In 1962, a French geologist, Michel Siffre, descended into a cave more than 400 feet below ground and stayed there for two months. He left his watch, and any other indicators of time, at the surface to experience what life was like "beyond time."
He discovered that without any external time cues, he started to lose track of the minutes, hours, and days. He went into the cave on July 16, and had planned to come out on September 14. His team alerted him when the day arrived, but according to his estimation it was only August 20. “I believed I still had another month to spend in the cave. My psychological time had compressed by a factor of two,” he said in a 2008 interview.
We are not currently plunged into darkness—in a cave with no natural light—nor are we stripped of our phones or watches. But many people are feeling, with social distancing and the world grinding to a halt, that time has similarly started to lose its meaning. Monday, Saturday, Wednesday; 10 AM, 4 PM, midnight—who knows what day or time it is? Last week, Stephen Colbert tweeted: “The last two weeks have been a strange ten years.” One cable news channel even launched a segment called “What Day Is It?,” announcing triumphantly one recent Tuesday: “And if you said Tuesday, you're right.”
It's like, as Siffre said, in a 2018 interview: “The brain grasps no time because there is no time. Unless you write down what has happened, you forget it immediately."
First, a reminder that if you’re stuck at home, starting to feel a senselessness in the passage of time, it is a privilege to feel this way—many essential workers are still bound to the clock, and healthcare workers are feeling a different kind of timelessness as they work long hours in overwhelmed hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients. But for the rest of us, something strange is happening to our sense of time.
Because of the deluge of news, anxiety and stress, along with the lack of change in our environments and activities, time could be stretching and twisting to feel much longer than it normally does. There’s so much uncertainty about when this will all end and what the future looks like; with social isolation dates continually being pushed back, it leaves us stuck in a never-ending present.
These factors are mixing with how those of us with 9 to 5 lifestyles are usually subservient to the clock, and are now being challenged to consider how to structure our days in ways that feel worthwhile. This is fodder for jokes and funny memes, but may have larger implications: Research has suggested that how you think about and perceive time also affects our decisionmaking and perspectives on the future. Instead of letting time lose all meaning, there are some ways to bring back a sense of normalcy—and maybe even remember what a Friday feels like.
Our relationship with time is governed by our lifestyles and our cultural perspectives. As J.T. Fraser, the founder of the International Society for the Study of Time, once wrote, “Tell me what to think of time, and I shall know what to think of you.”
Based on what we think about time right now, one might conclude that we're feeling lost and confused.
This is caused by several changes to our daily lives that influence how we experience time, said Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA who has studied how perceptions of time relate to the choices people make. One is that we’re paying attention more than we usually do. A couple of weeks feels incredibly long because we’ve taken in so much new information, from Twitter, online news, or TV.
“We roughly use the number of things that happen in a given period of time to tell us how much time has passed,” Hershfield said. “When way more things have occurred in a standard period of time, it makes it feel like that period of time has been longer than it actually was.”
On top of that, things that are unusual seem to last longer, called the “oddball effect.” When a psychologist at Dartmouth, Peter Ulric Tse, and his colleagues showed people the same flashing images, when a different one popped up, they said it lasted longer than the others—even though they saw it for the same amount of time.
Our emotions, like fear, also play a role in how we feel the passage of time. In 2011, a study showed students different scenes from movies that evoked fear, sadness, or neutral emotions. When they were scared, the students experienced the video durations were longer. In 2010, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, had research participants go on an amusement park ride on which they dropped a precipitous 15 stories. When asked how long the drop took, people tended to overestimate the duration.
While we’re being bombarded with new news and new fears, stretching time out, other parts of our lives have become less diverse. Eagleman has also done research showing that novelty is an important ingredient to make time feel longer, and suggested that that’s why our childhoods feel longer and time seems to move faster as we get older—because we experience less novelty as adults in our routines.
This contradiction might explain why for some there's been a kind of accordion-ing of time. Sometimes, the days feel long, as we’re trapped in the news cycle and novel fears arise. But time can also slip right by, or hours and days can blend together, in the absence of seeing new people or doing new things.
In past research, done on people not living through a pandemic, Hershfield has found that people who thought the present lasted for longer periods of time were not as motivated to plan for the future.
“The implication might be that if time loses meaning, and we’re in this perpetual present, it may be more difficult to do things for the long run,” Hershfield said. “I’m not sure that time itself has actually lost meaning. But I am worried that people are losing meaning within these stretches of time because we’re not quite sure what to do with ourselves.”
In his book Geography of Time, social psychologist Robert Levine found that there was a relationship between a city’s relationship to time and many factors, like economics, climate, population, and whether the culture was geared toward individualism or collectivism.
Anglo-Europeans live our lives in “clock” time—meaning we use time to schedule the beginning and end of activities. This is compared to “event time,” in which events begin and end according to other parameters. “Events begin and end when, by mutual consensus, participants ‘feel’ the time is right,” Levine wrote.
