COVID-19 has impacted us in many ways, but it has significantly changed how we perceive time


If your last year and a half was anything like mine, you are likely familiar with the stay-at-home black hole. Today, we are over halfway through 2021 and it feels like it could still be March 2020. 

Living, working, and going to school from home can create repetitions that leave you feeling numb to everyday life. I used to think vaccinations would pull us out of this purgatory, but with the rampant spread of the Delta variant, that dream starts to feel just as naive as thinking it would only be a second week of spring break.

This raises a simple question: How should we measure our time?

We mark the passage of time through the significant changes that occur. Over time, those markers form a sense of how much time has passed. The significance and value of these markers is deeply contextual and subjectively chosen by your own experiences and the society you live in. In the 1400s, time might have been marked by how many winters had passed due to the success of surviving a harsh period. But now, age is not seen as the marked achievement it once was. 

The development of clocks gives us a more precise understanding of time, but the accuracy does not help us quantify the last 18 months. Modernity altered our understanding of presence and attention. Time is split into work, school, sleep, and the leftovers are cobbled together for leisure and relationships. 

Smaller chunks of time that might help us calibrate are used to check social media, email, or watch 30-second videos. Workers are judged by their time and how much value it brings to the table. Significance, value and meaning — concepts at the heart of the human experience — have been weakened and replaced by engagement, efficiency and utility.

The stagnation of the last year and a half is a lot more about what we spend time paying attention to and a lot less about the actual time passed. If you place no event markers to judge the passage of time, it would feel blurred and wasted. 

There is a reason why the actions we take to ground ourselves, like mindfulness meditation, are often simple in execution but robust in their effects. They anchor us in the reality that we are living in and dispels narratives created about why it does not matter. Significance is a personal choice to perceive. Choosing to notice and find significance will inform the brain when it should pay attention to the passage of time.

Back to the initial question — how should we measure our time? Choosing to seek out significance could be one of the most valuable shifts in perception you make. Life at home during the pandemic has been an externally controlled environment but can offer the ability to develop and refine a sense of time measurement that creates lived experiences that matter. 

Choose what you want to pay attention to and stave off the unnecessary distractions. Make small, gradual changes to help build a sense of presence. Life isn’t made for weekends, vacations, or celebrations. It’s for wherever you’re at — right here, right now.