Our Relationship With Time Is Changing—Maybe for the Better

11 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

It wasn’t long after the pandemic began that people around the world started to notice something weird was going on. As the rhythms of daily life changed, some people’s days seemed to run together; others felt theirs stretched on indefinitely. The sense of what an hour felt like was corroding. News outlets filled with attempts to explain what was happening.

Ruth Ogden, an experimental psychologist who studies time perception at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., says she had only ever gotten maybe one interview request before the pandemic, and has since received at least a hundred. And while the study of time is certainly not new, she says the volume and pace of academic publication on the topic seem to have increased, too. Studies published since early 2020 have suggested, in no particular order, that dragonflies process the movement of time very quickly while starfish do so slowly; that virtual reality and ADHD are both linked to difficulty judging how much time has passed; that time flies when you’re making eye contact and seems to drag when you’re guilty of hiding something. (The International Bureau of Weights and Measures is even in the course of redefining the second, though that one’s a coincidence.)

Another attempt to get to the bottom of things arrives Tuesday. In Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, the artist Jenny Odell follows the threads she plucked in her best-selling 2019 debut, How to Do Nothing—which found an eager audience in people looking for ways to shore up their souls against the drain of productivity culture—and arrives at a sweeping yet personal challenge to assumptions Western society makes about the relationships between individuals and the finite hours in a given day. COVID-19 was not the original impetus for the project; she says her interest was sparked when she kept hearing the odd complaint from readers that they wanted to do nothing, but simply couldn’t find the time. Still, the pandemic not only provided a jolt to her writing process—if you’re trying to blow up assumptions about time use, there’s nothing like a worldwide shift in the way people spend their days to help the project along—but also helped create a world particularly eager to join in her reexamination.

Lockdowns ravaged the routines by which we used to define our hours; what had once seemed as sure as the ticking of a clock was exposed as mere social construct. And then there was the virus itself. “Everyone was faced with deaths, and really had that in their face every day,” Odell theorizes. “So [the] question of ‘How do I spend my time?’ or ‘What is my relationship to time?’ becomes a lot more urgent.”

Today, almost exactly three years after the WHO declared a pandemic, with so many of the lifestyle changes of COVID-19 reverting to the status quo, Odell’s book arrives at what could be a turning point. The pandemic created a window in which almost everything, from office culture to trust in the government, could be up for debate. Time itself was no exception, which for many represented a major shift: the realization that decisions made by mere humans can shape something so fundamental. And once you’ve realized it, you also know that you have some control over your own experience of it.

Now, in the return to “normal,” we’ll find out if what we learned will stick, and perhaps give us new models for a happier relationship with time.

To be sure, time in a physics sense, rather than a psychology sense, is a different story. There, it takes something like a black hole, not a lockdown, to mix things up. Perhaps fittingly, then, Carlo Rovelli, the Italian physicist and author behind 2017’s The Order of Time, says he doesn’t see the last few years as likely to have changed much in this area. And if widespread reflection did have an impact, he doesn’t see that lasting once the crisis passes.

But that reversion, others argue, is not a foregone conclusion.

“I think people don’t quickly forget that there was a one-to-three-year period of their lives where they lived in a very different way than before,” says Oliver Burkeman, author of the popular 2021 book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. “A 5% difference in how you spend your time as a result of an experience like the pandemic is huge.”

Which way does Odell think things will break? “Only time will tell,” she says, then reconsiders. “I do think there are certain things—once you’ve seen them, you can’t unsee them.”

What Odell can’t unsee is the fact that the pre-pandemic mainstream Western way of thinking about time isn’t the only way. Her conclusion, after studying how those norms came about and how they’re put to use today, is that time is not so much money but power.

Read an excerpt from Saving Time: The Beauty of What Happens When Nothing Happens

When people say they don’t have time, what they mean is they don’t have control. That lack of autonomy may come from a demanding boss, an internal voice, or existential-level problems such as climate anxiety. Odell uses the concept of a zeitgeber, German for “time giver,” to discuss the systems that determine how our experiences of time are structured; the examples she gives range from a child’s school schedule to the UX design of a gig-work app.

One way for the powerless to find some control, she posits, is to reject the most basic assumptions of the system that keeps them down. In Indigenous societies, for example, she finds alternatives to the kind of clock-based living that can feel natural but isn’t. (In fact, she believes, rigid ways of thinking about the future are holding us back from productive attitudes toward the fate of the planet.) Her own epiphany during the pandemic was that her time was not so much hers as it was created within relationships. One clear example she cites in the book is the siesta, a time-use norm that only exists as long as a culture decides collectively that it should. She pushed herself—while acknowledging the privilege of being able to do so—to see hours not as a personal resource to expend, but as a material that was molded by the way she and others chose together to use it. “It was almost as if a grid had been lifted off the topography of time,” she recalls.

