How do I develop my sense of time awareness?
April 19, 2015 9:17 PM   Subscribe

Help a grad student with a very skewed perception of time! How do you train yourself to become more aware of time passing? What mechanisms/tricks have you used successfully to become more timely?

I've had a problem with time management for as long as I can remember, and a lot of it comes down to not realizing that time is actually passing. I often get so absorbed in completing a reading or writing a paragraph to my satisfaction that I don't realize that, you know, two hours has passed and I'm only halfway done with something that would've taken most people an hour. (This can be great in that I understand certain material really well, but I often don't have enough time/energy to complete these tasks and thus lose the benefit of understanding the overall picture.) Another common scenario is that I'll get so lost in an activity that I end up running late.

I'm sick of running late. I'm sick of cutting deadlines extremely close. I'm sick of stressing over everything I have to juggle on the day before a deadline because I managed my time poorly. I'm sick of not getting enough sleep.

What practical mechanisms have you used to become more time-aware? I'm looking for advice that's more cognitive-behavioral, less Freudian. There are definitely elements of perfectionism and meticulousness at play here--for example, I spend way too much time tending to details that don't warrant the amount of attention I give them--but I'm looking for more habit-based mechanisms that I can use to change my behavior today.

What I've Tried:
- Set timers and alarms at x-minute increments to try to train myself to "feel" how long x number of minutes is. It hasn't seemed to affect how I actually experience/perceive time. As soon as I stop setting those timers, I go right back to forgetting how much time has actually passed.
- Kept a "time diary" to record how much time I spend doing certain activities per week. It was startling to realize how long I take to do everything, but it didn't actually help with my in-the-moment time awareness or shock me into changing my behavior.
- Set my watch five minutes ahead. Doesn't help with my lack of perceptiveness in the passage of time.
- Planned rigid schedules and set time limits to do everything. I just end up getting absorbed in what I'm doing and get flustered/disappointed when I hit my time limit. Either I won't finish what I'm doing or I'll give up on part of my schedule to finish what I'm doing, often way beyond the allotted time.
- Scheduled myself to work mainly during my most productive hours (I'm a night owl, so that's really around midnight-3AM). It's not realistic with my schedule, and I still need to develop my overall sense of timeliness.
posted by melancholyplay to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Check the clock a lot. Every time you pause at your task, even for what seems like a half-second, check whatever time-keeping device is easiest (for me, it's generally the computer's clock).
posted by jaguar at 9:27 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

So this isn't something I've done myself but I really want to try it out at some point ever since I saw an article on a thing some people made called Durr, which was a watch whose only function was to vibrate on your wrist every five minutes. It looks like someone made an app for the Pebble smartwatch that replicates this functionality:

It sounds like setting timers/alarms did work for you while they were happening even if they couldn't train you to feel how long x number of minutes was in their absence. If that's the case, you could consider something like a Pebble watch with Purr on it to be assistive technology for your problem, just like glasses let people see better or canes let people with leg problems walk.
posted by foxfirefey at 9:28 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

For me, I think it helped to burn a few meals beyond edibility. I developed a habit of double-checking the situation even if I didn't hear a timer going off.

In general, I think it helps to play "guess the time." When you've been doing something for a while, and you wonder what time it is, don't just check. Say or write what you think the time is, and then confirm. Immediate feedback on your estimation ability speeds up the learning process. And knowing that you will receive immediate feedback can encourage you to pay attention to more environmental cues when estimating.
posted by Phssthpok at 9:37 PM on April 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

The Pomodoro technique has helped me a lot with time management, at least as it relates to projects and such. There are lots of apps and websites (just google). Everyone has a fave - I'm back to an old fashioned egg timer.

And while this won't help you in the short term, it might be worth checking with a psychologist. I was only able to consistently meet deadlines and show up on time for things after being diagnosed and treated for ADD. In....grad school.
posted by Kalatraz at 9:42 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are definitely elements of perfectionism and meticulousness at play here--for example, I spend way too much time tending to details that don't warrant the amount of attention I give them--but I'm looking for more habit-based mechanisms that I can use to change my behavior today.

