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It’s only been 5 months of COVID? The psychology behind time perception

Does it seem like time has been plodding along since March -- or is it hard to remember what day it is? There's a psychological reason for that. (Getty Images)

Does it feel like the past five pandemic-filled months have been an entire year? Or is it hard to even tell what day it is anymore? There’s a psychological reason for that mistaken perception of time.

It turns out that the idiom that “time flies when you’re having fun” is not all that far off — except more accurately, the idiom might be that “time flies when you’re accomplishing goals.”

Dr. Albert Tsai, a psychiatrist at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, said when we keep busy, get things done, and have structure in our day, our minds perceive time as passing quickly.

“Structure is really important in regulating our moods, our anxieties, and certainly the perception of time passing changes with that structure or lack of structure,” he said.

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But when our days don’t have much in the way of structure or goals to accomplish, we can become bored and can feel like time is standing still. People who have been furloughed or people who were prevented from doing what they planned this year by having to stay home may experience this feeling of time plodding along.

“Most people can experience that if they’re bored or don’t have structure, time seems to slow down,” Tsai said.

He pointed to a 2012 study that used the term “approach motivation” in reference to planning for a goal. In the study, people were shown images, such as flowers and desserts, for the same amount of time. Participants who were hungry at the time of the study perceived the images of the desserts passed in front of them faster than the flowers. Tsai said that this was because their minds were already kicking into gear, making a plan for how to satisfy their hunger and get something to eat.

“If you’re thinking about a goal or wanting to do something, or have motivation for doing something, you perceive the time flying by quickly,” he said.

He added that shooting for a goal in general tends to make people more engaged at work, school, or in any other environment.

Tsai recommends that people who feel their weeks have been blending together in a sea of monotony from April to August find an activity with which they can break up their day, such as a regular afternoon outing for exercise. Not only will a walk or run add variety to your day and give you a goal to accomplish — but exercise also does wonders for mental health.

“Having that breakup in the day so that you’re not just staring at the same four walls in your apartment or your room will give you more of that stimulation about goals toward exercise,” he said.

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