Time and COVID (part 3)

A few months ago, I wrote a pair of posts on time and COVID. I reflected on the way in which working from home, not traveling to conferences, and being away from research sites has shaped our daily and professional realities. I also considered how the lag between COVID tests and their results created a kind of blurry present in which the situation, informed by empirical, scientific evidence, lagged slightly behind our daily experience. 

Today, some 10 months after those first two posts, I want to write a bit about how COVID has shaped my experience of time in another way. (This is absolutely influenced by my reading of Gavin Lucas’s Making Time: The Archaeology of Time Revisited (2021) this weekend.) 

This weekend, I was on a phone call with family members and I found myself uncontrollably impatient. The phone call was wandering from the point, people on the call were thinking out loud, and I was having trouble understanding whether this conversation would have any “actionable” results and what they could be. Needless to say, this did not make the conversation very enjoyable.

If this was the only time that I felt this impatience, I’d be willing to chalk it up to sibling relations which probably encourage all of us to regress a bit to our childhood roles. It’s not. At a faculty meeting a few weeks before I also felt impatient with my colleagues for no particular reason. The meeting was reasonable well run and no one was really wasting time. In fact, we had a pleasantly uncluttered agenda which gave us time to discuss some more complicated issues in a relaxed way. This is an opportunity that is all too rare in our department where we tend to be efficient to a fault. These two recent incidents have only reinforced a general feeling of impatience and of heightened time awareness.

To be transparent, I tend to be someone who is prone to a kind of exaggerated awareness of time. I collect watches, for example, and almost compulsively check the time on my computer screen, phone, and watch. I regularly note the time it takes to complete daily tasks from walking the dogs to my regular jogs, my drive to campus, and my writing and reading. Each book has a time per page rate that I note as I read and adjust over the first 20 to 50 pages to a representative average. I monitor carefully — almost compulsively— how long it takes me to grade a paper and then create a kind of rolling average that helps me understand how long grading midterms, for example, will take. I tend to be punctual and I like to do most tasks on time.

That said, I have always been able to control my fixation on time and relax into the moment during meetings, conversations, and various social encounters. Why was my control suddenly slipping?

It occurred to me that by working from home, the rhythm of work had increasingly intruded into the rhythm of non work. This isn’t the same as saying that work itself had intruded into non-working time or space. I feel like I’ve been able to manage my work/non-work balance fairly effectively during COVID (or as effectively as I ever have). Instead, what I’ve been encountering is the structure of work time invading the structure of non work time. 

It is easy enough to blame this on things like Zoom. On Zoom the meeting tends to start when the meeting starts and conclude when the meeting is over. In most meetings, even very efficiently run ones, there are opportunities for casual chit-chat or banter before and after the agenda. In my experience, most Zoom meetings lack the fuzzy starts and fuzzy ends because genuine social interaction via Zoom is stilted and uncomfortable. It’s hard to talk to the person “next to you” and inquire about their weekend or semester without it becoming the public epicenter of conversation. As a result, meetings get right to business and conclude when the agenda is over.

Efforts to use Zoom for more social get togethers was kind of fun at first, but then quickly disappointing. The time limits on non-institutional Zoom accounts meant that most social get togethers were “on the clock” and that was mostly for the best as the interactions often were just stilted and weird. These social uses of Zoom, however, did reinforce the structure of Zoom time, however.

The tendency to work from home invariably has led to work related activities, whether teaching or meetings or other scheduled things, abutting home time more directly. For example, I’ve been more and more willing to attend meetings on the weekends, not because I want my weekend interrupted by a Zoom call, but because for me weekends are a conveniently unstructured space that can easily accommodate an hour meeting (especially if it’s for something that I care about rather than a professional obligation). On a weekdays, I’ve noticed that the buffers offered by a commute or other transitional rituals have contracted or became unnecessary or inaccessible. As a result, the increasingly punctual routine of online professional interaction started, invariably, to structure non-work related activities as well. I realize that this might have been the pre-COVID reality for people who live busier lives than I do, but I only encountered this changing rhythm when the structure of my online COVID professional life inserted itself into the space of my non-work life. I suspect this has partly made me feel increasingly growing impatience with things that do not follow a well-ordered agenda. 

I wonder whether other people have felt like their sense of time has changed during COVID. Have other people felt like our days have become more relentlessly structure and activities previously allowed to wander have now become increasingly determined by the insistent arrival of scheduled events?

Has the ambiguity surrounding our present (exaggerated by the time lag between COVID test results and our face-to-face interactions and collective sense of security) led us to retake control by exerting more and more rigid schedules on our days? Perhaps this is also intensified by a sense of the future which seems shaped by the ebb and flow of the pandemic, the infection rate of COVID variants, and the effectiveness of vaccines, boosters, and social policies designed to mitigate its impact. As our sense of the present and future become blurry, we seek to hold onto all the more tightly what we can control. That means, Zoom meeting start on time and end on time and wandering conversations and lazy afternoons are best left for a situation where there is more certainty surrounding their costs.      

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