I mean it sounds like you've tried all the easy stuff. If relying on gadgets hasn't worked then you have to train your brain to do what you want it to do. You have to remember to stop and force yourself to perceive time passing when you're in the middle of something. For me what helps is when I get involved in something I write the goal down on a post it and let that be the only note I can see. Then when I'm in the middle of working on it I periodically remind myself what I'm supposed to be doing, check if I'm on the right track, assess whether or not I'm in the weeds and see how much time is left. Basically you have to decide to make yourself do this as long as you're not rich enough to hire an assistant.
posted by bleep at 10:09 PM on April 19, 2015

I developed time sense over the course of my life by just looking at the clock a lot.
posted by sam_harms at 10:10 PM on April 19, 2015

I don't have a great sense of time passing either. However, I've figured out ways to work around it.

I suggest wearing a wrist watch, and checking the time whenever you remember.

For each morning, I set a bunch of alarms on my phone, so I know that x song = time. I find it helpful to compare across days where I am in my morning routine. A smart phone can also be set to remind you to switch tasks.

Do you know how long it takes you to complete various tasks? If you don't... time it. It's good to know that it takes you x minutes to leave the house, y minutes to get to campus, z minutes to find a parking sport.

For the computer there's f.lux. For the internet, there's LeechBlock.

Cal Newport has written some interesting articles about time management/ productivity in academia. Also your school probably has an "academic support center" where you can meet with someone to help you make a schedule/ timeline for the remainder of the term.
posted by oceano at 10:19 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I could have written this! I'm struggling with the same thing right now, and for me (and I think you?) there are two issues: 1) noting the passing of time, and 2) taking action when you note the passing of time.

Reacting to the passing of time: Sadly, this one's binary. You take action or you don't. I didn't train myself to know what 10 minutes feels like, I trained myself to respond after 10 minutes, to react to an alarm. I set an alarm across the apartment from me and when it went off I had to physically walk over and turn it off. Once I was okay with that I kept my phone next to me and made myself do random things when the alarm went off: check the mailbox, walk out to my garage, change my clothes, take a shower - something where I had to put shoes on or otherwise inconvenience myself.

My problem with running late isn't that I don't realize what time it is or how long it will take, my problem is seeing that it's 2pm and knowing it takes me 30 minutes to get to the place I need to be at 2:30pm, but saying "lemme just rewrite this sentence/finish this email" instead of responding to the clock and leaving. And then HAHA suddenly it's 2:20pm. I'm actually more likely to be late if I give myself extra time, because I'll think I have this super awesome time cushion and completely lose track of the clock.

There's nothing worse than finally locking into a task or feeling like I'm on the cusp of a great thought and having to stop what I'm doing, but I also know that I always think I am on the cusp of a great thought and I am always locked into something, even if that something is internet and not actually what I need to be doing.

So, train yourself to do something when an alarm goes off. Don't worry about whether you're aware of the passing of time, just work on reacting to time's passing when you need to.

Perception of time: Things take me a LOT longer than I think they will. A LOT longer, especially writing tasks, and then I leave them until the last minute and suddenly it dawns on me how long this should have taken me and that throws me into an even worse panic and a shame spiral yaaaay. With that in mind, I try to sit down with a task and look it over to realistically appraise how long it will take me. How many words can I really write per hour? I try to map out a timeline that errs on the longer end, and every time I take a break I reevaluate the timeline. I don't do this to stick to the schedule, I do this to check my perception against the reality of the moment. If I think that I can write 400 words per hour and after 3 hours I only have 600, is my expectation realistic?

If I am doing research, I am going to fall into a wormhole and I know that. So if I'm researching the history of Crayola, let's say, what I do in is write down the question I am trying to answer in that moment ("how many blue crayons does Crayola have?"), set a timer for 10 minutes, and when it goes off I look at my question and look at where I am ("I did not know that Sharpie makes pens now!!") and then right my course as necessary. Again, this is about reacting to the timer more than it is about keeping track of time.

