2020 may go down as the year that broke time
Studies show time distortion in lockdown is a very real thing
Time to celebrate: 2020 is almost over!
When a mundane calendar fact gives you pause, you know it's been a weird year.
Obviously, A Lot of Things happened. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, you must have an epic tale of months spent lost at sea. Do tell.)
A lot of things also didn't happen. Mainly, normal stuff: baby showers, swim meet victories, midnight lineups for the new superhero movie. And between the big and stalled, came the small: cavities were filled, tuna sandwiches made, hockey skates sharpened, Zoom meetings and Zoom meetings and Zoom meetings held.
Time bubbled away, like so many sourdough starters in their dark kitchen corners, even as it feels like either the second day of April or 2026. And if by this point you are setting alight a 2020 calendar to purge yourself of the notion of recorded existence, take heart.
There are experts out there who agree: time in 2020 got really, really weird.
"I think that what's happened this year, unlike any other year in our recent history, is that we've had so much change to our daily lives. So all our normal routines are gone, all the things that we love to do have gone, and that's really changed the way that we feel about time around us," said Ruth Ogden, an assistant professor of experimental psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in England.
"So for some people, this year has passed by quite quickly. For other people it's passed by really, really slowly. But for most people, it definitely feels different to the way that it has before."
Today was like if “we didn’t start the fire” was a day.—@MCWarburton
Remember routine? Me neither
Ogden specializes in studying people's perception of time — basically, she's a time scientist — and while no one may be thrilled, exactly, about enduring lockdowns on top of lockdowns, Ogden has been inspired watching the world around her realize that the hours of our daily lives can melt or stretch at a moment's notice.
"It's absolutely fascinating. It's so exciting from a scientific perspective," she said.
Objectively, time does what time does: march onward at its own steady clip. But how we feel about that clip (or blip, or drip) can be entirely subjective. One challenge our brains have had with COVID-19 has been keeping that subjectivity in check alongside the pandemic's proven ability to absolutely upend previous agendas.
"We love routine as human beings. Our brains love routine. And one of the things that routine does, is it helps us know what time it is. When we go into lockdown, we've lost our routine, and this is really problematic," Ogden said.
"It makes us pay a lot of attention to time — that makes time pass more slowly, but it also means that we feel a bit lost in time."
Adding to our collective fog is that other cranial trick to keeping track: memories. According to Ogden, our brains don't consciously process time, but rather use moments — from the cake toppling to the floor en route to the birthday kid, to realizing you forgot your wallet as you hit the cash register — to mark the past.
Some may feel like the year was robbed of memorable moments, with days undelineated by doomscrolling and evenings out replaced by 1,000-piece puzzles until all of a sudden it's December.
But others may acutely feel the unending months of extraordinary circumstances that bring with them extraordinary challenges, from meeting a deadline with a child on your lap, to sewing your own mask, to your first shift behind a plexiglass barrier.
"Perhaps what the lockdown is doing to us is it's making us deal with normal life in such a different way, that actually we are creating lots of new memories, we are having a lot of new experiences; they're just not the experiences we think we're having," Ogden said.
"So maybe we will actually feel like it's been a very long year, even though we've not done much, rather than a very short year."
Lockdown becomes laboratory
Ogden (who says with two children and an infant at home, each day of the first U.K. lockdown felt like three) has been busy during the pandemic. As that first lockdown swept across the United Kingdom in the spring, much the same time as Canada's restrictions went into effect, she sprang into experimental psychologist action.
She launched her first study of time perception under lockdown in April, and revisited the idea again when the U.K. reimposed those restrictions in November, each time having people fill out questionnaires to gauge how they felt time was passing and then gleaning results.
In both studies, the vast majority of people — more than 75 per cent — agreed time had gone wonky, although exactly how was evenly split into fast and slow camps. Ogden also examined what contributed to that split in the hopes of finding solutions or coping skills to make the restrictions on our daily lives speed by as fast as possible — or, for those lucky folks who have found freedom within lockdown, to keep on keeping on.
"What we want to do is try and lengthen the time we have enjoying things, and shorten the time that we don't enjoy things," she said.
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Four factors emerged from the initial study that contributed to time distortion: age, how happy you were with your current social interaction levels, stress, and busyness.
People over 60 generally felt time moved slower, as did people who were dealing with higher levels of stress. Those with a lot of work piled on their plates felt the days sped up, and those OK with their current amount of socialization — which equates to quality, not quantity, as introverts can feel satisfied even with just one other person around — also said time moved quicker.
In the second study, the age factor disappeared, with more people across all ages likely to feel a slowdown, and depression also reared its head among those who felt the clock crawling.
While Ogden said the relationship between depression and feeling time slow is not new, it's not something typically experienced by wide swaths of the general population, and points to trouble.
"I think for me, what that's telling us — because depression didn't play a role in my first study — is probably that this is indicative of a real change in mental health," she said, noting there have been a plethora of other studies pointing to the pandemic increasing issues around mental health.
Tips, as time marches on
Despite the bright light of first people receiving the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines, the sad trombone that was 2020 will stretch on to 2021. But Ogden's research provides a few tools to navigate the situation at hand, with a key tip that connecting with other people is perhaps the most important.
"The take-home message I would have from my study is you really need to maximize your opportunities to engage with people around you. So you need to try and have as much meaningful social interaction as you possibly can, whether this be face to face, or online, because this helps us to pass the time," she said.
While passing that time is important, particularly for the most isolated, lonely and vulnerable among us, the end goal of our time on Earth is not simply to make it speed up. To that end, Ogden hopes the collective realization that we can play an active role in squeezing or stretching our sense time stays with us, long after the pandemic ends.
"I think that probably for me, what this has brought home to us, and what I hope it's brought home to other people is we can potentially live our lives in different ways, and we can try from this period to utilize the things that make our lives better for us," she said.
If that sentence makes your brain hurt, a simple translation: seize the day, whatever your version of "day" has become. Dwell on the spark of connecting for a FaceTime hello, instead of the punch of sadness when the call ends. Open the window you've been staring out of, to smell the air outside.
And if that strikes you as tough, well — you have lots of time to mull it over in the days (weeks? months?) ahead.