Anglo-Europeans additionally struggle with something called “time urgency,” or “the struggle to achieve as much as possible in the shorter period of time.” “It sometimes seems as if life is constructed with the primary goal of avoiding the awkwardness and sometimes the terror of having nothing to do,” Levine wrote.
So many of those factors have suddenly changed for us, said Marc Wittmann, a time researcher at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Germany. And because our "tempos" may have been ingrained in our previous everyday lives, this shift can be especially jarring.
For a culture that’s so rooted in productivity and time urgency, a sudden shift to event time is uncomfortable. We’re starting to experience this with Zoom hangouts with friends—which don’t end because people have to go somewhere else or commute home, but just… end when friends have had enough of each other.
“You always used to have this perspective with which you regulate,” Wittmann said. “You know, now it’s 9 AM and at 10 I have a meeting. But now, you lose your usual schedule and your time references that you have in everyday life. The days just pass."
Anne-Laure Sellier, an associate professor of marketing at HEC Paris Business School, has done follow-up research on clock and event time. She’s found that people who live with event time feel more in control of their lives, while clock-timers feel the world as a disconnected and more chaotic place, because events are not related to one another or controlled by human agency or will, but by their time, and can be shuffled and rescheduled without regard to one another.
My days used to sound a lot like how Sellier describes clock time in an article for The Conversation: “An alarm clock at 7 a.m., breakfast from 7.30 a.m. to 8 a.m., arrival at work at 9 a.m., work until noon, one hour lunch break, work again until '' at 6 p.m., a return home around 7 p.m. to sit down to eat with the family at 8 p.m. and go to bed at 11 p.m., just to sleep eight hours.”
But life now feels more like event time: “It begins with a natural awakening, followed by a breakfast that ends when you feel ready to attack work. Once at work, we stay there until hunger calls us. We eat lunch until we feel ready to go back to work. We continue until we decide that it is ‘time to stop, tomorrow is another day.'"
There could be a benefit to losing the shackles of the clock and introducing a bit more flexibility into our schedules, but completely abandoning time structures could result in leaving behind elements that were good for our mental health—like the weekend.
Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the Australian Catholic University, has done research that revealed a “weekend effect”—people have higher moods, more energy, and fewer physical complaints on Saturdays and Sundays.
“A lot of that story was that for many people, when they’re working, they’re feeling less autonomy and connectedness to other people,” Ryan said. “Whereas time off gave them a chance to connect with people they love, and share positive experiences with them."
People tend to have higher levels of well-being when we’re able to fulfill basic psychological needs, like autonomy, competence, and relatedness, along with making sure that you have the time to do things you value and are interested in. During social distancing, the weekends have lost a lot of these advantages. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Friday or Saturday or Tuesday,” Ryan said. “We can’t go out and be with the friends that we care about.”
How can we reclaim the positive effects of the days of the week, our weekend, and time in general? As many of us are learning, days of the week, routine, and structure are important to us after all. “In theory we could be like, ‘Well there's no structure, there's no boundaries, there's no limits. I can eat ice cream at nine in the morning and I can drink whiskey at 10. I can do whatever I want.’ But I think the novelty of that is going to quickly wear off,” Hershfield said.
During isolation, since we can’t go out—to the movies, to a restaurant, soccer game, or museum, one way to make time feel full and meaningful is to populate it with a lot of diverse activities that segment the time into different sections.
Hershfield suggests also trying to stick to a routine— and to do so, it might help demarcate time by creating small rituals. Researchers Francesca Gino and Mike Norton at Harvard University have studied how rituals can help people separate their work from home identities—finding, for instance, that nurses might feel they have better home/life balance if they made a ritual out of changing out of their scrubs into different clothes at the end of the work day.
Introducing rituals could help separate time so that we can focus on different parts of our identities. It might be therapeutic if you’re getting lost in the days of the week, or the difference between weekday and weekend. “What you’re doing is creating a salient cognitive cue that it is now time to shift gears,” Hershfield said.
I tried a new ritual of my own last week. On Friday evening I closed my work laptop and switched to my personal laptop. (They are identical MacBook Airs.) I’ve started wearing a small ring on my hand while I’m working, and taking it off around 5:30 or 6 to mark the end of the work day. I’m planning on coming up with some other fun weekend rituals to signal to myself that it’s time to rest, perhaps having a “weekend” hat, or a weekend dance that I start the day with. Gino and Norton found that these rituals can be beneficial, even for people who don’t think they will work.
As time plods on, these strategies could help us cope with a world that's suddenly changed around us, and be a reminder of what it used to be like. “Ultimately, what does it matter if it’s Friday at five if it might as well be Tuesday at nine?” Hershfield said. “But that type of thinking gives rise to the loss of meaning. Being able to keep some rhythm, some routine, can help us at least stay connected to what life was like prior to this.”
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