Analysis: 'Warped', 'weird', 'blurred' and 'pointless' were some of the words we've used to describe time during the pandemic

By Anna Navin Young and Alison Warren-Perry, UCC

The pandemic brought the question of how we spend and think about our time to the forefront. While we still had 24 hours every day, such changes as being apart from family, isolating in lockdown and working from home meant our subjective experiences of time were largely upturned.

In a series of ongoing research, we are investigating experiences of time and their impact on our health and happiness in the context of the pandemic. In spring 2021, we asked nearly 300 participants about their time. Responses to the question, "What words would you use to describe how time feels for you during the pandemic?" shed light on the significant variability of our experiences.


When asked to describe their time, participants most frequently discussed pace and movement. 'Slow' accounted for 35% of the adjectives used, while ‘fast’ accounted for 26%. Many people experienced a contradiction in the passage of time, using words varying from ‘sluggish’ and ‘lethargic,’ to ‘fleeting’ and ‘relentless.’

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Dr Ruth Ogden from Liverpool John Moores University on our perception of time during Covid

But what caused this dizzying oscillation of time? One explanation may be that time felt slowed down or even frozen in the short-term. Lockdowns gave us new space away from our usual busy schedules. For some, time moved slowly due to daily repetitiveness and the vanishing of usual markers of our time such as leaving the house in the morning, lunch breaks at work and collecting kids.

However, weeks and months rushed by for the same reason, as birthdays and typical celebrations passed without remark and we buried ourselves into work or homelife. For a select few of our participants, time didn't seem to change at all.


Experiences of time can both influence and be influenced by how we feel. This connection is seen within participants’ responses, as many used emotional language to describe time during the pandemic. If content with how their schedules changed, participants used words such as ‘comfortable’ and ‘relaxing.’ More quality time spent with loved ones or outdoors, for example, made time feel ‘calm’ and ‘enjoyable.’

From RTÉ Radio 1, time management tips from executive coach Margaret Dorgan

On the other hand, the upending and restricting of activities caused time to feel ‘confusing.’ The loss of daily work and social routines left a surplus of unstructured time described as ‘boring’ and ‘unbearable.’ The ongoing fear and uncertainty surrounding the spread of the virus caused some participants to use words like ‘panicky’ to describe their time.


Tangibility was the most unexpected theme to develop through our research. Participants described quite literally how time felt to them. This resulted in a bizarre and wonderful collection of words such as ‘leaden,’ ‘slippery’ and ‘warped.’

Once again, this theme's variability was impressive. Some participants felt they had lost their grasp of time, finding it 'out of reach,’ ‘distant’ and even ‘non-existent.’ Other participants found time too tangible, describing it as ‘too much’ and ‘all around.’

It seems that the disruptive nature of the pandemic made it difficult for people to understand and conceptualise their time. It became ‘hazy,’ ‘blurred’ and ‘elusive,’ no doubt because of the uncertainty they were experiencing. People turned to adjectives describing the strange tangibility (or lack thereof) of time in an attempt to account for how unusual and deceptive it felt.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, a brief history of time management


Having a sense of meaning in life can make us less stressed, more resilient in facing adversities and physically and psychologically healthier overall. However, many of our participants struggled to find meaning in their time over the pandemic, describing it as ‘unfulfilled’ and ‘senseless.’

This is perhaps unsurprising, given that most of us spent the pandemic wondering when restrictions would subside, and when we’d return to normality. Because of this, many participants felt that time was ‘wasted’ and ‘pointless.’

But the pandemic simultaneously forced us to find new meaning in our time, as we had to re-evaluate what we prioritised.Finding moments of meaning - connecting with a loved one, learning a new skill, interacting with nature – helped participants feel more present and engaged. In these moments, participants described time as ‘precious’ and ‘valuable’.

Why can we learn by reflecting on time?

Highlighting the contradictions, complexities and changes that distinguished time during the pandemic, our participants’ nuanced responses can validate our own varied experiences. Time habits help us make sense of ourselves and the world, and many of these habits changed during the pandemic. Now, as these habits adapt to the return of more social and work events, we may find this challenging. This is entirely normal, and we should offer ourselves and others patience in these transitions.

Reflecting on our time can clarify what we have learned, challenges we have faced, and ultimately, awareness of what makes our time matter most. These insights can inform how we engage with our time moving forward and beyond the pandemic.

Anna Navin Young is a PhD researcher in the School of Applied Psychology at UCC. Alison Warren-Perry is an Applied Psychology student in UCC.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