What day is it? Why the pandemic warps your sense of time (audio)

Why We Wrote This

Social distancing has taken away many of our reference points, shifting our experiences on a fundamental level. But psychology can help us regain some control.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

LISTEN: What day is it? Why the pandemic warps your sense of time

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The coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing it requires is affecting everyone differently. Some people have found themselves with far more time on their hands than they know what to do with. Others – including health care professionals, those caring for sick family members, and parents of young children – are overwhelmed by the day’s demands. 

But if there’s one universal element to our experience, it’s that it is distorting our sense of the passage of time. February feels as though it happened a decade ago. Days blur together, and the hours alternatively fly by and slow to a crawl, depending on how anxious or bored we’re feeling and how many new memories we are generating.

What’s going on? Niels van de Ven, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, explains that these shifts in temporal perception happen when we lose the normal reference points that anchor our days and weeks. Listen to the full audio story above. 

Note: This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story. (If you’re reading this off our website and don’t see an audio player, click here to access the audio player.)

Audio Transcript:

[Clock ticking]

Eoin O’Carroll: If there ever were a defining power ballad for the coronavirus era, this parody by The Holderness Family would be a good contender.

[Excerpt from “I Want to Know What Day It Is” song parody by The Holderness Family] 

Rebecca Asoulin: Because this crisis has made us lose our normal sense of time. Most of us are experiencing time distortions, even though people’s experiences are wildly different right now. I’m Rebecca Asoulin, engagement editor for The Christian Science Monitor.

Eoin: And I’m Eoin O’Carroll, a science reporter for the Monitor.

[Music]

To get at what’s going on and to offer some tips on how to regain some sense of order, we called up Niels van de Ven, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He studies how people perceive the world, including how they experience the passage of time. 

Rebecca: Niels lives in the part of the Netherlands that was hit by the coronavirus first and has been in lockdown for around a month. And he’s noticed changes in his own perception of time. 

Niels van de Ven: For one thing, it’s clear that I seem to be losing track of which day of the week it is. 

So there are a few points in the week that I do recognize. In my case, it’s online teaching, but at other times I have difficulty figuring out which day of the week it is.   

So normally I travel to work. That’s also a half an hour for me by train or by car where I can get my head ready. And now I’m at home all the time. So you lose these reference points.

Rebecca: How have you been doing?

Niels: Fine. But it’s ... I have three kids that are 4, 6, and 8. So I’m trying to work, trying to teach online courses. My wife is trying to work. That can be a bit hectic. But there’s also plenty of extra family time that we’re really enjoying.

[Sort of a “zhoop” sound] 

Eoin: This is a really important point: Why might you be losing track of the day? It’s because you’ve lost your normal reference points. For instance, children are normally at school on weekdays. Now, my kids are at home all day watching “ALF” reruns on Amazon.

[Four seconds of the “ALF” theme song, composed by Alf Clausen (no relation)] 

Rebecca: I’ve heard people say that it feels like they’ve gone through like an entire month in the past week or the past day. What do you think’s going on there? 

Niels: To me at least, the days feel longer than they normally do.

And I think what’s going on there is that we at least I especially with the kids at home, I’m doing a lot of things. I’m helping them with their teaching. I’m giving a lecture. I’m preparing a few other things. I have to make sure that I do get the groceries. So I’m doing more things in a given day. And they also vary more quickly afterwards, I think. So at the time it flies by. Because you’re doing so much.

So time speeds up if you’re doing a lot of things. But when you reflect back on the day, then you also have this long list of things that I’ve been doing. And then the day in retrospect also feels super long because I’ve managed to do so many things.

[Music]

Eoin: This is another really important point:  Our perception of time is closely linked to attention. When you’re paying more attention –like Niels is during his busy days – you are generating more memories. That makes your day feel longer in retrospect.  

Rebecca: I’ve been thinking a lot about the first few days. And again, this is my memory of it, so I’m not sure if in the moment it felt like it was forever. But it just felt so, so, so long. And I know that when we experience threat, we kind of experience time dilation and time does expand. But this threat seems so different because it’s immediate, but it’s also dragging on for so long. It’s not like a car accident or something like that. So I’m wondering if you’ve any thoughts on kind of threat and our perception of time as it pertains to the coronavirus crisis? 

Niels: Threat with adrenaline, that really focuses your attention, which makes you feel as if you suddenly have a lot of time to respond in, for example, the car accident that you mentioned. 

But I think that in these early days, to me at least, the idea that everything you’re doing at the time becomes novel and requires thinking and where normally you can go grocery shopping. And you know, right, you take your car, you go there, you know which store to go to. Now, suddenly, everything becomes a question like, should I order it? Should I have it shipped to my house? Should I go at this time? Or at a different time where it might be more quiet in the supermarket? Will there be a line? Will... So everything that you’re doing that you’re normally doing on automatic pilot now suddenly requires an active mind and rethinking everything that you’re doing. 

And I think that that drives a lot of that perception that a lot more is happening in a day like grocery shopping suddenly becomes a real thing to do instead of one of the little tasks that you do in a given week. 

Eoin: During this social distancing, for many people it seems like a weird mix of the novel and the ordinary. My personal nickname for this time – I call it the sweatpants apocalypse, because it mixes the novel and the ordinary in this weird way. How do you think that is affecting our sense of time?

