The pandemic blurred our sense of time, and getting back to normal won't be easy, say experts

The COVID-19 pandemic has blurred many people's sense of time, according to experts, thanks to more than a year of acute and long-term stress, and the home becoming a place of both work and leisure.

Blurring of lines between work and personal life can lead to feelings of guilt

A man polishes the face of a clock hanging on a wall among 11 other clocks, all set to the same time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has blurred many people's sense of time, according to experts, thanks to more than a year of acute and long-term stress, and the home becoming a place of both work and leisure. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Early in the pandemic, a local news station in Cleveland earned notoriety for a new segment called "What day is it?"

It was a lighthearted acknowledgement that for many people, stuck at home for weeks thanks to lockdown measures, it was difficult differentiating one day from another.

The phenomenon has a name all its own: Blur's Day — or if you want to get technical, "temporal disintegration," according to Alison Holman, who has studied how the pandemic has affected people's perception of time.

"You just kind of lose the continuity from past, present [and] future, and you're just kind of living in the moment, day to day," said Holman, a professor at the University of California Irvine school of nursing.

Holman led a team of researchers that surveyed more than 6,500 Americans about their mental health in the spring and fall of 2020. Their findings from the spring surveys were published in September in the journal Science Advances.

"Over the six months that we've measured people in, we've seen clear reports of people experiencing [temporal disintegration]," she said.

As vaccinations roll out around the world and the pandemic subsides — whenever that may be — Holman hopes people will begin to settle back into some daily rituals, which can mitigate that time blur.

"When people have a sense that they're back to what they were doing, that will help them feel like they're rebuilding their future," she said.

It won't be a seamless transition, she cautioned, as people go back to the kinds of social interactions they had before physical distancing and mask-wearing became paramount.


Humans need a stable sense of past, present and future, Holman said. Our past informs who we are, our immediate experiences comprise our present and we build our perceived future when we set short- and long-term goals.

"What happens in the context of major life trauma is that this sense of the future is often just shut down," she told CBC's Torah Kachur, host of the CBC Radio special It's About Time.

Alison Holman is a professor at the University of California Irvine school of nursing, and has studied how the pandemic has changed people's perception of time. (Submitted by Alison Holman)

Most traumatic life events, such as losing your job or the death of a loved one, happen at a specific point in time. The pandemic, however, is "an unusual form of trauma because it's ongoing," Holman said.

On top of that, she said, many have experienced what would be traumatic events in and of themselves during the pandemic. These "punctuated acute stressors," as Holman calls them, further muddy our long-term plans and goals.

"It's been this endless series of events that has really dramatically shifted people's sense of time."

From time-abundant to time-poor

Not all of these shifts are as obviously traumatic — at least not at first, said behavioural scientist Selin Malkoc.

Malkoc, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, surveyed people who started working from home in the early months of the pandemic.

She found that in the early weeks, many people found they had an extra hour or two because they didn't have to commute.

Selin Malkoc is an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. (Submitted by Selin Malkoc)

That extra time promised "a sense of time abundance" to spend on stay-at-home activities like art or jigsaw puzzles, she said.

By the late spring to early summer, however, people reported being "more time-poor than ever, especially those who have families and jobs at the same time."

"Now [a year later], I think a huge difficulty is balancing work and home life, especially with kids at home."

That blurring of the lines between our work and personal lives — both in terms of time and space — leads to another serious side-effect: guilt.

"I'm working upstairs, but I hear my kids [downstairs]. And normally I wouldn't feel guilty for working during work hours, but now I feel guilty doing so," Malkoc told CBC Radio.

A commuting state of mind

For many, the commute to work can be a time-consuming, frustrating and expensive part of the day. But according to Sanford DeVoe, an associate professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, it served an important role.

"The time to sort of mentally prepare for work as you get to it, and sort of severing off the connections from home as you do that, was a really valuable psychological process for people. And now that we've been forced to work at home, we don't have that," he said.

Sanford DeVoe is an associate professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. He's conducted research that looks for the answer to the question: What's your time worth? (Robert Downs Photography)

To circumvent that, some people have taken up habits such as going outside for a "commute walk" around the neighbourhood before beginning work.

"[It's] just a way to say, 'OK, I'm now putting my work hat on or taking my work hat off,' " DeVoe said.

Some of these challenges will persist, he said, since not everyone will go back to their workplace full-time whenever the pandemic winds down.

He said workers in many professions have found that they can do most, if not, all of their tasks remotely. But people still crave the face-to-face connections that come from working in the same building as their colleagues.

DeVoe said he hopes workplaces will adopt politics that help prevent people's work lives and home lives from overlapping.

"I'll be curious to know whether organizations start to do email blackouts" during non-work hours, he said. "I think it's going to be really important for people not to get burned out in the long term."

Taking lessons into the future

In the meantime, the pandemic's "biggest lesson" is to take the time to do the things we want, when we know we can do it, Malkoc said.

"We had gotten used to the world pre-pandemic where uncertainty was minimal. We were thinking that tomorrow is going to be like today and next month is going to be slightly different than today, but not that different," she said.

In other words, once non-essential travel restrictions subside, take that grand vacation you've thought about for years.

What day is it? You might as well call it Blur's Day, says Holman. (zef art/Shutterstock)

DeVoe predicts that as lockdowns relax and people feel safer, there will be "an enormous amount of pent-up demand" for travel and other social activities they've missed out on.

He believes the absence of most of these activities have "led them to have a new appreciation for the value of time."

Malkoc cautions not to take this newfound appreciation for granted.

"Human memory is very short. These might come out to be patterns that we see post-pandemic, but they might not last long because we will get back to the usual, and we'll forget about the pandemic — and our lessons learned."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Radio special It's About Time produced by Leslie Goldstone and Torah Kachur.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now