Busy days that felt like they flew by, empty ones that felt like they would never end. We’ve all had them – moments, months, even years that seem to move at different speeds – so what causes this, and how can we use this to our advantage in a year like 2020?
Until recently, I thought it was the amount of tasks I completed that made time feel like it was moving fast or slow. For example, a day with four meetings and fifty emails would feel a lot quicker than one with no meetings and only twenty-five emails, because the less time spent watching the clock, the “faster” it would seem to move.
But there’s something besides how busy we are that affects our perception of time; our mental state. How we’re feeling, busy or not, tends to tip the scale.* For example, let’s say you’re at the beach. It’s sunny, not too humid, and the last day of summer. Chances are that day is going to feel like it ended way too soon, even if was spent doing nothing, like laying on a towel.
Now remember a time when you had nothing to do but it felt like it would never end, like the last time you went to the DMV. Those minutes couldn’t tick by fast enough, could they?
So now that we know what affects our perception of time, how is this information useful?
When we can anticipate activities or moments we won’t enjoy, it’s easy to plan ahead, make them less painful and thus speed up the time it takes to do them. Like reading a book or playing a game while standing in line.
But what about the moments we can’t plan, can’t even see coming? Those are the ones that often feel the slowest and most disheartening. Job loss, sickness, personal loss; you can put money away, wash your hands, and call your loved ones every hour, but no amount of planning can ever fully prepare you for the mental toll any one of those things can take.
So if you can’t plan and you can’t prepare, what can you do to get through time’s longest, most difficult moments? We can stop, take a breath and ask ourselves how we’re feeling and why. It may sound like a simple exercise, but sometimes just putting labels on things can help when we feel overwhelmed or upset. Because oftentimes it’s the new and unfamiliar that scares us more than the tried and true, and by putting a name on it, that makes it feel more familiar and hopefully, a little less scary. It also gives you a starting point to measure progress.
Do you feel scared, sad, angry, lonely, empty? When did you start feeling this way, what caused it? Did you lose a job, family member, spouse or friend? Are you losing your health?
Next ask yourself: what would make you feel better, no holds barred. You’re upset because you lost your job, would it make you happy if you got it back, or would you rather work somewhere else? In another field? Was it the way in which you lost your job and you want an apology or professional courtesy? Was it your own company that closed and you want it back?
Ultimately knowing what would make you feel better, as unattainable as it might seem, gives you your end point. If you think about it like a football field, one end zone is overwhelmed and unhappy, the other is calm and satisfied. You usually can’t race from one end to the other, but if you take it yard by yard, eventually you’ll get there.
So what if you don’t have the luxury of choice, say a loved one passed and there is nothing you can do to bring them back. In the literal sense, you’re correct, but if you’re sad because someone was taken from you and you want them back, there are other ways to keep them with you. Write down or record all your favorite memories; you can keep them for yourself or share them with others later. Make a video of their favorite places or places that remind you most of them. Create or donate something in their memory, and it doesn’t have to be art, it could be time – finishing something they felt passionate about, reaching out to others, helping a cause they believed in.
And lastly, what if it wasn’t one big thing that broke you, what if it was a bunch of little things that blew up, what if it was everything all at once? You may not have all the answers, you might not even know where to start. In this situation, the best thing to do is expand the conversation. Reach out to a family member, friend or professional**, and if you’re not sure who to call, consider who else in your life might want to talk. No one likes asking for help, but everyone likes it when someone reaches out, even if just to say: hi, how are you?
So in the end, sometimes getting through a year like 2020 will take more than just a day and more than just you, but if the key to speeding it up and getting through life’s toughest moments is finding ways to enjoy them, or at the very least, make them bearable, then I can think of worse ways to live. You just have to choose the best way that works for you.
And finally, how does all of this relate to this post’s picture? Like many people this year, COVID has kept me pretty isolated and this was one of the first days I got out somewhere besides the grocery store and gas station. Wanting to make the most out of my time, I went to one of my favorite places, Bristol, Rhode Island. Now if you’ve seen my earlier post, you might recognize this fence. Five years ago, it was sturdy and connected, and seeing it now, the rails gone and each post standing a lonely six feet apart, it seemed an all-too-fitting metaphor for 2020. So I made something out of it, something with the ultimate goal of helping others.
*Visit The Fluidity of Time: Scientists Uncover How Emotions Alter Time Perception – Association for Psychological Science – APS to learn more about the studies and experiments done about the human perception and passage of time.
**Visit Home | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness to speak with a mental health professional.