Niels: For me, I think I’m still in a position that every day I’m homeschooling the kids, I’m learning new things about what they are actually learning. And I see them developing. So every day still builds some new things for me. But if you don’t have that in a day, then your day becomes like one of those days at the beach where you’re nice and lying in the sun and enjoying the beach. But at the end of the day, you really felt that you haven’t done anything. And that can be nice for a few days. But if you have many of these days, then this stretch will be probably quite boring and when you reflect back on it nothing much has happened.

[Music]

Eoin: So when you’re not doing much, each day feels really long in the moment, but in retrospect, the day goes by quickly. So what is one way people with a lot of time on their hands can use it wisely? 

Niels: My suggestion would be to find these new things to do. If you can find it, to train yourself in new things that would be helpful for a job or things that are fun to do. If you can train some new skills, I bet that would make you feel at least that you’ve done a few more things in a day and break that stretch of this [chuckles] the sweatpants day that you mentioned. 

Because at the end of the day, you want to feel that you’ve done something, you want to feel as you’ve accomplished something. 

Rebecca: It’s interesting because I feel like so for some people, they’re not feeling like their minds are being engaged with new things, but for other people who are maybe more anxious or maybe are in a situation where, for example, they’re on the front lines of this right now, either in health care or they’re a grocery store worker, that they’re experiencing the opposite. They’re taking in so much new information, so much threatening information that it’s overwhelming and it’s not that they feel like time is speeding up. It’s almost like they’re doing everything in slow motion.

Niels: Yeah, I totally agree, and I think that’s a good observation and I think that if anything, this is a period where all our experiences are so extremely different at this moment.

Rebecca: Are there other things you can think of that you feel like would help people regain a sense of timeliness? Time order? 

Niels: For other people who already are swamped by the many things, I think trying to make compartments of the time, trying to better differentiate between when you’re working, when you’re there for the kids, and making more blocks of an hour and trying to keep you to those things will really help you. Also, at the end of the day, to feel that you fell short on everything. 

[Music]

Eoin: Niels emphasized that a lot of people are in situations that make it incredibly difficult to have the time to do this – people on the front lines, who’ve lost their jobs, who are ill or taking care of loved ones, or who have lost loved ones. The thing is, there are many different experiences of the current situation. And it’s important to acknowledge that so we can do a better job of supporting one another. 

Rebecca: There’s so much out there right now that’s about like “make the best of your quarantine time” or “how to be productive.” And all this sort of stuff, which I think, you know, for so many people is not that’s not what is happening right now. 

Niels: And I think we should, as a society, be more lenient towards these differences at this point and try to make it in a way that the people who suffer the most are actually helped the most and gain the most. 

I am trying to be lenient towards my students. I’m trying to help them as much as I can. I find grading them now way less important than trying to help them and learn something from this. 

Rebecca: All of us want this to be over. Like, if you look at the questions people are asking right now, it’s all about how do we know when this is going to be over. When will this end? What does the end mean? And part of me always thinks that the natural question when I was starting to think about time perception and I don’t know if it’s the right question, but was how could I make this feel like it’s going faster because I want it to be over? Like, can I trick myself into making it feel like it’s going faster? And would that even be a good goal? 

Niels: Yeah, no, no, I totally agree. 

I think what I’m hoping is that this will help us reflect a bit on what we actually value. And it’s difficult to find hope in this time because it’s hurting so many people. But at the same time, I’m hoping that we do realize that we value our health care workers, that we need health care, that we need to take care of everyone because that that. 

Rebecca: So no tips on how to time travel to the end of this. [Niels, Rebecca sensible chuckling]

[Music] 

Eoin: So what can you do with all this information?

Rebecca: For those under stress right now, it’s most likely hard to compartmentalize your time. But trying to in any small way you can, could help give you some sense of order. 

Eoin: For others the days might feel really boring. You’re stuck in the same place with the same people, just like ALF. 

Rebecca: For those folks: Try learning something new. Or try journaling. Reflecting on your day, even if everything that happened felt mundane in the moment helps you build reference points which anchor you in time.  

Eoin: And for everyone: one important thing about time perception is that we remember new experiences as having lasted longer than familiar ones. And the coronavirus pandemic is a weird mix of the familiar and the new. 

Rebecca: As Niels explained, the familiar – like grocery shopping – has become novel. And when something is new, the experience requires more of our attention, which makes us remember it as lasting longer. But for those of us at home surrounded by the familiar, the lack of new stimuli throughout our day can actually make time feel like it’s zipping by. 

Eoin: This global lockdown has a way of blending the universal with the particular. Social distancing has forced us to become atomized in ways that we’ve never been before. But at the same time, it has created a unifying experience. 

Decades from now, when anyone brings up the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, no matter who we are or where we were, we’ll each have a story to tell, one that will be in many ways unique, but probably also familiar. 

Rebecca: At least in one way...

[“I Want to Know What Day It Is”]

This audio story was reported by me, Rebecca Asoulin, and Eoin O’Carroll. I produced this story. Editing by Samantha Laine Perfas and Noelle Swan. Sound design and engineering by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson. Special thanks to Jessica Mendoza and Ann Hermes. The Foreigner parody song, “I Want to Know What Day It Is” is by The Holderness Family. You can find the complete music video on YouTube. 

Do you want to hear more from us on the concept of time? We’re working on a podcast right now called “It’s About Time.” Email us at podcast@csmonitor.com with the subject line “Time” if you want to get an update when we launch the podcast. 

This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2020.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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