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Escape the COVID Time Warp by Embracing Today’s Future

Research suggests why time has slowed during COVID—and what we can do about it.

Source: FrankHH/Sutterstock

We wait. We are bored. Time slows.

February 2020—a year ago now—do you remember it? Where were you? What were you doing? Not so long ago really, yet a time we can barely remember. A time before quarantines, social distancing and masks; a time before COVID pinned us down. Here in North America, the terrible truth was only just beginning to sink in. Person to person transmission was taking hold, things were starting to heat up. By March, denial was no longer possible. The watershed moment now etched on our calendars; pre- vs. post-COVID, the moment time started doing strange things.

Over the last year, many of us have been caught in a COVID time warp. Both oppressed by too much time, as each day slowly drags, and stressed by too little time, as the weeks and months slip away with nothing to show for them. Is it Tuesday? Or Thursday? Does it even matter anymore? Each day the same as the other, calendar demarcations lose meaning. Out of our regular routines, yet stifled by the sameness of each day, it feels as if we are doomed to repeat the same day for all eternity. We’re in the ringer and don’t know if we are coming or going. It can be very disorienting.

How we feel about the passage of time during COVID may be a matter of perspective. Asked about the present moment, we feel as if time has interminably expanded because we have little to hold our attention, and so instead focus on the slow march of time. Alternatively, if asked about the past year we’re inclined to feel that time is racing because we can’t recall many events of any import between then and now, and so time shrinks to the blink of an eye. For the most, people have reported a slowing of time during COVID; and with that slowing, an increase in boredom.

In fact, people who have experienced the most slowing of time during COVID lockdown also report the most reduced engagement in tasks, social interaction and, especially, the highest levels of boredom. It seems likely that the slowing of time during COVID is largely because of increased boredom. Boredom and dragging time go together like face masks and foggy glasses, there’s just no escaping. But exactly why time slows while we’re bored is still an open question.

It may be because boredom is an uncomfortable feeling or because boredom often involves (although not exclusively) low energy levels, both of which are known to slow time. We also know that boredom arises when our mind is not occupied, another known contributor to the expansion of time. Perhaps, however, boredom is not associated with slowed time because it is an uncomfortable feeling, a low energized state, or a lack of mental engagement. Recent research suggests yet another intriguing possibility—the key might be that boredom involves a particular kind of stance towards the world.

When bored, we are caught in a bind; both searching for, but also not expecting, good things. Psychologists call this being in a state of "behavioural inhibition"—feeling uncertain, stuck and fretting about our predicament. Behavioural inhibition causes a pause as we scan for safe and rewarding activities.

In contrast, "behavioural activation," evident the single-minded full-speed-ahead of a child opening their birthday present, keeps us moving forward. Behavioural activation is what drives us when we anticipate something good on the horizon and eagerly reach for it. This stance towards the world; namely, the anticipation of rewarding possibilities is precisely what is missing when bored. We give up on the current situation, and cast about for other more rewarding possibilities, all the while convinced nothing on the horizon will satisfy.

Indeed, when bored we are tethered to ourselves and the present moment; we feel as if the future has abandoned us to our fate. Boredom feels like an “absence of momentum or flow.” Either we can’t imagine a future or the future we imagine is already determined, preventing us from creating a future that is uniquely ours. In short, when bored we lack what psychologists call a future orientation, which is the degree to which we envision the future and plan to achieve our hopes and dreams and avoid undesirable outcomes.

Oleg Znamensky/Shutterstock
Source: Oleg Znamensky/Shutterstock

So, when bored, we lack behavioural activation and a future orientation, and it may be this particular stance towards the world that is key to understanding the slowing of time during boredom. Thankfully, this understanding may also suggest how we can escape the COVID time warp.

Research shows when we are driven by behavioural activation and when we are future oriented time passes more quickly. The challenge then, during COVID, becomes that of maintaining our behavioural activation and future orientation to stave off boredom and dragging time.

To be sure, this is easier said than done. The start of COVID interrupted life and threw us into a holding pattern as we wait for the oppression to lift. First the compulsive checking of daily case counts and now vaccination rates; we are waiting, waiting for an end that never seems to come. And waiting turns the screws, exacerbating boredom and the sense that time has slowed to a crawl.

The trick is to envision and plan for futures within this COVID era rather than waiting for COVID to end. Imagining who we can become tomorrow and next week and then working towards that end can help keep our future orientation alive. And rather than postponing our life, we can focus on the possible rewarding activities available to us now; fostering eager enthusiasm will keep boredom at bay and keep time moving. COVID may drag on for months yet, but that does not mean we must be burdened by boredom and the slow passage of time—the key may be to change our stance towards the world while COVID rages on.

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