The Pandemic Warped Our Sense Of Time. Here's How To Gain It Back.

You're not alone if the last two years feels like a black hole. Here's why, plus how you can make it more "normal" now.
Experts explain why our sense of time has been altered because of the COVID pandemic and what we can do about it.
Massimo Ravera via Getty Images
Experts explain why our sense of time has been altered because of the COVID pandemic and what we can do about it.

At this point of the pandemic, it still feels like we’re stuck in a bit of a time warp.

Yes, offices are opening back up and many people are carrying on with their events and travel plans. But there’s still a layer of uncertainty about what might happen next with COVID and when the pandemic will truly end — especially as more variants pop up.

Life doesn’t exactly feel normal yet, and as a result, time drags by. Here’s why, and how you can “gain” some of it back:

1. We lost our routines.

According to Ruth Ogden, an experimental psychologist at Liverpool John Moores University who studies how humans process time, this sensation that time is warped has been a global phenomenon. Through her research, she’s found that people across the globe have experienced distorted time during the pandemic.

The biggest culprit of the time warp: the loss of our routines.

“All the things in our day that helped us know what time it was ― they were gone. That meant it became easy for time to slip and slide around,” Ogden said.

During the pandemic, time stood still for many of us. We canceled our activities and we distanced from friends. People did everything — sleep, eat, work, socialize, parent, exercise — from their homes.

“We’re all heavily routinized creatures, but this routine is important because it keeps us in time,” Ogden said.

Our day-to-day activities help us perceive time — if we are commuting, we know it’s morning, if we’re running out for lunch, it’s midday, and so on and so forth. Without daily routines, which act as markers of time, it becomes easy to get lost in time. The things that made your Saturday a Saturday, or your Tuesday a Tuesday, may no longer be there.

Research also suggests that emotions significantly impact our perception of time. When we’re happy and physiologically aroused, time feels like it’s flying by; conversely, depression can make time feel sluggish.

Furthermore, our expectations of how things will occur (i.e., the pandemic is over!) versus the reality of how things play out (there’s a new variant coming for us) can make time feel faster or slower, depending on if the actual outcome was better or worse than our predictions.

2. Memories help us process time, and our memories are different from the last few years.

Think back to the beginning of the pandemic, when news of COVID spreading around China first leaked. How long ago does that feel to you? Months? Years? It’s probably hard to tell.

Ogden and her research team have been studying how people feel about the length of the pandemic and have discovered that the brain processes length of time through memories.

“If we’ve got loads of memories, then it says, ‘Oh, it must have been a long time,’ but if it has very few memories, then we think it must have been a short period of time,” Ogden said.

In theory, most of us should remember the pandemic as being short — because we didn’t do a lot, Ogden said. But she’s found the opposite: most people feel like we’ve been stuck in the pandemic for much longer than we have been.

The reason, it seems, is that while we didn’t necessarily form a ton of fun, new memories for a period of time, we still formed memories. We learned how to bake bread, we got into puzzles and crafts and packed our days with Zoom meetings. We navigated life through restrictions, masking and distancing; we developed new skills and fell into new routines. Time moved forward.

A loss of routine is the main reason why time seems to drag by.
Delmaine Donson via Getty Images
A loss of routine is the main reason why time seems to drag by.

3. People process time differently.

Just how distorted time feels varies from person to person. It ultimately depends each person’s personal experience with COVID and how much the pandemic has influenced or changed their daily activities, said Nicole Dudukovic, the director of the neuroscience major at the University of Oregon.

Ogden’s research, for example, has found that social satisfaction is one of the biggest factors behind how people process time.

“The more socially satisfied you were, the ‘quicker’ the pandemic went,” Ogden said, noting that this didn’t just involve being around people, like family in your household, but seeking out and enjoying social connections.

People who have engaged in “normal life” again, and are traveling and commuting to the office and engaged in activities, are probably going to have a more normal sense of time right now. People who are at-risk and are hunkering down, along with those who are stressed about returning to pre-pandemic activities, may continue to feel disoriented about time.

“For some people, this experience will continue for a long time and that will continue to cause distortion to their experience of time,” Ogden said.

4. We’re more aware of time now.

Ultimately, the pandemic has made people much more aware of time. We’ve had more time on our hands, which has caused us to become hyper aware of time and how it’s passing, Ogden said.

At the same time, we often don’t remember time accurately. It’s very hard for people to remember how we felt about things, like time, in the past — it’s largely influenced by how we feel about things now. Memories of how time once passed can be very inaccurate, according to Dudukovic. While it may feel like time is passing differently now, it’s totally plausible that we’re just misremembering how time felt pre-pandemic.

“It’s possible that if you’d asked me in 2019 about how fast time was going that maybe it would be not that different from how I’m feeling about it now,” Dudukovic said.

Here’s how to overcome the time warp.

Ogden said it’s important to recognize that we are not going to return to life before the pandemic.

“So much in the world has changed as a result of the pandemic,” she said. We’ve carried on and adapted to new ways of work and socializing.

One of the best ways to mitigate the feeling that we’re stuck in a time warp is to create new routines.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that your routine, and also the number of activities that you’re engaged in, that that’s going to influence how you’re perceiving time,” Dudukovic said.

Changing your environments — stepping out of the house, going on walks, or even switching up the room you work in — can trick your brain into thinking more is happening, so that time passes more regularly.

If your days blend together, save certain activities and routines for specific days of the week.

“Make your Tuesday a Tuesday because of the things you do in it,” Ogden said.

Finally, try to keep busy. The busier we are, the less we tend to focus on how time is passing.

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