Of course, Odell wasn’t the only one encountering a new experience of time. Researchers like Ogden, the psychologist, moved their work outside the lab because of COVID-19 and took advantage of the unprecedented moment to conduct studies all over the world asking people how the pandemic affected their impressions of time. The fact that having your life messed with can alter the experience of time’s passage isn’t a new revelation; as Ogden pointed out in one paper that came out of her work during this period, decades of studies, including of families locked in fallout shelters during the 1960s, confirmed that life feels different if you stop being told what time it is. But, she argues, the pandemic was the first significant proof that it doesn’t take a nuclear bunker to see that effect: you can be in your home, with your roommate, the clock on your microwave glowing, your inbox filling with emails, and still feel that the hours have come unglued from expectation. And those studies arrived just at a moment when people were inclined to be interested in the results.

That’s because, Ogden suggests, “you had this period of time in which life stopped, but time continued. And I think that got us all much more aware of the idea that time is finite, and it’s valuable. And when it’s lost, or when you can’t control it, it feels weird, and you want to know why it feels weird.”

Illustration by Pete Reynolds for TIME

That said, this shift might not have happened were it not for a conference held years before the pandemic. When Marc Wittmann, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany, was a doctoral student a few decades back, he says, even a major neuroscience or psychology conference might have just one symposium or presentation related to time. Then, about a decade ago, the E.U. supported a networking drive that brought together time and timing scholars across countries and disciplines. It all culminated in 2014, in Corfu, Greece, at the first International Conference on Timing and Time Perception.

Since then, Wittmann says, there’s been a “snowball effect” of interest: more people are getting professorships related to their focus on time perception, and those professors have students, and those students become professors who study new aspects of time.

Argiro Vatakis, an experimental psychologist at Panteion University in Athens and an organizer of that Corfu conference, says that the biggest change in the last decade is an increase in research that focuses on questions relevant to everyday life. The pandemic only furthered that trend. “Now the fact that we lose track of time or time seems to pass fast or slow,” she says, “became on the forefront of what people were talking about.”

Case in point: Wittmann and Vatakis are among the 32 contributors to the “Blursday database,” which compiles survey results from nearly 3,000 people in nine countries who were asked about their experience of time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those studies confirmed, among other findings, that ”the less isolated individuals felt [during lockdown], the closer in time past and future events seemed to be.” In other words, isolation makes time drag. In the absence of commutes, many of us learned something similar to Odell’s takeaway: that our days can be shaped instead by community—and maybe that’s a better way to live.

Of course, knowing that the brain’s experience of time can be shaped by our relationships doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to reset our internal clocks; if you don’t feel in control of your time, that’s not necessarily your fault. Where Odell concerns herself with the systemic societal and economic structures that constrain us, Ogden cautions that the way trauma alters one’s experience of time’s passage is a biological process that can’t be self-helped away.

That said, there are certain things that people who spend all day thinking about time do to seize what control they can over it.

Ogden, for one, finds comfort in using her knowledge of the fallibility of time perception to remind herself that negative periods came to an end faster than it perhaps seemed they did. Wittmann says he is more aware of the way that breaking out of one’s emotional routine can keep it from feeling like the fun times are flying by too quickly: looking for additional depth in your feelings, he says, can create the kind of variety that can make a good moment seem to have lasted. Vatakis, for her part, hopes her current research project, meant to figure out how to purposefully modulate our experience of time in order to increase well-being, allows us to use our knowledge of time’s malleability to live better lives, rather than suffering passively the fickleness of the clock. And with the Blursday data available online, there’s hope that this era’s trove of studies will inform time-perception research for years to come.

Read more: How Listening to Silence Changes Our Brains

As for Jenny Odell, she has come out of the project of Saving Time preaching a kind of mindfulness marked by “a loving, curious, fascinated feeling of interest” in time, as she puts it: living in the now without thinking about it so much that it can’t be enjoyed; seeing time as a series of moments, each as rich as the meaning we put into it. She finds that balance in nature, in collective action, in friendship—appropriate for someone who now defines time as both the context for and the output of relationships.

Maintaining that perspective is anything but simple, and is sure to only get harder as the gravity of the pre-pandemic status quo gets stronger. But maybe it’ll be easier if we know we’re not alone in the quest. Together, it turns out, we can make time for ourselves.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com