How to Bend Time to Your Wishes in the Pandemic
Are your days dragging on or flying by?
In his famous thought experiment, a 16-year-old Albert Einstein imagined what it would be like to travel as fast as a beam of light. If he rode alongside, traveling at light speed, he wrote, “I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest.” For the observer, in this case Einstein, time itself would slow down. This, among other thoughts, would lead Einstein to theorize about how time is relative. Time and speed have an inverse relationship — should you find yourself approaching the speed of light, you’ll note that time slows down.
For those of us clocking our days at a human pace on planet Earth, time is constant. Seconds tick by at the same rate for an American as they do for an Australian — or for an accountant in an office building as they do an angler on the ocean. Time slows down only for astronauts in low earth orbit, no one else.
While it may be true that high achievers have the same 24 hours in their day as do you and I, for most of us (myself included), that doesn’t feel like the case. Why? I suspect we can conclude that some efficient people have fine-tuned time management so well that their days appear longer.
According to several popular theories and studies, time perception can vary depending on three factors: stress, age, and disposition. Time seemingly slows down when we’re scared, speeds up as we age, and is completely warped when we’re on vacation. This vacation time warp is what Claudia Hammond termed the holiday paradox. Hammond describes it as “the contradictory feeling that a good holiday whizzes by, yet feels long when you look back.”
Covid-19 and the ensuing pandemic have added yet another variable into the time equation, drastically altering its perception and passage for nearly everyone on the planet. For some, time feels like it’s flying by, while for others, it is dragging along. So, who’s right?
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Perception of time relative to age
According to researchers, time is perceived to move quicker as we age. This phenomenon is attributed to two main causes. First, with every passing year, subsequent years represent an increasingly smaller percentage of our life. As a 10-year-old, one year represents 10% of life, while for a 50-year-old, the same year accounts for only 2% of life. Second, for someone closer to middle age, new images, experiences, and milestones are fewer and farther between. While we may not remember our first few years of life, memories from childhood into adulthood are substantial. Our memories are loaded with images, sensations, and recollections of learning to speak, read, write, go to school, find our first friend or first love, ride a bike, drive a car, and work our first job.
New realities of Covid-19, including masks, distancing, and working and entertaining from home, lost their novelty after a few weeks and have since become a homogenous blur of repetition.
Such milestones leave lasting imprints, which is why new or unique experiences delineate and lengthen the perception of time. Scientists have cited this concept as evidence for keeping our mind healthy and younger than our chronological age.
Here’s where Covid-19 plays a mind trick: While the pandemic itself is new, stress-inducing, and marks a significant moment in our mind, now that we are weeks and months into it, many of us have fallen into routines of sameness — absent new events, activities, or relationships. These routines can create a perception of time as fleeting — flying by at increasing speed.
Routines, stress, and nothing to look forward to
If new experiences give the perception of slowing down time, routines, by contrast, can make life feel like it’s passing you by. New realities of Covid-19, including masks, distancing, and working and entertaining from home, lost their novelty after a few weeks and have since become a homogenous blur of repetition. Being homebound when it comes to both work and leisure have erased many of the preexisting lines that previously delineated our days and weeks. The ensuing routines, in effect, speed up the perception of time.
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While the restrictions in place since March have been stressful, not all resulting changes have been bad. Some have actually been quite positive, such as enhanced computer literacy, improved meal preparation, and new exercise routines. A good deal of life learning, which typically declines as we age, has been revamped and accelerated, in effect slowing time down.
Unfortunately, not all ways of slowing the clock are welcome. Stressful events, including the pandemic itself, can slow the perception of time. Relatives and loved ones have grown ill, and some have died. Birthdays, vacations, weddings, and other celebrations have been delayed and outright canceled. Many relationships have been compromised in the process.
Service industry and frontline workers, two groups most affected by Covid-19, have faced a dizzying array of changes, not to mention the associated stress related to potentially contracting the illness and treating those with the disease. Elevated stress levels and associated anxiety, worry, and fear have likely led to seemingly longer days for this population, slowing down the perception of the passage of time.
All these changes have created a disquieting mixture of routine, disruption, stress, and anxiety for nearly everyone on the planet. Ask anyone, and they can likely point to a specific day where pandemic life changed for them. Since then, some days or weeks unfold in a blur, while others feel never-ending.
That said, feeling powerless and assuming nothing can be done doesn’t have to be all you’re left with. Recognizing why time perception feels as it does right now may help you implement changes and make necessary adjustments so that you can better cope with these times.
Befriending the sameness
Making each day, no matter the monotony, worth living can go a long way right now. Consider beginning your days with some form of gratitude or appreciation for life. Next, slow things down, take a little more time for everything you do. Finally, introduce new or unique experiences as best you can — call an old friend, play a distinct game, fly a kite, plant a tree, or take a different path. You don’t have to go cliff diving—anything novel will do. Being outdoors as much as possible, watching the sunrise or sunset, not only is healthy but also marks time and breaks up the day.
If you’re looking to speed things up, develop a routine. Wake up at a specific time, work in a set place, and perform tasks in a given order. Exercise in a similar way at a similar time. Eat at regular increments. All of this will create a perception of time passing by more rapidly.
While we can’t control time per se, we can shape our perception and experience. In chaotic times, where many feel a lack of control, understanding we have providence over ourselves, our activities, and our ensuing days can help restore balance. We can all make conscious decisions and changes that directly affect our perception of time.