Why Do Some Work Weeks Feel Longer Than Others?

Default Profile ImageBen O'Connell
Why Some Work Weeks Drag On

Why do weeks seem to crawl by at a snail’s pace, while others zip by like a greased pig? 

This phenomenon isn’t a figment of your imagination – it’s all about how your brain perceives time, and it’s influenced by a number of factors.

Internal factors

Your mental state at work is the most impactful factor here. Dreading tasks and feeling stressed or unmotivated can make time drag. Conversely, being engaged, productive, and “in the flow” makes the hours melt away.

Eagerly waiting for Friday (or that afternoon coffee break) can stretch out the minutes. Similar to how time slows when waiting for a loved one’s arrival, anticipation can be a killer for motivation. While having things to look forward to is always important, make sure to reshape your thinking and enjoy the current moment, even when battling the afternoon energy slump.

Anticipation, stress, and negative emotions can lengthen our perception of time, while positive emotions can compress it. (Niesta & Palmero-Moya, 2012)

And finally, boredom, boredom, boredom. Monotonous work or repetitive tasks can feel like an eternity, while varied and challenging jobs make time fly. 

External Factors

The first external factor is a busy workload. A jam-packed schedule overflowing with meetings and deadlines can feel never-ending. Conversely, lighter weeks feel breezier. 

…but sometimes having a busy workload can make the week fly by. It’s about finding the pacing that works best for you. The recipe for productivity is unfortunately not the same for every employee.

Research suggests that time flies when we’re focused and engaged, while boredom and disengagement make it drag. (Eagleman, 2015) 

Further studies exemplify the uniqueness of time perception. Our circadian rhythm and other internal mechanisms influence how we perceive time. Studies show fluctuations in our internal clock can make hours feel longer or shorter. (Smets, 1999)

Unusual schedules, like starting on a Tuesday after a long weekend, can disorient our internal clock and make time feel out of whack. Keeping a common routine helps a bunch on this topic.

Having a social day is a good day. Days filled with positive interactions with colleagues can feel shorter, while those with conflict or isolation can feel longer.

Specific insights

Sometimes we have a shorter week thanks to say, a public holiday. They can disrupt our established routines and heighten anticipation for the weekend, making them feel longer than usual, despite spending less time at work.

But then a shorter week can also feel shorter! This comes back to how productivity is uniquely ours.

After a major break off especially, there can be lots to adjust to. Coming back to work after a break can feel heavy due to the sudden shift in routine and the faded post-holiday glow.

Repetitive tasks and a lack of challenges can make time crawl. Breaking up monotonous work can sometimes become more important for productivity and workflow than the work itself.

Strategies and solves

So, what can you do to combat the stretched-out workweek feeling?

Plan your workload strategically. Break up large tasks into smaller, manageable chunks and schedule activities you enjoy.

Vary your tasks! If possible, mix up your routine to avoid monotonous stretches. Breaking up routines and incorporating novelty into your workday can increase engagement and compress perceived time. (Thackray et al., 2011)

Focus on mindfulness. Pay attention to the present moment and avoid dwelling on the passing hours. Studies show mindfulness practices can improve our awareness of the present moment and reduce the negative impact of time distortion. (Shapiro & Carlson, 2017)

Take breaks! Don’t power through – get up and move around, chat with a colleague, or step outside for some fresh air.

Celebrate your wins. Recognise your accomplishments, even small ones, to boost your mood and motivation. Focusing on progress and accomplishments, even small ones, can positively influence your emotional state and reduce the feeling of a long, arduous week. (Niesta & Palmero-Moya, 2012)

Remember, time perception is subjective. By understanding the factors at play and implementing some helpful strategies, you can reclaim control over your workweek and make it feel a little less like an eternity.

Extras for experts

Monday blues: Studies show many people perceive Mondays as longer due to the transition from weekend relaxation to work routine, along with increased anticipation for the approaching weekend. (Weinstein & Thorne, 1992)

Work overload: Research suggests individuals with heavier workloads perceive time as passing more slowly, likely due to increased cognitive demands and stress. (Grondin & van den Hurk, 2010)

Monotony and boredom: Repetitive tasks activate autopilot modes in the brain, leading to a reduced sense of time passing and feelings of boredom. (Thackray et al., 2011)

Brain activity: Studies using fMRI scans show different brain regions are activated during time perception depending on our engagement and emotional state. This suggests our emotional and cognitive state directly impacts how we perceive time. (Coull et al., 2004)

Dopamine: This neurotransmitter plays a role in reward and motivation, and research suggests higher dopamine levels are associated with a faster perceived time passage. This could explain why time flies when we’re engaged and enjoying our work. (Eagleman, 2015)

Remember, this is just a glimpse into the fascinating field of time perception. By understanding the psychological factors at play and using research-backed strategies, you can take control of your time and make those workweeks feel a little less long and a lot more manageable.