The meeting I thought was a week ago was actually a month ago, and the things I’d scheduled for August — an entire lifetime, a summer away — are now springing out of the calendar and tapping me on the shoulder. Time is moving too quickly — and I’m far from the only one who thinks so.
The time you have impacts how you spend it, how you structure it, the routines you build to define it, and how you experience life itself. And feeling that time has been distorted is hardly a unique thought — particularly over the course of the past year and a half that was marked in large part by Covid-19 lockdowns, the lifting of restrictions, and concerns that we’ll continue repeating the process with variants. It’s in how friends describe the endless slog of workdays, in which there’s no differentiation between moving from one day to the next besides the fact that you had a period of nighttime in between. Parents talked about getting used to virtual schooling with their kids, only to be stunned by back-to-school supply lists as tentative plans are made for a new academic year. Workers skid from weekend to weekend, taking breaks where they can as lines between “work time” and “home time” get narrower, perhaps because of working from home or due to the inability to afford to take a break at all.
But recently, with the mid-way mark of 2021 already come and gone, time seems more entangled with what we’re doing with it, or what we have failed to do with the time that has already passed us by. For every tick of the clock, the to-do list grows by an item, and with it comes the jittery sense that you should be doing more with their time than whatever you are.
How People Feel About the Great Catch-Up Year
Perhaps because everyone experienced 2020 in such profoundly different ways, 2021 has been popularly presented as an opportunity to catch up on delayed moments. Last year, a common conception was that society was “on pause” — milestones and markers were cancelled and postponed, routines were altered, and future plans were halted. For many, conditions felt too dire to even imagine a week in advance, and 2020 was often a tornado of attempting to stay alive, manage responsibilities and sometimes grief, and take care of those they were responsible for without the luxury of feeling time was moving too slowly.
As writer Shannon Stirone reported for Vox, time during the pandemic might have felt as though it was moving at a glacial pace daily, but quickly week to week — it’s called retrospective time. And research conducted in the U.K., France, and Italy showed that the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly distorted the way in which individuals perceive time, according to Dr. Ruth Ogden. Most people feel that the pandemic has lasted longer than it actually has, and one reason for that distortion is the loss of temporal markers such as routines, which tether us to a sense of time in our lives.
Another is emotion, which “has a huge effect on our sense of time,” Ogden adds. That might be one of the reasons 2021 feels like it’s moving at hyper-speed: It’s a high-intensity emotional time, one of chaos and grief for those grappling with the emotional impact of a pandemic that has continued into this year, and a sense of renewal and return to social plans, offices, and more consistent schedules for others. “To prevent time distortion, we therefore need to try to regulate our emotions,” Ogden says, noting this can be done by structuring each day and focusing on mindfulness and relaxation techniques.
Over and over, people have referenced the urge to make this year count after a “lost year”: it’s in articles about making your “post-vax summer” the best ever, and the throughline of tips and hacks meant to “reignite” productivity. But 2021 also feels like a suspended reality: Plenty of people have ventured back to their version of pre-pandemic life, but millions of others haven’t experienced the same return to form, and may never will. That’s because, in part, much of pre-pandemic life was neither “normal” nor sustainable, nor was it meant to be.
Immunocompromised people are dealing with a world made less safe for them after the CDC lifted mask recommendations for vaccinated individuals. Schools are still figuring out what fall will look like for children who are still too young to receive an available vaccine — which means families are, too. After frontline workers risked their lives during a pandemic, often for meager pay and no paid sick leave or healthcare, America is experiencing what’s being called a “reassessment” of the future of work, in which many workers are no longer willing to risk their well-being for minimum wages and toxic work environments.
And amid all this, there has still been little to no collective time to process the grief and trauma of the past year. Even during the pandemic, productivity — the idea that we should be doing more with our time — pumped across newsfeeds and inboxes. It’s no surprise the slouch toward productivity, framed as “making the most” of your time, is flaring up so strongly now.
