Community//

Time in the Time of Pandemic

The pandemic has scrambled our relationship with time. Can novelty help fix it?

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Time is a funny old thing.

It flies when you’re having fun. A good party or a promising date always comes to an end too soon.

Yet time slows to a crawl when life is dull. Think how the minutes move like molasses when you’re ticking boxes at work or listening to a boring lecture. 

And there’s another twist: experiences that flash by in the moment often expand later in the memory.

Why? Because the tables turn when we look back on our lives. 

If moments of tedium drag on at the time, they leave barely a trace in the long run. By contrast, novel, engaging experiences whiz by in the moment but go on to forge lasting memories.  

And the richer your memory bank, the longer your life feels.

That’s why Thomas Mann, in his famous novel, The Magic Mountain, sang the praises of novelty and warned against too much repetition and routine: “When one day is like all the others, then they are all like one; complete uniformity would make the longest life seem short.”

Thanks to the pandemic, many of us are enduring much more repetition and routine than normal. Which may explain why the minutes and the hours seem to pass painfully slowly even as we wonder where the last few weeks and months have gone.

Welcome to the worst of both worlds, where time drags and leaves little mark.

Is there a way out of this temporal double whammy? 

One solution is travel. Done right, it can serve up a memorable feast of novelty. 

Research suggests that when looking back on two weeks of our ordinary routine we can recall on average six to nine events. When you travel, you can rack up that many Kodak moments in a day – eating unfamiliar food; encountering foreign sounds, smells, architecture; driving on the other side of the road; meeting new people; grappling with another language.

But hitting the road can only help up to a point: Mann warned that the novelty of travel loses its punch after six to eight days. 

And anyway, hopping on a plane has lost its charm in these pandemic times.

Here’s another solution: recreate the enriching thrill of travel by injecting some novelty into your normal routine at home: 

Chat to a neighbour you’ve hitherto ignored. Cook unfamiliar recipes. Walk or cycle through a distant part of town. Eat lunch in a new place. Commute to work using a different form of transport. Vary your route to the supermarket. Take an online class or attend a virtual food tasting. 

You might find that time passes a little more quickly. And that your life feels fuller – and longer.

Just the ticket in a global pandemic.

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