These are weird times! Stuck inside, perhaps, or forced disruption in “normal routine”? Time. My, how does time fly? Ever wonder why you lose track of time when you’re compelled to change your daily routine? Or, perhaps why do you feel as time speeds by as you’re having fun (or not)? Your sense of time is relative, isn’t it? If you’re painting miniatures, playing a game, or stuck in a dreadful boring situation, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. All of a sudden, there just isn’t enough time left for you to finish that Warhammer 40k game you were playing. Or, you can’t seem to escape the situation you’re in at all. It’s as though time is a prison and a warp tunnel all at the same time.
In this article, I get a bit retrospective and dive a little into what I understand of the psychology of how we lose track of time. This is especially timely given the situation almost all of us find ourselves in with disrupted schedules, haphazard routines, and unpredictable futures. Our sense of time seems locked into the activities we do, as well as our ability to engage with chaotic circumstances, and time feels “blurred”.
How does time fly?
“How time flies?” is a common question. In one year, Google searches for the terms related to “how time flies” or “why time flies” has garnered more than 1 million hits per month. People are always wondering about their internal experience of time.
On many occasion, I’ve looked at my watch after playing a good tabletop match or an intense painting session only to find that hours have disappeared. You start a small skirmish game of Warmachine or 40k Kill Team at 2pm only to find that it’s 6 or 7pm when you’re done, and now your stomach is growling from lack of food.
Surprise! How did that happen?
Time stands still, as we live in the moment. And, yet we can’t actually travel backwards or forwards as we do in physical space. We must experience the good with the bad, and can’t escape these “time prison”. Oddly, time feels to go by fast, inevitably toward some unknown destination.
How does your brain make all these experiences of time possible? Check out this great book about the physics of time in our Universe. Why Time Flies explains, in part, how our brain works to help us experience time (get it free with a 30-Day Audible trial). The author, Alan Burdick, goes into interesting detail about how our basic experiences with time are universal.
The question of why we lose track of time is even more intriguing because it happens even when you’re not having fun. The psychology of our human experience of time passing is what PhDs are made of. In an article in the Huffington Post, the basic idea of how we lose track of time passing is due to a few interesting things. Psychology is a fascinating world of study.
Here are 5 reasons why we may lose track of time:
- Disrupted routine
- No break between work and rest
- Atypical enjoyable activity
- Hyper focus on a task
- Not enough sleep
1. Disrupted Routine
As a tabletop gamer or not, one of the major things you can do that will mess up your ability to sense time is a disrupted routine. As humans, we pair time with the things we do on a day to day basis. If the things we do aren’t “normal”, our minds dissociate the time component, too.
For example, you know it takes you about 45 minutes to eat dinner and about 15 minutes to wash the dishes every night. In total, dinner and clean up is a full hour. Every evening, you physically and mentally know this is a block of time each day. What if you skip dinner? Or, how do you sense what time to start heading to bed, when you have guests over and dinner time ends up being 3 hours long? Your entire sense of this time block is lost.
When you’re a tabletop gamer, especially wargames, there is zero routine for a large chunk of time. During a gaming session, you and your fellow gamers are locked in an epic battle of wits. At each turn of events during a game, your mind is constantly make new decisions and experiencing the consequences. As such, a typical wargame such as 40k doesn’t allow you to fall into a routine. The increment of time that passes isn’t part of your calculations.
Without the milestones of a constant routine we lose track of time.
2. No Break Between Work and Rest
For those who work remotely, there is no work to home commute. For the typical worker, the daily routine of a 9 to 5 job locks in our sense of the time of day. Without this spatial break in our “work” and “rest” spaces, the only reminder of what time of day it is the amount of sunlight through our windows or a quick glance at a clock.
If you’re locked in that wargame, there’s very little time to stop and reflect on what you’re currently doing. Sure, gaming isn’t “work”, but the psychology is the same for an office worker who wants to finish that last bit of administrative brouhaha. If you’re painting miniatures and feel good about what you’re doing, then you’re not going to get up. You’ll push onward.
Time is a paradoxical experience. When you’re aware of time, you feel as though it moves slowly. When the ticking clock, as it were, is far from your mind, then time passes quickly. It seems that the separation of focused work and rest (including where you are, e.g., home versus office) keeps you aware of the psychological passing of time.
