Time and space are modes by which we think not conditions in which we live.
— Albert Einstein.
The defining feature of work as a commercial lawyer is not the suit, the intellectual discussion, the clients, the office politics, or the sloshing around of money. It’s something they never show in Suits or The Good Fight: the stopwatch. On every lawyer’s computer, a piece of software (unironically named Carpe Diem) provides rolling timers to be clicked on and off when moving from one task to another. Every moment is accounted for.
At the end of each day, the minutes and hours are shovelled into a database, where the lawyer writes a detailed narrative for every block of time. The information is then used to build an accurate bill for the clients and to assess how hard each lawyer is working. In an industry where work is charged for by the hour, every minute has an exact, predetermined value; both financially, and how each lawyer is viewed as an employee. Time is quite literally money.
As a lawyer, sometimes, I wished the clock would speed up, desperate for my hours to increase towards my monthly billing target. On other occasions, it whizzed past unstoppably as I strained to meet an imminent deadline or demonstrate my efficiency. Time was rarely a neutral experience. Recording every minute of every day for analysis by my superiors made me extremely sensitive to how I perceived time. Maintaining a balanced temporal mindset in these conditions was a battle; a battle against time — the constantly conspicuous overlord I could never overcome.
Until I did. Sick of stopwatches, after four years I left to follow my passions of photography and writing. Now, when I am freely roaming the streets photographing a new city or pressing pen to paper, I typically lose all concern for time. It still requires my consideration — to finish photographing before nightfall, or ensure I still eat at reasonable intervals in the day — but I am no longer forced to attribute an arbitrary numerical value to it, financial or otherwise. I acknowledge it exists but tend not to think about it. In doing so, my levels of day-to-day contentment have dramatically increased.
In the lockdown spring, this sensitivity towards time was laid bare for all of us — how it passes through us in wildly different ways, how we scrabble for a method to gauge it, and the enormous effect it can have on our emotions. But what can we do about it?
I barely know what day it is.
— Everyone, 2020
Through every lockdown conversation, the above sentiment became a running joke. Days were long, weeks were short, or vice versa. For some, April went extremely quickly, while for others, it felt like an age. In any case, the unifying feature was a sudden discombobulation in the way we perceived time. Under the pandemic’s grasp, our familiar time-markers disintegrated, replaced by an erratic Covid-clock. Outside of Italy, you may have followed how many weeks behind the boot-shaped island your country was from getting a kicking (“Two weeks ’til we reach 1500 deaths a day”). Perhaps your measurement was a lament of absent activities (“This would have been our third day in Istanbul”; “Next Saturday would have been our wedding day”). Alternatively, you may have watched the kilos emerge around your waist like tree rings as you ate yourself towards comfort.
No matter how you compiled your days, the confines of our own, limited perception mean we construct time on the basis of both the individual — how it feels, and the collective — the metronomic hands of the clock. The clock is physics-driven — an objectively agreed approximation of an extremely strenuous concept, variously comprising of the big bang, Einstein, gravity, the speed of light, black holes, entropy, the multiverse and Back to the Future. This idea of time and its relativity to space is difficult to get one’s head around. Perhaps it’s so difficult because arguably, both spiritually and scientifically, time doesn’t exist at all. Instead, there are only sequential events and tangible atomic changes, which we consciously witness and translate into “time”. In that case, “time” is a primitive form of expression — a language for something we have waived our need to fundamentally understand.
Given the challenge of understanding time on that level, most of us simply live based on Earth’s rotation. Other than for a handful of space-travellers, whose time has theoretically bent and slowed, we experience time only as far as it visibly appears in our day-to-day lives: day turns to night, trees grow and shed leaves, skin loosens from taught to wrinkly (unless you’re Rob Lowe). For this reason, we speak of time in the comprehensible terms of three-dimensional, physical space — “the party is after lunch”; “I’ll be there in 10 minutes”. Even then, language and culture have a meaningful effect on how we perceive that spatial construct. Do you characterise time in terms of volume, like the Spaniards (“a full day”); or distance, like the Swedes (“a long day”); or dispense with the linguistic concept entirely, like the Amazonian Amondawa tribe?
Time as a Feeling
Regardless of our rudimentary attempts to describe time, how it feels remains unique to each of us. Our memories, emotions, habits; body and brain function all play a role in how we perceive it. The feeling of minutes, say, from waiting for a train; hours, from hunger between meals; days, from waking up every morning; months (I daresay) from menstrual cycles; or years, from marking birthdays. In any given moment, a near-innate, biological “pacemaker” and measuring tools honed from our experiences combine to determine how long or short a period of time feels. These sensitive mechanics make our time perception deeply susceptible to external forces:
Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain and is shockingly easy to manipulate experimentally… as subject to illusion as the sense of color is.
To this end, it is well understood that when the brain processes a large amount of information in a short period, such as absorbing a new experience or enduring a traumatic event, we later recall time as having passed more slowly. As children, for whom everything is new, a two-week summer holiday feels endless. For adults, such a break can feel achingly short.
That said, these psychological mechanisms are still subject to each individual’s unique personality and circumstances. For example, loneliness has proved to be a significant factor in slowing people’s sense of time during lockdown, while a greater use of digital devices is likely to have sped it up.
In the latter case, technology disrupts our internal pacemaker and increases our stress levels: if you have an hour to complete a task and it feels like 50 minutes, you’re subconsciously pressurising yourself to do things 20% faster. Even without the ubiquity of digital clocks in the corner of every eye, it stands to reason that our Pavlovian response to bombardment by notifications changes how we digest time. And that’s before you consider how much we outsource memory (a crucial aspect of time perception) to our phones, without understanding the cognitive consequences.
Between Zoom calls, smartphone scrolling, working on a laptop, binging Netflix, repetitive tasks, adaptation to new circumstances and unusual social occurrences, any given lockdown day was liable to speed up or slow down by the hour; further assembling into weeks, which would slip through our fingers or linger indefinitely. Disorientating, yes, but also a valuable reminder that our perception of time is subjective, and therefore something we have a degree of control over.
Take Your Time
While compliance with the clock helps us interact with others and make a living, we should be wary of allowing it too great an influence over how we enjoy or endure our experiences. Frustration from waiting, pressure from deadlines, habitually arriving late or early — all these arise from the way we process time. Finding ways to free yourself from its yoke can be useful, not only in an uncertain era where another challenging lockdown might be just around the corner, but also as we return to more conventional ways of living. A warped perception of time — whether too fast or slow — has been linked to stress, anxiety and depression. Insulating yourself from a fluctuating perception of time serves towards a consistent mental state.
In practical terms, it helps to do any fulfilling or challenging activity with no incantation of time attached: distance yourself from technology, wander aimlessly outdoors, read from a page rather than a screen, thin out your schedule, study something new, write down your thoughts. When you cannot control your activities, mindfulness has been shown to help. Focussing on the present moment hypothetically minimises stimulation of your internal pacemaker; slowing your sense of time and allowing you to relax into whatever you find yourself doing.
Whatever your circumstances or interests, the key is to take your time, to the fullest extent possible. Take life at your own pace, whatever that might be. Avoid the agitation of scoring life based on time achieved or missed. Wind your own clock and be sensitive to what makes it tick. As an ex-stopwatch jockey, I attest to its benefits.