Telling Time

Telling Time

By Douglas S. Querin

A few weeks ago, I commented in my blog post about the recent Sunday morning I awoke to a warm and beautifully clear day, happily looking forward to some recreation and relaxation …. only to fairly quickly realize that it was not Sunday, it was Monday! At the time, I thought this incident was rather odd since it had never happened to me before. I admit that I have been known to occasionally forget a name, what I need to pick up from the store, and to take the garbage out on garbage day. But mentally commingling a weekend and a weekday? Never happened!

I told a few friends about my Sunday-Monday experience. I asked if something like this had ever happened to them, particularly during COVID times. I learned a couple of things − one reassuring, the other curious. I found that, yes, others have had similar experiences. There seem to be an unusually large number of otherwise reasonably functioning adults with similar experiences. Sometimes it’s weekends, sometimes weekdays, but in most cases, the mix-ups were unusual and something they hadn’t noticed before – that is, before COVID. It appears that I’m not alone. That’s comforting, I guess.

The other lesson I learned, the “curious one,” is related to the Sunday-Monday phenomenon, but different in its breadth and scope. It has to do with how we globally experience and perceive the passage of time. It’s more than simply mixing up days; it has to do with our entire experience of time, both in the moment (e.g., “Today just dragged by,” vs. “Today just went by so quickly!”) and also how we can view it retrospectively (e.g., “I feel like I’ve been socially distancing forever!” vs. “It seems like just yesterday that ….”).

When talking with friends about all this, I would often say I felt like I was in a time warp, or I’d comment about how things felt so surreal. Both of these descriptions can, of course, sound insightful and perceptive or uninformed and vacuous, depending on how much of an explanation one’s listener is hoping to receive. My friends would mostly smile and nod their heads, I presume in agreement. The fact is, no single word or phrase fully captures (at least for me) how we seem to be experiencing what can feel like odd and often uncomfortable distortions of time.

Assuming that I and the people I have talked with are not outliers on reality’s bell-shaped curve, it seems to me that these distorted perceptions of time are happening to others with some frequency and have been since COVID presented itself and we responded. For most of us, the pandemic has required us to drastically limit our social interaction with others, with humanity. And, in many respects, it seems to have created an unusual sameness about much of our daily existence. Or, to repeat what people often tell me (and which I agree with): This week is just like last week. Sameness! Metaphorically and exaggeratedly, it’s like being placed in a room painted the dullest of colors and told to stay there, enjoy yourself, don’t do 90% of what you formerly did in the way you did it, and stay appropriately distanced from friends and strangers alike, for your safety and theirs. Oh, and by the way, if you have kids, love them, be patient with them, take good care of them, keep them entertained, make them feel safe, and get your own work done in your spare time. When our days are all pretty much the same, we can easily lose our sense of time; we experience it differently.

My curiosity got the best of me as I thought about these issues. I researched how we perceive and experience time. I Googled the obvious: time warp. It appears that I am not the only person observing and perplexed by distortions of time during COVID. Much has been written and, in fact, much has been researched. Below is some of what I found:

  • People are having different and sometimes even opposite experiences (surprise!) − for some, time seems to pass slower, for others, faster;

  • Some people confuse days and dates, while others don’t;

  • The sameness of people’s days challenges their usual daily tempo and their ability to experience their normal, pre-COVID sense of the passage of time;

  • COVID has seen an unfortunate increase in depression, anxiety, feelings of uncertainty, and the problematic use of substances;

  • Some researchers are documenting feelings of sadness and boredom, related, they believe, to feelings of the “deceleration” of our lives;

  • Words frequently used in the research trying to explain why time seems to be distorted for many of us are: perhaps, it is suspected, maybe, we theorize, our current thinking, more research is needed − you get the point. This whole arena (remember arenas?) of time-related experiences and oddities during COVID will no doubt become a treasure trove for researchers and scientists for years to come.

Let’s discuss some ideas about how we might bring back some degree of normalcy, and maybe even some well-being, in the otherwise strangeness of today’s world. There are, of course, thousands of suggestions. I’m going to list here just a few that I have personally found helpful or have seen referenced in the research.

  • Novelty can be valuable. It creates memories. Doing something unusual, different, and healthy breaks up the sameness of our days. These can be small activities or large ones – the operative word is novelty. In her excellent Thriving Today blog post of April 8, 2020 (“Things To Do While Sheltering in Place”), my colleague, Shari Pearlman, lists a plethora of new, different, and entertaining activities to consider doing (some of which kids might also enjoy – like taking a virtual tour of Yellowstone National Park or livestreaming a NASA trip in space).

  • Structure and consistency are valuable. I have two friends I have a socially distanced lunch with on Tuesdays and another I call regularly on Wednesdays. These events not only break up my day, but they are also enjoyable and something I look forward to weekly.

  • Goals are invaluable. Setting a personal goal, and especially monitoring progress in achieving it, can be very self-motivating. These goals can be literally anything you feel is worthwhile – reading a classic; walking, jogging, or running a distance; accomplishing a home project; and so on. Generally, goals you participate in with a friend are an excellent way of creating accountability and helping to ensure success.

  • Social contact with friends and family are vital. Personal isolation during an already socially distanced environment can be especially problematic, particularly when many of us are already challenged by concerns about depression, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, substance use, and so on. Zooming with others can’t replace real-life interactions, but it is a close second to in-person contact.

  • Gratitude is sometimes easy to forget about these days. Mental health experts are increasingly recognizing that gratitude practices are a valuable well-being resource. Regularly using a gratitude jar is an activity that works for individuals, families, and friends.

  • The Oregon Attorney Assistance Program is a confidential, voluntary, and free resource of the PLF available to Oregon attorneys, judges, and law students. It can be an invaluable resource for those who are struggling with the challenges presented during these times of COVID and who want to navigate toward some possible solutions.

Many of the suggestions and ideas listed above have the effect of creating anchors or temporal cues – events and activities that break up the workweek and help us better orient ourselves in time. They won’t totally eliminate some of the time distortions we often feel or all of the sameness of our days, but they will provide healthy variety, things to look forward to, things to remember, things to be grateful for, and things that can remind us that we actually have much more control over our lives than we often realize.

If you have any suggestions or tips that you use to help with the time distortions or sameness issues that many of us experience during these days of COVID, I’d be interested in hearing any ideas you have that we might be able to share with others in our legal community!

Below are some informational resources I found helpful:

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