3. Atypical enjoyable activity
There are certain enjoyable activities we do that don’t disrupt our sense of time passing. Things like watching a movie tend to help use escape routine. Although we lose track of time while we are watching a full-length feature film, we are closely aware that we’re going to come out the other side 90-120 minutes later. But, what about fun activities that have no “set” ending?
What if you went into a movie theater and didn’t know how long a typical movie was? Or, how about the situation where you are asked to play a video game that immersed you in a compelling story? There’s something about activities that we find ourselves in that thrill, entertain, and simply grab us all at once (and we love it). Time has no meaning within these activities.
4. Hyper focus on a task
When you’re deep into a video game, tabletop wargame, or working really hard on a task, you’ll recall how it felt to “disappear” into that activity. The world around you fades away. Even voices of people or sounds around you dim into indescribable hum. What is this feeling? Why do you feel like time and the sense of reality doesn’t exist? A psychologist may call your experience a state of “flow”.
Flow state is also known as “being in the zone“, which is a mental state where you are performing a task and are fully immersed with energized focus and enjoying the process of the activity. During flow state you lose track of time. Your mental state doesn’t allow you to perceive the passing of events, as though your current activity consumes your bandwidth to the point that nothing else matters. The outside world slips away from your periphery as you fully involve yourself in this flow-immersed activity.
It’s a beautiful thing in many cases to lose track of time when you’re hyper focused in a pleasurable activity. Wherever you may be during this time, you love it, and yet you can’t even say you “love” said activity because even this description in the moment requires too much of you. For more about flow state and the fascinating power it can have over many of your experiences, check out this recommended read.
For how flow can affect your miniature painting hobby, check out this article.
5. Not enough sleep
When you don’t get enough sleep, your cognitive performance and mental acuity drops significantly (source). You don’t remember thing as well (loss of short term and working memory). You aren’t able to focus well because the lack of rest impairs your attention span. And, your ability to make rational decisions also diminishes without good sleep. Sleep is essential for your mental well-being.
Although it is unclear how the lack of sleep can affect your sense of the the passage of time, a lack of sleep contributes to the inability to fully focus or remember events of your daily activity. Disrupted focus, a chaotic routine, and a lack of good rest combine into a recipe for, lack of better words, a blurry existence.
You pause, but can’t remember what day of the week it is. A Monday feels like Saturday. Nothing seems to fall into place because your ability to feel the right day of the week is gone. You have lost the internal clock that tells you what you’re supposed to do next. When you’re stressed, it’s hard to sleep and when you lack sleep, you feel more stressed out. Your perception of time doesn’t work when you’re not all there.
Are you surprised by time?
Isn’t it weird that the passage of time surprises us? Time is a natural phenomenon, basically a ticking-away of events and experience. We physically live within the passage of time. When we see a child for the first time after a year away, we are shocked by how much this person has grown. I have 3 kids and they seem to grow so fast. But, it’s natural to get older with time. Why are we surprised that kids grow fast? Wouldn’t it be more normal if we are surprised that kids don’t grow at all!
If time is natural and we are affected by time (e.g., we get old), then the mental disconnect, such that we are surprised when time passes is simply weird.
Being surprised by time is unnatural.
I think the surprise we experience by the passing of time is because the experience of time is unnatural to us. When we are having fun, when things engage our creative side, we lose track of time because in those moments, we discover unexpectedly that “we are unnatural”. We live an experience that is supernatural. Our experience of time transcends physical and mental logic. Our “surprise” of the passing of time is a symptom of the disconnect between reality and our experience.
Games and hobbies are enjoyable, because we literally leave this physical world behind, and learn, even subtly, that we might belong somewhere else that is more natural to us (and it may not be this physical space). Mentally, I think we may closely grasp this concept, and take pleasure in this idea that we’ve escaped.
Perhaps losing track of time is a positive element in our human experience. It’s informative. Although time is physically limited, the human experience of time may be anecdotal evidence that our real existence is timeless.
Go do something you enjoy and maybe you’ll see what I mean.
Do you feel as though time has “blurred”? Are stuck indoors or in another place you’d rather not be. Perhaps, you’re reflecting back on how quickly time has passed, or has seemed to stop completely.
These are especially odd times to be living in, full of chaos, and disruptions to what we knew before. I know this article only touches a small piece of the larger spectrum of this idea-space about our experience of time. I’m sure I missed a few key things in this post, but I would love to hear what you think.
Thank you for reading!