Truman: Oh, and in case I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.
Tanzina: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of our lives, and that includes our sense of time. Depending on the month, week, day, even hour, time seems to either drag on forever or is gone in the blink of an eye.
That was especially true early on in the pandemic, when communities across the country and the world were on lockdown. During that time, and even now, months later, I still see jokes on Twitter saying things like, "What a year this week has been," or reminders stating the obvious that it is, in fact, Tuesday, for example.
For some, days of the week have ceased to exist altogether, though clocks and calendars continue to tick on as usual. Instead of Sunday, Monday, and so on, there's just Blursday. Steven Johnson has been thinking a lot about our newly distorted perceptions of time. He's an audience editor at the Washington Post, and recently started a newsletter about time during the pandemic called, What day is it? Steven, great to have you with me.
Steven Johnson: Hi, Tanzina. Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Just to double-check, it's Tuesday, right?
Steven: Yes, it is.
Tanzina: Steven, why has our sense of time become so distorted during this pandemic?
Steven: A lot of our routines were thrown into question. Everything was up in the air. We didn't have assaults [unintelligible 00:01:59] into the future. It's especially that sense of the future that's continued now. Normally, we have what we call like, anchor points, that ground us in time, and the mix of routines and new events that can help us distinguish Tuesday from Wednesday from Thursday. Those can be anything like going out after work to meet up with friends or seeing other friends on the weekends.
They have a lot to do with social relationships. Just the things that keep you grounded in your community and your relationships are also what keep you grounded in time. The pandemic took a lot of those things away from us. It's obviously a time of distance and isolation for a lot of people. They're stuck at home, they don't have much to differentiate one day from another. I wanted to talk with psychologists and see what factors might help us do that.
Tanzina: We've been talking a lot about the mental health aspects of the coronavirus pandemic and how a lot of folks are faring. This has been a largely traumatic event for a lot of people. What is the relationship between time and trauma?
Steven: The field of time perception is pretty old, but more recently, there's been a look at the connection between time perception and trauma. One researcher I spoke with at UC Irvine, finds that there is this what she calls temporal disintegration. A large trauma like this breaks your connection with the past, present, and future. It really grounds you right into the present moment
It does a special damage to your sense of the future and makes your window of planning much, much sooner, you have to think only a day or two ahead instead of several months at a time and all of your plans are thrown into question. The challenge is to regain a sense of the future and be able to pass to the present in a fulfilling way instead of being glued to every second as it passes by through either dread or stress or worry.
Tanzina: I'm wondering if the perception of time and the passage of time is different depending on each of our home scenarios?
Steven: Absolutely. Having kids at home is a huge factor that will change how much a sense of control you feel you have over your time. Just because there are other people in your life who you have to take care of, who have their own demands in your time or have their own needs.
There was a study in the UK that was able to break down how time passed more quickly for some people during lockdown and slower for other people during lockdown. It found about an even split between younger busier people who felt time passed actually more quickly in lockdown, and older, maybe more bored people or isolated people who felt time passed much more slowly.
Tanzina: Also thinking about time markers, when we think about the holidays that are coming up, we think about the New Year. I, for example, I have a birthday today and I'm looking at this and saying, well, normally I just look at those occasions and birthdays in particular as markers that don't really matter as much as the end of the year, but this time I'm saying, well, you have to internally adjust our milestone clock.
Steven: Well, happy birthday.
Tanzina: Thank you. It feels more like the New Year than it does-- You see what I'm saying? This whole concept of time is so bizarre.
Steven: Oh, totally. I'm thinking about my birthday coming up soon. I was too lazy to even get something together to celebrate my last birthday before the pandemic happened. Now, I feel like it was a huge missed opportunity. Part of the challenge and one thing psychologists told me was that we just really have to shrink our frame of reference and think small.
One thing that people really turned to right at the beginning of the pandemic was these large group zooms, either zoom happy hours or zoom celebrations. A lot of people really quickly found that was exhausting. One psychologist told me there's a reason for that, even extroverts would find those huge group seems exhausting and found it much more fulfilling to engage with people just one-on-one individually, whether it's virtually or in person. Those kinds of meaningful relationships can carry you much further than the big group interactions can. That's what we have to depend on right now.
Tanzina: You mentioned a concept called anchor points, what are those?
Steven: The commute is a good example. Every single day, you know that you're going to go to work and come back to work. Now, either because people are working remotely or because they're unemployed, they don't have that. You think about them on a daily level, and also on the weekly level. You know that maybe on Fridays, you would see some friends after work. That doesn't happen anymore.
Part of what we can do now is actually lay out our week, what our daily and weekly routines look like. What I pretty quickly found was that I really had almost none, a few months into lockdown. I had some kind of routine, but it was unconscious. It still felt haphazard. What I actually found paradoxical, it was like every tip or practice that psychologists gave me had to do with building some kind of structure back in. that rankled me at first, it didn't feel right. I found out that as soon as I started doing that, it actually reduced a lot of stress and uncertainty for me, and gave me something to look forward to.
A couple examples. I set aside Wednesday evenings to literally do nothing. That doesn't stop me from taking breaks at other times. Basically, after I log off, I might just light a candle, put my phone in another room, and literally just stare at a wall. Maybe that gets some weird looks for my roommates. Over time, I pretty quickly started looking forward to it, and I knew that Wednesday was my day to completely disengage.
Similarly, I also set aside Thursdays for some volunteering or service. Psychologists know that connections with your community are a huge factor in promoting resilience. in helping people stay through this thing and feel a sense of purpose, because that's one of the biggest things that we've lost is a sense of purpose around just the daily and weekly activities that we have.
Tanzina: It's interesting that you say that. I try to wake up an hour before my son wakes up just to have a cup of coffee in peace, to have that moment, even if it's at 5:00 in the morning. Steven, the pandemic has arguably changed how we live in so many ways. I'm wondering if as we head into the winter and the colder months here, at least in the northeast and the pandemic, really, we have no idea when it's going to end. Do you think we're going to savor time more?
What I mean is, by taking away our commutes, some of that was stressful, some of that was just, we're running on this rat race and we're on this treadmill. Every day we wake up and we get to our jobs, and we do them and we come home. While some of that might have been fulfilling and helped us create days and structure, some of that was also very stressful. Are we in a moment now where we're starting to slow down and maybe savor the time that we have?
Steven: I hope that's true. I know that one crucial thing that one psychologist told me as we get into the colder months is to know that your social contact is going to be less frequent, and it's going to be more difficult in person. But that really can let you savor the time that you do have with somebody just to talk or catch up to have a deep conversation.
I know that just recently I had this hours-long coffee walk, distant, masked, with a good friend of mine around the National Mall. That interaction alone kept me afloat for probably two weeks longer than it would have before the pandemic. I found that these kinds of things I could really appreciate. They might feel smaller and they are smaller, but they give us something to look forward to, and we can find what's really meaningful in this time.
Tanzina: Steven Johnson is an audience editor for the Washington Post and the creator of the, What day is it? newsletter. Steven, thanks so much for spending some of your time with me.
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