If I'm absorbed enough in something I will miss an alert tone, and I will even walk across a room and silence and turn off an alarm without realizing that I have.

And yes, yes to the ADHD thing. If you have not had that looked into you may want to. I was diagnosed last January, and while I think I'm a lot worse at this stuff now I think I'm just more aware of it. My schedule has also gotten busier, so more places to be means more opportunities to be late.

What works for me:
- Pomodoro-like apps (I use 30/30) - I alter the intervals to suit my level of concentration on any given day. Some days I can study for 30 minutes before I need a break, other days I can go up to 45 minutes.
- Writing out how long I think something will take me, and checking my invested time against that periodically. Again, not as a schedule but as a reality check.
- Breaking things down into steps - outlining when writing, but also writing down everything that I need with me when I leave the house, or how I need to get somewhere. I ALWAYS forget to account for the time it takes to walk to my destination after I park. Also breaking down chores into all of their steps - walk to the garbage can, take garbage to trash, put new bag in the garbage can. "Taking out the garbage" takes a minute in my head, but when I break it down I see that all of that takes 4-5 minutes total. Breaking things down makes me more cognizant of time.
- Theme-based goals, not quantity-based goals: I want to write the chronology section of this memo, not finish it, not write five pages, just get the ideas out.
- Practicing reacting to a timer: stop, drop, and do something else for a second.

Also: be aware that even if you develop the best system in the world it will still shit the bed from time to time. Be flexible, be forgiving, and hopefully be more on top of things overall.
posted by good lorneing at 10:34 PM on April 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

Have you been tested for ADD? A skewed sense of time is a classic sign. I found out I had it at 27 -- it explained a loooot of stuff like this. Good luck!
posted by jessca84 at 10:34 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ha! I am in a similar shaped water craft. The thing that works for me, especially when I leave things to the last minute, is writing down a list of word count goals by so-and-so hour, and then setting my Nag for 50min work, 10min break increments, and keeping a tally of my word count per hour. This helps me get those last 500 or 1000 words on paper when time is doing its time thing.
posted by Thella at 10:36 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely wear a watch, and check it often. Try to develop a habit to check it whenever you do a mundane thing, like going to the bathroom, or the end of every phone call. This is just to get your brain in sync with the ongoing perception of the passage of time.
Also, for the long-term: If you are outside regularly, check the time of day with the location of the sun and the look of shadows in familiar locations: "oh, in April the sun still shines on that hillside out my window near sundown...". Likewise at night with the moon or stars, if they are visible. This will train you to recognize environmental cues to the time of day/night. One could dismiss this notion as a lot of folderol with comments about being one with the earth, grounded, or other granola hippy nonsense, but it is very useful to be able to look at the sun in the sky and say 'its about 2:30PM', and be right within @15 minutes.
posted by TDIpod at 10:39 PM on April 19, 2015

I am a graduating grad student. My time management issues were due to procrastination and willfully neglecting time by plunging myself into the internets. Your situation sounds a little different and less mundane, and I agree with those above that you may consider getting a health screen.

I've previously discussed how to give oneself sensory feedback on the passage of time. Basically, the number one thing that's helped me is to surround myself with a low level of noise/activity. It's energizing and somehow helps my brain work at a faster clip, kind of like how people running fast on treadmills next to you at the gym revs you up too. Cafes are great for this but I feel bad about taking up space for more than three hours, so I find on-campus nooks and crannies where I can sit for half a day (my all-time favorite is the cafe area of my campus bookstore). If the noise is too much, I put on headphones and listen to instrumental/electronic music. Good luck!
posted by nemutdero at 11:09 PM on April 19, 2015

"Okay, Google, set a timer for fifteen minutes." "Okay, Google, set an alarm for 7pm."

It's less obtrusive than having to actually fiddle more with my phone to do it, but I've got the ADD brain and I cannot make my brain different, I can change how I behave in response to it. Rather than trying to force yourself into knowing exactly how much time has passed, cut down the barriers to things like the timers and the tracking. Don't make it an additional chore, make it something small that's a part of whatever you're presently doing.

