Time flies when you’re having fun, but it can really drag in lockdown.
If you’re having trouble keeping track of what day it is, you’re not alone. For many people whose schedules were upended by coronavirus social distancing measures, time seems to move differently, experts say.
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Right now, some people say time is moving more slowly than normal, but others can’t believe how much time has gone by, said Anne Wilson, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“One of the interesting things that people have observed that is happening is that time is at once both really long and seems really short,” she said.
“So the duration might seem really long while you’re actually going through the days, but then you hit the end of the week or the end of the month and you go, ‘oh, my gosh, how can a whole week have gone by?’”
This is partly because people perceive time in the present differently than they do looking at the past, she said.
We tend to find relatively empty periods of time, without distinct events, to be boring and we feel they move slowly.
“When you’re just sitting and waiting for something to happen and when the time period is relatively empty, then that time period seems like it’s going on forever. But it won’t feel like that if you look back on it because it doesn’t really seem like anything was going on during that time period.”
“If you pay less attention to time, it seems to be short,” said Simon Grondin, a psychology professor at Université Laval and author of the book, The Perception of Time: Your Questions Answered. By contrast, if you don’t have another task absorbing your attention, time moves very slowly.
When you look back, you’re relying on memory, which is punctuated by events, Wilson said. If there were few events over a given time period, it seems like it went really fast. If there were many exciting or notable events — like during a vacation getaway — it can seem long in retrospect, even if it was just a week or two.
Normally, most people also have regular schedules during the week, like the kids’ soccer practice on Tuesdays, or meetings on Thursdays, she said. Without those markers, time becomes less distinct and we lose track of days.
Grondin, who is currently working on a project to survey Canadians about their perceptions of time during the pandemic, believes another important contributing factor to the strangeness of time right now is our uncertainty about when lockdown will end.
“We are navigating a lot in the uncertainty about what’s going to happen and mostly when it’s going to happen, so there is no way to organize, to shape our mind in time,” he said.
“Even on vacation, we know that we will be on vacation for a week or for a month and there will be an end to it. And we can organize ourselves, knowing that ok, we have to be back three days before,” he said. Not having that endpoint can make time stretch on.
If you’re finding that time is moving slowly, filling it can help, Grondin said.
“Find a pleasant activity. This would be the recommendation. Whatever it is. It could be cooking, it could be reading, it could be listening to music or watching a good series on Netflix.”
Wilson agrees. “I think that this time period actually gives people an opportunity to, you know, take up some hobbies that perhaps they’ve set aside.”
Focusing on the present can actually have some positive effects, she thinks. “A lot of our well-being actually comes from the things that we engage in day to day,” she said, like spending time with family or doing fun leisure activities.
“Those are actually things that tend to be very sustaining for people but we often overlook them while we set our sights on these larger big goals in the future.”