“Are we still meeting today at 10?” I emailed a colleague at 10:05 a.m. last Tuesday.
She quickly replied, “We’re not meeting today. Our meeting is on Tuesday.”
I had to think about it for a moment, because I’d thought for sure it was Tuesday; still, I didn’t trust myself. I checked my phone, and it was indeed Tuesday. Before I could even reply to tell her, she replied to me: “Oh my God! Tuesday is today!”
Mistakes like that are frequent these days. My patients show up for their virtual appointments at the wrong time; I’m late for Zoom meetings even though I only have to walk from my kitchen to the computer. The last six months seem like a lifetime, but a week can flash by with little to show for it.
We’re all having trouble keeping track of time.
Time perception is often thought to be an innate ability of humans, but learning how to monitor time is actually a basic function of human development. Recent research has shown that the perception of time exists on a continuum, with some people being particularly good at estimating time and others having more difficulty. For instance, people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, have difficulty estimating time, and older people experience time as passing more quickly than younger people.
As young children, we develop time perception skills as we estimate time, both by looking back at how much time has passed since an event, and by looking forward to a future event and then getting a sense of the time it takes until that event occurs.
As adults, our brains are recording how much time has passed since key moments — a wedding last October, a holiday concert, yesterday's lunch meeting — as well as estimating how long particular events last. The more attention we devote to the experience, the longer time seems to stretch out, which is why a day of vacation seems longer than a typical day of work, or a traumatic situation or anxious ordeal can feel like it lasts forever.
In addition to the big goal posts, there are more subtle ways that we also judge the passing of time. If we don’t have children in school, we are still aware that school is in session — and that time is passing — when our commutes get longer in September because we have to stop behind school buses. Though we might not be sports fans, we are aware that fall is in full swing when we hear people talking about the World Series. External cues like these help even people whose existences are extremely routine to put their lives into the appropriate temporal context.
All of these cues, though, have changed as a result of the ongoing pandemic, and the associated restrictions, traumas and changes to our routines and expectations. Thus, they are having a concerted effect on many people’s perceptions of time. For instance, a study from the United Kingdom published in July showed that 80 percent of people have experienced changes in how they perceived time from pre-lockdown to lockdown, with most people reporting that time seemed to slow down.
Because our goal posts and mile markers have disappeared — events we judge our temporal distance from or to, and during which we create lasting, pleasurable memories — so has our ability to judge time. We aren’t making many new memories, so time is flying by and, at the same time, we’re feeling more anxious and perhaps even traumatized, so sometimes we feel as if each moment seems like an eternity. And even our external cues about the passage of time have been, by and large, interrupted — even for those people whose daily routines haven’t been radically altered.
Still, we aren’t automatically destined to forget what day it is or to be perpetually late. There are things we can do to be more conscious of the passing of time.
One of the things I recommend to kids with ADHD who have trouble with time perception is to use a timer: Pick an activity, set the timer for an hour and then do whatever it is for that hour — which is the technique I used to write this article. This can help you train yourself to recognize the passage of short periods of time and focus on productivity during them.
And, as anyone who’s regularly worked from home knows, it’s also important to keep to routines, not just to a schedule. If you wore earrings every day to the office, put them on now; mark the time when you stop working with a ritual, whether it’s going for a walk, calling friends or having a glass of wine before dinner. By creating that routine and linking it to your old one, you’re telling your brain that your workday is starting and when it is ending.
New, positive experiences help make us more aware of time, so do something that you’ve always wanted to do but for which you never had time. It could be studying Italian, getting a dog or taking a (virtual) class in knitting or cooking. Learning anything new that is a bit out of your comfort zone will help time become more salient to you — in addition to giving you the joy of mastering something at a moment when so much else is out of your control.
Finally: get some sleep. A lack of sleep and inconsistent sleep patterns can disrupt our sense of time in our best of stretches and, for most of us, our sleep schedule is very different now than it was a year ago. Commit to keeping to a consistent sleep schedule.
We are living in a very unique period, so also consider documenting your journey, as doing so will not only help make time concrete for you now, but it may be precious in years to come. Documenting can be as simple as taking one picture every day that captures something unique to that day — a meal, a TV show that you’re binging, your child’s third grade class on Zoom — captioning the picture and looking through your daily snapshots occasionally. The big events and trips that normally give us the experience that time is standing still aren’t occurring in the same ways they used to (when they occur at all), so make all your events more intentional.
Someday, the Covid-19 pandemic will be just another memory. Recording how we managed our time won’t only help us reset our internal clocks, but it might also be an important testimony of our resiliency.