Why you’re experiencing time as fast and slow

Got time for this?
Got time for this?
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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It’s a peculiar paradox of pandemic times: Every day is interminable, yet the hours fly by. Chronemics, or the study of time as a form of communication, can explain why.

Dawna Ballard, a chronemics expert at the University of Texas at Austin, says time is moving differently now partly because we’ve added tasks to our day that we never had to think about before.

Instead of just ordering or running out for groceries, we need to compete for delivery slots, or remember to bring a mask, and have household cleaners on hand to wipe down what we’ve purchased. And that’s on top of all the other major demands and changes in routine brought on by the pandemic: the cooking, the homeschooling, the Zooming

There’s simply more to get done in the same number of hours we always had. At the same time, the sense of slowness we’re also noticing comes from the density of all the new demands.

In other words, the bizarre perception of time that so many of us are experiencing is just a consequence of the rarely examined rules of pacing.

The inputs you don’t think about

Pacing is a totally objective formula, says Ballard. “It’s literally just a unit of time and how many new inputs you have to deal with per unit.”

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve lived and breathed an ethos that said the faster the pace, the better the outcomes, which made perfect sense on a factory floor. Our jobs are still primarily organized this way (usually ill-advisedly), and we tend to impose the same logic onto our evenings and weekends, meaning pacing affects everything about our experience of time’s passing.

The ways we pace ourselves can be problematic when we’re not adjusting to a completely changed reality. Now, living under a government mandated lockdown and rules to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities, we’re adding a huge number of previously unheard-of tasks to our waking hours. “We’re dealing with survival inputs on such a regular basis,” says Ballard, “in addition to our work.”

“There’s a long list of guidelines and the guidelines change,” she continues. One day mail is deemed relatively safe, for example, the next we should set it aside for 24 hours. “You have to change your behaviors to try to meet those guidelines, and to learn those guidelines, in addition to any other work-related things that have changed, like you have to learn the new software, and deal with the glitches with the software,” she says.

All of these “inputs,” says Ballard, quicken our pace, even though they don’t get counted in our personal assessment of our own productivity. That’s partly because they’re not part of our actual jobs. They’re merely “background” to our roles as employees or parents or partners, and they do not come with rewards, except the not-insignificant fact that we get to stay safe for another day.

But the cognitive load associated with all these new tasks—the hand washing of clothes or even keeping up with news of Covid-19 developments—has the effect of making time feel slowed down. On a typical day, you might only make 10 new decisions. “On any given day during the pandemic, you might have literally made a hundred decisions,” says Ballard, “and that’s why the day feels like a month.” 

“I mean, I’ve had days where I just can’t believe that I’m still in the same day, because it feels like the other thing happened like two weeks ago,” Ballard says. “You are quickly managing a lot of new things, and that, at the same time, makes you feel like ‘It can’t be the same day that I woke up to.’”

The best way to cope is counterintuitive

There aren’t many other life experiences that can be compared to the pace of quarantine life, but Ballard sees some parallels to moving for a new job. What’s draining is not just adapting to a new workflow or new colleagues, but learning all of the little things that would never come up in your six-month review—like whether you successfully lined up childcare, found a local dry-cleaner, or discovered some good spots for lunch.

Accordingly, Ballard’s advice to everyone living under a lockdown is the same as what she tells friends who have moved for a job: Slow down. Get more sleep than you think you need. Do less whenever you can, while maintaining a schedule of social connections, online or at home, that doesn’t leave you overbooked.

Whatever you do, don’t try to multitask. “There is no research that shows multitasking is effective. It’s just super ineffective and really problematic, it leads to more mistakes,” says Ballard.

Fortunately, she says, balancing relationships is “something we’re all built for.” We already naturally allow our various roles in life to come to the foreground and recede again while we continue to work, and that doesn’t change no matter how fast we’re moving or how long the days stretch.