The Psychology Behind Why We Lose Track Of Time In Quarantine

Being stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic has distorted our sense of time. Here's how to make life feel a little more normal.

A common refrain during the COVID-19 pandemic: Life is a blur. The days all seem to blend together — is it Tuesday or Friday? And the line between work and leisure time is obscured when your living room doubles as your home office.

“Anytime we have a big change in routine, this happens,” psychologist Sherry Benton — professor emeritus at the University of Florida and the founder of online therapy platform TAO Connect — told HuffPost. “We are accustomed to a certain amount of structure to our days. Moving to working from home disrupts the structure.”

Know that if you’re constantly confused about what day it is, you’re not the only one.

“This is a very common phenomenon,“ said Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta. “All my clients have reported it to some degree.”

We talked to psychologists to figure out why this is happening and what we can do to feel more grounded during a chaotic time.

Why Life Feels Like A Blur Right Now

If you're never sure what day it is anymore, you're not the only one.
JLGutierrez via Getty Images
If you're never sure what day it is anymore, you're not the only one.

Your normal routine has gone out the window.

Before the lockdown, your week likely consisted of a handful of recurring activities, obligations and other plans. On Monday night you got together with your book club, on Wednesday you had standing lunch plans with a co-worker, on Thursday morning you went to spin class, Friday was date night, and on Saturday you got your nails done. Without these markers, the week has turned into an amorphous blob.

“You naturally did something different on work-out days, for example, like pack a gym bag, or wake up earlier, which made those days distinctive,” Delawalla said. “You knew it was Thursday, not only by looking at your calendar but because on Thursdays, you set your alarm for 7 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m, or you picked up bagels for the team on your way in to work.”

“Without these distinctions, all the days ‘feel’ the same, and it’s hard to keep track,” she added.

There’s no separation between work hours and downtime.

Working from home means that you no longer need to commute to and from the office — a built-in ritual that helped delineate between on- and off-hours. Plus, physically being at the office signaled that you were in work mode, while being home meant it was time to relax.

“If you worked Monday through Friday at a certain location, then the weekends marked a change,“ said psychologist Rebecca Leslie of Living Fully Psychological Services in Atlanta. “If you are now working from home and have nothing different that happens on the weekend, there is nothing to signify a change in days.”

You may be working more than before.

Some of Leslie’s patients are putting in longer hours because they’re scared that doing anything less might mean losing their job. If you had a consistent work schedule prior to the outbreak, working well into the evening can throw off your sense of time.

“They do not have a standard end time to their workday like they used to,” she said. “This can make the timing of days feel confusing.”

You’re spending more time looking at screens.

Whether it’s logging extra time on your work laptop, scrolling on your smartphone, binge-watching TV or playing video games all night, the increased exposure to these blue-light emitting devices can disrupt the body’s internal biological clock, known as the circadian clock.

Plus, many of the apps and games people turn to as an escape from stress are designed to pull you in and hold your attention for long stretches of time.

“And with much of our time spent indoors, we are limiting our exposure to natural light, which is an important external factor in resetting our circadian rhythms,” Delawalla said.

Your sleep schedule is out of wack.

These days, you may find yourself staying up later at night because you don’t have to get up as early in the morning or because anxiety-induced insomnia is making it hard to fall asleep.

“What’s more, we may be staying in bed a bit longer after waking up, since there may no longer be an external push to get up and get going,” Delawalla said.

When your sleep schedule is all over the place, it also throws off your circadian rhythm, which contributes to you feeling out of sync.

“Not waking up at approximately the same time each day may also lead to distortions in how we experience time, since it leads to some days being a lot ‘shorter’ or ‘longer’ than others,” Delawalla said.

Here’s What To Do About It

How to create structure and ground yourself in quarantine.
Jamie Grill via Getty Images
How to create structure and ground yourself in quarantine.

Create a new routine and stick to it.

Add some structure to life in quarantine by anchoring your days with certain rituals you do at the same time each day — like having coffee at 8 a.m., prepping a healthy lunch at 1 p.m. and taking a walk at 6 p.m. after you’ve finished the workday.

“Think of other activities in relation to these activities,” Delawalla said. “For example, divide your day into ‘before lunch’ and ‘after lunch,’ and organize other activities into these smaller chunks of time. Instead of thinking, ‘I need to do laundry today,’ think ‘I need to do laundry before lunch.’”

“You can also tag activities to these anchoring activities,” Delawalla added. “For example, ‘after I take my daily walk around the neighborhood, I start making dinner.’”

Then, to differentiate one day from the next, make new weekly traditions. That might be tacos for dinner on Tuesdays, a virtual yoga class on Thursdays and a Zoom wine night with friends on Fridays.

Make your workdays different from your days off.

“Plan specific fun activities you reserve for days off or things you only do on days off,” Leslie said.

“I have work-related books that I used to read on the weekend, and now I have been strict in telling myself to only read them during the week,” she added. “I know this is a little thing, but the little things can make a big difference to help you distinguish the work week from the weekend.”

To the extent you can, resist the temptation to stay glued to your work email on the weekends. Put away your home office accessories and work materials on your days off so they’re not occupying your living space.

Set aside time for self-care.

Find little ways to care for yourself every day. Maybe that’s doing a guided meditation, taking a bath, writing in a journal or diving into a hobby like knitting.

“If possible, block out time each day to not work and do something enjoyable or focused on self-care,” Leslie said. “Keep this time consistent Monday through Friday.”

Get outside every day.

If the weather permits, “make sure you are getting exposure to sunlight during the day,” Leslie said. “This helps your body know what time it is. It also can help improve your mood.”

Try a grounding exercise.

“When our days are as unstructured as they currently are, getting ‘lost’ in this way can feel unnerving,” Delawalla said.

In the moments you’re feeling overwhelmed by the state of things or anxious about the future, grounding techniques can soothe you and bring you into the present moment.

Delawalla suggested an exercise known as the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which takes you through the five senses. Pay attention to five things you can see around you, four things you can feel around you, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

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