I am almost never late for anything anymore, and I've cut way back on things like forgetting I need to go switch my laundry. As I've integrated these things into my routine, I check my phone more often generally, which means I have more awareness of the current time and the passage thereof because it's right there in front of me, regularly. But the integration is key.
posted by Sequence at 11:29 PM on April 19, 2015

Two things work for me:

1) Adderall. Yes, I have adult-diagnosed ADHD, which explains my historically terrible sense of time

2) Music. I have to leave for work in 10 minutes, which means I can only stay in the shower through one song. I need to catch my train home in 20 minutes, which means I can stay through two songs and then I have to get up and leave, etc.
posted by Oktober at 7:40 AM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

One thing that I think has made me better at judging time is playing little time-estimation games with myself. Get into the habit of checking the time when you start a task, say, going to the bathroom, or doing the dishes, and guess how long it will take. After you think a certain time has passed, or you've finished, check and see how close your guess is. I've found that just by doing this a lot, I've become much more accurate at judging time. And getting into the habit of checking the time much more often is just naturally going to make you more aware of it.
posted by catatethebird at 6:02 PM on April 20, 2015

I have inattentive ADD and was only diagnosed in my thirties. Some of what you write sounds familiar (particularly the being absorbed in things and losing awareness of time passing).

I still do not experience myself in time. None of my strategies have helped with my awareness of time in a fundamental way. But they have helped me manage time.

Don't worry so much about how long things should take/how much time is passing. Figure out how long it takes *you* to do a particular thing and work with that as much as you can. I do some things really, really rapidly (reading, writing) and others are interminably slow (anything involving numbers or detailed checking that is not of current interest to me). Get a gauge for how long it takes you to do the things you need to do and work around that (as much as you practically can).

Anything further away than next week may as well be next year for me. So I have a weekly schedule on the fridge that I fill in with tasks *and* a yearly calendar on my wall. I need visual and hard-not-notice reminders of time. This also helps me understand that the 18th IS ALSO Monday (or next week is also the week of the 18th or whatever) and that means when someone asks me to do something on Monday I can actually see very easily what I already have mapped out.

With research, in particular, set an objective before you start and write it up and put it somewhere really visible. I love to research but I tend to approach it as 'read absolutely all the things that have ever been written on X and then read critiques of them and then read fundamentally different frameworks and methodologies and then...etc!' It's wonderfully fun but it is inefficient. Remember your (narrow, hopefully) research purpose and remind yourself of it. Let yourself go wild and chase all the interesting ideas from time to time so you don't lose the love of it but be disciplined about that.

I hate schedules and routines with a mad passion but they really, really help me.

The fact that you tend to get overly involved in your activities and find it hard to stop them (with alarms or reminders) makes me wonder if you hyper-focus a little bit (whether ADD could be your problem or not). I hyperfocus a great deal and the trick for me is to channel it productively.

I'm not actually too bad at guessing how much time has passed, it's more that I simply don't care when I'm doing something I'm really interested in and thus become lost in time. So try to induce/save the ultra-focus for important tasks and don't waste it on, say, obsessively researching responses to the latest episode of Mad Men, when you should be writing a chapter.

I set my watch back too and it helps. So does taking the time to think about/find out how long something will actually take me rather than just prophesying it will take the time I've left over for it (especially getting places or doing boring/routine tasks which I tend to wildly underestimate).

I put deadlines on post-it notes or sometimes even in big writing on a piece of paper tacked to my front door - anywhere where I have to see it regularly.

Pomodoro helps me start things but it won't help me end them or transition to a new task when I need to. When the alarm goes at the end of thirty minutes or an hour, I'm all like 'shut up, Pomodoro, can't you see I'm working!' and continue on for hours. I haven't actually solved this problem. For this reason I try to start my work with the important stuff and leave the peripheral stuff to later.

I also find I need a few days a week to spend time the way I wish in my own weird-brain universe. This stops me feeling too anxious about trying to be mindful of time the rest of the, ha, time.
posted by JayAlfred at 4:41 AM on April 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

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