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Why Time is Flying During COVID-19

Article by Behavioural Sassonomics


When you look back at your time in lockdown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has it felt like time has flown by? You’re not alone. The similarity in our day to day has led to the creation of fewer new memories, making our judgements of time feel like it’s passed very quickly. Here are a few tips on what to do to slow it down.


Ask yourself the following question: has the time felt like it passed slowly or quickly?



If you feel like time has flown by, you aren’t alone. But why?

Many of us have experienced considerable amounts of boredom in lockdown. Taken away from the normal hustle and bustle, forced to amuse ourselves in ways reserved for the occasional sick day at home. 

Conventional wisdom holds that time appears to go faster when having fun, slow down when we’re bored. But then… THIS:



Why?


THE PASSAGE OF TIME IS SUBJECTIVE 

How we feel time doesn’t always line up with what the clock says. Some philosophers have even suggested we perceive time in proportion to the total time we’ve been alive. Have a discussion with anyone on the topic and surely you’ll find some difference in your respective perceptions of time.


WE ESTIMATE THE PASSAGE OF TIME TWO WAYS (HOW FAST IT FEELS RIGHT NOW VS. HOW FAST IT FELT WHEN WE LOOK BACK ON IT).


We evaluate our sense of time passage two ways. The first is prospectively – as in, judging how fast time feels to be passing right now. The second is retrospectively – as in, how fast did a particular period of time feel like it passed?


Researchers have suggested that these two different ways of judging the passage of time are the results of two different cognitive mechanisms. Prospective judgements of time passage are linked to attention; what impacts your perception of time passage is both the extent to which you had to ramp up your attention in advance of the time period being judged, as well as the extent to which your attention was disrupted. On the other hand, retrospective judgements of time are impacted by memory; time feels shorter or longer depending on how much space in your memory is occupied from the time period in question (i.e. the more memories you create in a given amount of time, the longer it will feel to you).


Additionally, emotional state can impact our passage of time. For example, increased anxiety can make time feel slower. The more emotional a memory, the longer it’ll feel. Likely you can relate if you’ve ever been let go from a job or had a really big fight. 


LOCKDOWN HAS CHANGED THE WAY WE SPEND OUR DAYS


Lockdown has changed the way we spend our days in many ways, and in different ways for different people. Some people face isolation and have had to fill their time in different ways, perhaps rediscovering old hobbies or binging on The Tiger King. Others have been overwhelmed by working from home, homeschooling children, or being on video calls all the livelong day. 

What is common, however, is the sentiment that the days feel more similar to each other than ever before. Being at home is no longer reserved for the weekend or days off. Visits with friends or that class at the gym that punctuates a work day are no longer possible. We get more and more… and more… of the same. Essentially, we are taking in less new information in our days (think beyond just work information to include all the sensory faculties). It makes it easy to forget which day of the week today is.


THE SIMILARITY FROM DAY-TO-DAY LEADS US TO CREATE FEWER MEMORIES


Even talking to many different people over Skype or Zoom calls begins to blur, especially if the camera isn’t on, as you sit at your desk for 10+ hours a day talking to an icon on the screen (not talking from experience or anything *weak smile*). Again, our sense of having many memories is one of the ways we judge how quickly time has passed. The more memories, the longer the time felt. 


Take, for example, your first week at a new job or school. It seems long because it’s jam-packed with new experiences. A few months in, things start to feel like they sail by, because it’s just more of the same. Side note: this also explains why we tend to perceive time as passing more slowly when we’re younger, and quickly when we’re older, because when you’re young, everything is new. 


Fewer new experiences caused by living a Groundhog Day-style life in lockdown equals fewer new memories. 


A LACK OF MARKERS IN TIME LEADS TO RETROSPECTIVELY FEELING LIKE TIME HAS FLOWN BY


Some predict that we might look back and have a hard time delineating our time at home in lockdown. The similarity of the day-to-day experienced by many people explains the phenomenon of time flying by. However, some are still out and hitting it hard in these times, without the luxury of the familiar each day, and it would not be surprising if they have felt that the time has passed rather quickly indeed. 


What Should I do?


IS TIME PASSING TOO QUICKLY?


Create opportunities for new experiences. Go for a walk in a new neighbourhood, shake things up! Or try things like mindfulness, which supports you in taking in more information.


IS TIME PASSING TOO SLOWLY?


If it is passing too slowly because of anxiety, try meditation. Try to figure out some events that you are looking forward to in the future, like a socially-distanced picnic or the release of a long-awaited movie. Utilize a routine to structure your day to make sure you get in enough diversity. 

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