often the people tracking the number of days spent in quarantine, which can feel as maddening as being too busy to notice what day it is.

When people focus too much on prospective time by looking to the future and trying to estimate how long quarantine will last, they often get trapped in a vicious cycle.

When people focus too much on prospective time by looking to the future and trying to estimate how long quarantine will last, they often get trapped in a vicious cycle. The more time you spend thinking about time, the slower it moves.

That’s on top of the litany of other stressors that come with not being able to work, like economic anxiety or a general lack of purpose and fulfillment.

“When you live with that kind of constant anxiety, days can feel like an eternity,” said Grondin. 

“Your experience of time often depends on how many contextual changes your brain encodes, whether it’s environmental, emotional, psychological changes,” said Rudd. “When you look back on an experience where you encoded lots of changes, that time will feel like it was very rich, full, expansive. On the other hand, if there’s not a lot of changes for your brain to mark, that same amount of time feels empty, like you have no idea where it went.”

Again, there’s a lot of crossover in this spectrum, and the unique factors of your life and outlook are huge influences on your quarantine time distortion experience.

But overall, the biggest elements at play right now are: whether or not you’re completely isolated, if you’re still beholden to a schedule, how many different activities you do in a day, whether or not you enjoy those activities, your overall mental and emotional state, and simply how much attention you’re paying to time.

All of that is compounded by an even larger time paradox further warped by quarantine, though. 

“There are different parts of the brain responsible for our long-term, or retrospective judgment of time, versus the way we judge the short term, minute by minute or hour by hour passage of time,” said Berlin.

Sorry but I am completely hysterical at the thought that the clocks go back on Sunday. Why bother?? There is no time anymore! What are clocks?!

— Eve Livingston (@eve_rebecca) March 23, 2020

Just think of how parents always describe raising children, she said: The days are gruelingly long, the years too short, then you blink and suddenly they’re all grown up. The elderly express similar sentiments, Grondin pointed out, with days that stretch on forever, but the past 20 years going by in a flash.

So even though the minutes drag on for people struggling with boredom during quarantine, nothing actually happens as the weeks go by. The conflict between short term and long-term time perception then causes a shock of whiplash, when you realize that while you were languishing in all that nothingness, spring had arrived without you even noticing. On the other hand, those who are too busy to pay attention to the passage of time look back and are reminded of everything they had to do in such a short span of time. It all feels like it happened a lifetime ago.

WATCH: How people around the world are dealing with coronavirus lockdown

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Regaining control of the quarantine time warp

Ultimately, on the long laundry list of things to worry about during coronavirus, time distortion in and of itself is not at the top. But, Berlin said, “time distortion can be an important marker of our mental health.” So that’s why finding a more stable equilibrium matters.

Paradoxically (time is full of those), the solution to your warped perceptions — regardless of which variety — comes down to finding a balance between routine and novelty.

Even if nothing is requiring it of you, impose as normal a schedule as possible on yourself and others you’re responsible for in your household. That means sticking to circadian sleeping patterns, changing your clothes daily (even if it’s just into different sweatpants), and most importantly making time (no matter how scarce it is) to regularly do something you love.

“Time flies when you’re having fun because you’re not thinking about time,” said Rudd.

Creating occasions to look forward to will help anyone cope with the uncertainty of our current future.

Beyond that, though, creating occasions to look forward to will help anyone cope with the uncertainty of our current future and how long quarantine will last. For those without a lot of time to spare, these can be small joys: Maybe it’s a morning crossword puzzle over coffee, a brainless mobile game on your lunch break, one night every week where you make or order your favorite food, a nightly dance party with your kids.

For people struggling with hopeless boredom, your new job is to find an activity that allows you to enter into a state of “flow.” Flow is the psychological term for when you become fully immersed in whatever you’re doing, the world falls away, and time stops existing (in a good way). This often comes from something you’re good at or working to master — but that’s a lot more accessible than it sounds. Most video games, for example, are designed to induce a sense of flow and accomplishment. Also, why do you think so many people have suddenly taken up sourdough bread baking as a hobby?

But here’s where the importance of novelty comes in, because getting into any kind of rut is a recipe for more time distortion. Intentionally create those contextual changes your brain is so starved for, no matter your situation.

“Change is your friend. So whether you have a very busy schedule or a very boring one, do something different,” said Berlin. “We’ve evolved to get dopamine, a neurochemical pleasure release, when things are different. So do something mentally challenging or novel each day to break up the monotony.” 

In the pre-pandemic world, we’d get those releases from going on dates, eating at a new restaurant, vacationing, or even just leaving the house to work from the office. But we can still get those dopamine hits while in quarantine.

They can be super simple, Rudd said. Like working from home but in a different room, playing a different video game than you’re used to, doing sudoku rather than the crossword, baking a cake instead of sourdough bread —  fuck it, try TikTok instead of Twitter, we won’t tell the Gen Zers. 

Playing video games right now is more than just escapism.

Playing video games right now is more than just escapism.

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

By now you might be sick of hearing the suggestion, but doing even the most stripped-down version of mediation can be hugely helpful for grounding yourself in the present rather than the time-warped past or future. In one study, Rudd found that the simple act of deep, controlled breathing can make our time feel more expansive.

“In some ways, our brain encodes meaningfulness as how many different things happened in this period of time,” said Rudd. “If you switch tasks, your brain will feel like you’ve accomplished something, you will end up with a richer recall when you look back.”

It might sound odd, but Rudd has also studied how a sense of awe can make time feel richer and more expansive. That can feel hard to accomplish when many of us aren’t allowed to be in nature, but even queueing up a nature documentary, exploring a beautiful virtual game world, or looking back at vacation pictures can help induce enough awe to make a difference. 

“Everyone’s world has shrunk. But we can still create new activities inside confinement that can be just as exciting and fulfilling,” said Berlin. “Our brains are so adaptive. I think eventually people will habituate to the new normal, and time will go back to just your typical distortion soon.”

The post and pre-pandemic time fissure

The time warp of the pandemic doesn’t necessarily have to be a cause for distress, either. From Rudd’s perspective, it can even be an opportunity.

“People underestimate the extent to which our perception of time is malleable. The extent to which our perception of time will not always match reality,” she said. “Oftentimes, we have more time than we feel like we do. And the more we can learn how to adjust, recalibrate our internal perception of time throughout this, the better off we will be from a well-being perspective.”

Time is always uncertain. The pandemic’s influence over our perception of time won’t only be relegated to our immediate or long-term personal experiences, either. Like 9/11 or John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we are living through an event — a flashbulb memory, Berlin called it — that will leave a permanent mark, irrevocably changing the way we see the era we live in.

“There is such a distinct separation between the ‘new normal’ and ‘the before.'”

“There is such a distinct separation between the ‘new normal’ and ‘the before,'” said Rudd. “That’s part of why it feels like time is dragging on right now.”

Remember, our long-term perception of time is tied heavily to how many new things we experience. And I’m not sure about you, but I’ve certainly never experienced anything like this before in my life.

“It is such a novel time. The day-to-day isn’t necessarily novel. But this whole experience is so new, so stress-inducing,” said Berlin. “This time will be forever etched into our minds. We will remember it in exquisite detail, especially the early days when it was such a shocking, abrupt change.”

When all is said and done, quarantine time warp will settle. We will adapt. But we’ll also be changed forever. Learning how to be OK with it now is at least one way we can prepare for our uncertain future.