science of us

Why It’s So Hard to Remember What Day It Is During a Short Workweek

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Today is Thursday. Maybe you already know that, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. After all, today is a short week, one of those situations that always feels like a bonus gift after a three-day weekend — and as great as the four-day workweek is, it can also can feel a little disorienting.
You may have trouble remembering exactly where we are in the calendar —and, more importantly, how many more days are left until the weekend.

So what’s up with this sudden confusion of time? Two time-perception experts explain why your brain just has so much trouble after a long weekend (along with a few tricks for getting yourself back on track).

Your experience of time is malleable.

“Perception of time has this ebb and flow,” says psychologist J. Devin McAuley, the director of the Timing, Attention, and Perception (TAP) Lab at Michigan State University. “Objective time stays the same, but people’s perception changes based on a number of different factors,” including memory and external cues.

Researchers often use different mechanisms to explain how your perception of time might work, McAuley adds. “One idea is that essentially you have some kind of internal clock that is your internal sense of time, which is clicking along at some rate based on physiology.” For example, if you stop at the same light every day on the way to work, your internal clock will develop a sense of how long that light lasts. But if you’re running late one day, or rushing, the light will seem like it is taking longer than usual to change, because your internal sense of time is now going at a faster rate.

Your time perception can also be thrown off by a number of other things, from caffeine to stress to exercise. For example, a study published earlier this year in Psychophysiology found that people’s perception of time was distorted after they experienced social stress. Even your age can play a role: according to a December 2005 study in Psychological Reports, passage of time speeds up with age, meaning that older people tend to perceive time passing more quickly than younger people.

That malleability means that, when your routine is interrupted by something like a long weekend, your body’s complex system of time processing — and your subjective impression of the length of the workweek — may be thrown out of whack.

Your “anchoring” is off.

“Essentially, your weekly mental calendar is anchored by Saturday and Sunday,” explains Richard A. Block, a professor emeritus of psychology at Montana State University who studies the psychology of time. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday tend to blend together, since they’re in the middle of your routine with no unique breaks.

When you lose those anchoring clues, you tend to have a harder time remembering the day of the week. For example, Block points to one seminal study from 1974, published in Memory and Cognition, in which researchers walked up to people on a college campus and asked them the day of the week, recording both error rates and the length of time it took them to answer. The authors of the study, Asher Koriat and Baruch Fischhoff, found that people had more trouble remembering the day of the week the further they were from the weekend (so Wednesday, for example, was tougher to remember than either Monday or Friday).

A long weekend throws off those anchoring cues even more: You might remember that the last weekend day was just two days ago, leading you to be momentarily confused about whether it’s Tuesday or Wednesday.

“Days of the week is another set of temporal markers that don’t really have inherent meaning on their own,” says Anne Wilson, a professor at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and director of the Identity, Motivation, and Perception Extended in Time and Society (IMPETuS) lab. “We often recall the correct day of the week because it follows the same pattern every week. A long weekend can throw that off simply because the pattern is temporarily disrupted.” For instance, Thursday could feel earlier in the week simply because we only feel “Wednesday-tired” versus “Thursday-tired,” and other context cues — like remembering two days of commute instead of three — won’t work here.

Sometimes, you just need to look at a calendar.

Even without a three-day weekend, it can be easy to forget the day of the week if you don’t have any external context clues. For instance, Block notes that now that he’s retired from his teaching schedule, he knows the day of the week mainly by looking at the calendar.

In fact, that may be the best solution to combating day confusion after a long weekend (it’s certainly the easiest solution, at any rate). Making it a point to looking at a calendar on Tuesday morning can help your brain reset for the unusual schedule, McAuley says.

You can also rely on temporal landmarks that are always on the same day of the week to help you get through — for instance, if you have a dance class every Wednesday evening, you can use that to orient yourself, Wilson says. That way, you can remember that it’s the day after your dance class, so it must be Thursday.

Ultimately, people are pretty intuitively aware of this potential for error after a schedule change-up, Wilson says: “One tactic for resetting after a long weekend may ‎simply be reminding yourself your usual estimates will be a little off.” Once you get back into your normal schedule, your brain will adjust — though no promises on how slow those working days may feel.

Why a Short Week Makes it So Hard to Remember What Day It Is