I stepped outside this morning, and the morning air in Austin was chilly. Conceptually, I know that Fall is here and Winter is rapidly approaching, but in the endless cycle of COVID days, I couldn’t figure out where the summer went.
A lot of people are having this experience, and it reflects something fundamental about the way we perceive time when we look back on it. When you look back at a period of your life, you think about the events that you can remember. The more distinct events you recall, the longer that the time period feels. That is why the journey to a new place feels longer than the journey home, why the first couple of days of a vacation feel longer than the past few, and why the routines we have developed during COVID make it feel like we are living one compressed month.
Taking up a new hobby can help—and it has some other added bonuses as well.
If there is a skill you wish you had developed (playing an instrument, painting, or scrapbooking), think about starting now. There are lots of online resources for learning new things, and many music and art teachers are providing virtual lessons. So there is no reason that social distancing should prevent you from trying something new.
When you learn that new skill, the memories you create are distinct from any you have created before. You have to pay a lot of attention to what you’re doing when you learn something new, and so there are many events that you’ll be able to look back on. That will help to differentiate the days more, which will make it feel as though the time is passing more slowly.
Part of the reason why the early phase of learning a skill is memorable is that it comes along with a lot of rewards. There is a lot of evidence for a typical learning curve in which your initial efforts lead to rapid change. When I took up the saxophone in my mid-30s, my first few weeks were filled with new experiences. I learned to get a sound out of the instrument, how to play a few notes, and how to play my first songs. Over time, of course, it takes more practice to see improvement, but the initial phase of learning has a lot of growth.
Not only does this early stage of the hobby provide a lot of opportunities to remember events, but it lifts your mood. Completing tasks makes you feel good, and those early improvements provide lots of opportunity for those good feelings.
On top of that, (as I have written about before), the anxiety a lot of people are experiencing during the pandemic right now reflects that people are motivated to avoid a variety of threats in our world right now (such as the pandemic). A great way to quell that anxiety is to shift your motivational focus away from the avoidance of threat and toward attaining desirable things. Your hobby can create that shift in motivational focus that can bring moments of joy and satisfaction.
Hobbies can also create opportunities for social interaction. Engaging with a teacher will give you regular contact with another person who is focused on your improvement. If you take a group class, you will also meet other people who share common interests. That can help you move beyond the small network of people you’re probably spending most of your time with.
Finally, a lot of people have felt like they are living their lives in a holding pattern right now. Real life suspended last March and it will pick up again when we have a vaccine or other cure and can engage with each other like we used to. But, we are living a significant chunk of our lives right now. Your new hobby will allow you to have something tangible you can point to as a measure of your personal progress during the pandemic.