How Capitalism Shapes Time
Industrial capitalism is connected to the Protestent work ethic, says Dawna I. Ballard, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at University of Texas at Austin who studies chronemics, the study of time as it is bound to human communication. If you’re in the West, “you come from a culture that truly teaches us to place our own personal sense of worth based upon the way we use our time,” she says.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” you’ve seen this culture in action. “That’s what they meant: that, literally, people who use their time wisely are the ones doing the good deeds,” Ballard explains. Then, over time, time became money through capitalism, and as a result, it was less about good deeds and just about doing deeds themselves. “What do you have to show for your time?”
It’s important to know how capitalism, and the hyper-productivity stemming from it, factors here because, as Ballard points out, changing this requires awareness and significant inner work, especially when it comes to the agency you exert over our time.
For example, Ballard felt physically awful and had been dealing with some familial needs the day before we spoke, so she informed people she had meetings scheduled with she needed a day of recovery. She’s quick to point out not everyone has that level of agency: There are plenty of workers who can’t call out and cancel; there are plenty of caregivers for whom work happens around the clock. That’s why policy is critical, and why activists are adamant that every job should offer mandatory paid vacation time, paid sick leave, and paid personal leave. Raising wages, so people aren’t choosing between protecting their time and energy and paying their rent, could also help repair a culture of overwork that instructs people to always be on.
“Ultimately, the same way the culture started in one way, it can shift over time,” explains Ballard. To loosen capitalism’s grip on your time, “you just really have to be aware of it, because if we’re unaware of it, then it silently controls us,” Ballard says. And while there are plenty of people who cannot afford to fight back on that hold, others don’t realize how tightly hustle culture has bound itself to their identity, because they’ve never stopped to question it. So there’s opportunity, Ballard says, in recognizing “this is a social construction because by the way, the whole world doesn’t operate this way.”
How Do We Actually ‘Make the Most’ of It?
Between myriad stressors in the past year and a half, people have been engulfed in a sense of waiting for something familiar. “That’s my best guess, in this year in 2021, why it’s gone so fast: we’ve been waiting for some real normalcy,” Ballard says. “And we’re just not getting it.”
Instead, many are left with a lingering sense that they’re running out of time — that there’s a clock counting down how much can be squeezed into the half-year remaining in 2021, the year that was supposed to be the restart of life. But rather than cramming everything possible in, it seems steadiness matters more, as does intentionally choosing how you spend our time, when and where you can.
There are a number of things you can do to slow down time, Ballard says. First and foremost, acknowledge that organization and institutional structures often prohibit slowing down. It would be just as detrimental to create a version of slowing down time that “places blame on the individual because we often feel like we’re the ones not doing something right,” Ballard explains. It can be easy to look at social media and feel like you’re the only person not living a leisurely, idyllic, and carefree life. “But the truth is that I talk about this to people from all walks of life and everyone responsible for paid and unpaid labor is worn out,” Ballard adds.
There are also small things you can do with your personal time, if circumstances allow. First, “less scheduling helps to slow things down, so consider not overscheduling personal time,” Ballard says. (Though, she notes, in her own life, caregiving can disrupt that, which means building in as many unscheduled days as possible to account for the unexpected.) Second, Ballard notes how regular meditation practice has been shown to reduce self-interruptions.
“Part of the exhaustion from a fast-paced life is in all the related thoughts,” Ballard explains. Besides work, there are the day-to-day logistics many people are constantly calculating, from caregiving responsibilities to grocery store runs. Relatedly, a third thing to try is to halt multitasking — the opposite of what so many productivity gimmicks push onto people in an effort to milk the most time out of every hour. “Try doing one thing at a time and refusing interruptions,” Ballard adds. “Ultimately, do things that help you to ground you in your own natural rhythm. We all have one.”
Honoring your natural rhythm whenever possible also helps being “beholden to pseudo-productivity hacks,” Ballard adds. “I call them fake because productivity is not just about a day or a week.” To her, true productivity and resilience is actually a long-term accomplishment. “Burning out early in life because you lived by someone else’s pacing standards — I wouldn’t call that productive.”
When you pay attention to the given moment, you can curb the impulse to be so forward-looking that all you can see is the stopwatch counting down. And instead of fixating on “making the most” of your time by doing the most, you can practice giving yourself the grace to how you feel as we move through time, and where you can, adjust accordingly.