Has this happened to you lately?
I wake up, get my morning routine on, and start doing some work. I blink and it’s lunchtime. After lunch I dig into my tasks again, and this time when I blink, it’s suddenly 4pm!
I look back at the day and sure, I got a few things done… but somehow I never got really focused, or into a state of flow. The hours passed like it was a dream, almost.
It’s surreal, and it doesn’t feel great.
Of course, we’re in a global pandemic right now—a collective trauma. Not to mention a period of intensity in our cultural conversations around race, history, and our responsibilities to one another. So of course we’re going to be anxious and stressed, and of course that’s going to affect our work and daily logistics. We need to be kind to ourselves, realize that we’re not going to be able to maintain normal levels of productivity, and remember that our worth is not tied to our “output.”
That said, when this started happening to me several days in a row, I wasn’t even worried about any lost productivity. I just didn’t like the feeling of not being present. I’m okay with not being in control of every minute of my day… but I don’t love the idea of my days becoming a big blur that I later feel I barely experienced.
So I tried a few things in the last few weeks to help me make time feel more real. There is no “normal” right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reach for some stability. If you feel like everything’s a blur right now, I hope some of these ideas can help.
Mark the passage of time
This one sounds obvious, but I found that before I was being very intentional about it, I was hardly marking time at all. With few commitments and few opportunities to go out or do anything unusual, it was easy to not pay attention, to even romanticize the ability to be lethargic and ignore the clock. It’s good to relax, but this wasn’t relaxation, really—it was a form of numbing, and it didn’t end up feeling good.
To combat the blur, I’ve tried a number of things that have helped mark time. Here are a few:
- Using Pomodoros and other timers when working on projects (whether work projects, personal projects, or chores around the home)
- Drawing a tarot “card of the day” every morning
- Taking my dog out at the same times (or close to it) every day
- Making commitments happen at regular intervals (e.g., I used to schedule my therapy appointments at varying times; for now I’ve scheduled ahead with my therapist for the same time every other week)
- Taking time each Sunday to talk with my partner about the week that just passed and the week ahead
I’ve found that it’s less about what specifically I’m doing to mark the time, and more about the act of noticing that helps.
Let’s get physical
Time slips away fastest for me when I’m just sitting in front of a screen. This isn’t a new problem, but working remotely and socializing digitally has made it more pronounced for me.
There’s a fair amount of screen time I can’t avoid, because of the nature of my work, and the addictiveness of some of the TV I’ve been watching (dangit, Netflix!). But in between screen time, it’s been crucial to relate to the physical world.
Doing things with my hands feels good. I’ve been working on some embroidery and sorting old papers. As time passes, it feels good to see physical progress made—the Star Wars Rebel Alliance symbol on my jacket is almost outlined, and I’ve gotten rid of a whole box of old folders and binders that was taking up space!
I’ve been working to get into my body more, too. Yoga, walks, dancing, and even a kickboxing workout video with my partner have been a breath of fresh air (literally and metaphorically!).
One thing that I’ve been thinking about is how to make my social time with friends feel less, well, flat. I’ve found that trying some short, spontaneous phone calls have felt better than trying to schedule marathon video chat hangouts. It’s been easier for me to focus on my friend’s voice and just connect with them in the moment—sometimes while walking around my apartment complex—rather than always trying to replicate a pre-pandemic-style hangout over video chat. I imagine that finding what feels good will probably be different for everyone, but I encourage you to think about what types of socializing help you feel most connected and present in your body.
It’s not always easy for me to access mindfulness, or my ability to just notice the present moment without immediately reacting to it. But as other writers all over the internet have noted, including our own brilliant Kristin Wong, our relationship to nature is as important as ever during the pandemic. It’s easiest for me to access “being present” when I’m sitting down by the creek near my home. I listen to the breeze, the birds, the water bubbling. I watch the sun in the leaves. Simply being attentive to sensations around me has helped me find calm and joy. It’s also helped me process frustrations and anxiety better, instead of numbing them (and my time) away.
Even on days when I can’t walk down to the creek, I try to break from my screen time and notice what’s going on with my little houseplant. I don’t have much of a green thumb, but that’s not really the point. When I’m looking to see what my plant buddy needs, I’m moving in the physical world, and that’s something I remember at the end of the day.
Build a schedule
When I first started working from home in March, I resisted creating a tailored schedule for myself. Part of this is because I knew that my work situation would continue to change, since my projects and general logistics are shifting more quickly than usual. It felt silly to take an hour or two to build a whole schedule, just to have to change it again in two weeks. Surely, I thought, I can just take things day by day and figure it out on the fly. I’ve done it before.
But what actually happened was the time-melting-away problem I described above. I realized I was spending a lot of time each day between tasks, trying to decide what to prioritize next. I also was getting interrupted a lot: by emails, by my wandering thoughts about the next day and next week, and by the general distractions of working in the same small apartment that I’m also trying to eat, relax, sleep, and build a life in—and where my partner and dog are also doing their thing.
It’s at this point that some of the things I’ve been reading in Charlie Gilkey’s brilliant book Start Finishing began to really sink in. Long before the pandemic, he basically described my problem perfectly:
“Time… is conceptually slippery; we could divide time up into any number of segments that we wanted to because the endless stream of time has no natural division.”
His solution: build a schedule that works with your natural inclinations, attention span, and need for rest. So I used his time-blocking strategy, and took the two hours to build a weekly schedule that would really work for me.
I wrote down all my project pieces and prior commitments, thought about when I’m most productive and creative, realistically assessed how fast I can work right now with my foggy pandemic-distracted brain. Then I fit these pieces into Gilkey’s four types of blocks (focus, admin, social, and recovery), and put the blocks together like a puzzle.
Having this schedule has been the most important thing for me as I try to make my days feel real again. If I find myself floating along in a fog, wondering if I’m working on the right thing, or letting my focus get broken easily by distractions… I just look back at my schedule.
I’m not rigid about it—if I get off track or some time blurs by, that’s totally fine and understandable. But I know I’ve already built a structure that will work. I can work with purpose during “focus” blocks, catch up on distracting email during designated “admin” blocks, and spend quality physical-world time with my houseplant, partner, or a good book during “recovery” blocks.
Best of all, when I get to the end of the day, I can look back and note what I’ve learned, where I’ve made progress, and the nice moments of relaxation with my family that I felt more present for. It’s well worth the time spent building the schedule, even if I do need to revise every few weeks. Giving myself some structure, even when that structure is temporary, is a gift.
Have you felt that time feels unreal right now? How have you helped yourself feel present and grounded? Share with us in the comments below!