How much time do you spend washing dishes?

This seems like a straightforward question. If an opinion pollster calls you up and asks you how much time you spend washing dishes in a week, you probably wouldn't say "I don't know." No one likes to say "I don't know." So you'd give a number.

But I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that number would be wrong. Indeed, it wouldn't even be close to accurate, whether you're a man or a woman. And I'd be willing to bet a lot of money on which direction you'd be off. You would overestimate.

According to studies highlighted in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, by time use researchers Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson and Melissa Milkie, when you ask women how much time they spend washing dishes in a week, they'll tell you 5.5 hours. Men say 2.6 hours. Ask people to keep a time diary, though, and the numbers come out very differently. Women devote, on average, 1.1 hours to washing dishes as a primary or secondary activity. Men devote 0.7 hours.

Audits find the time diary approach is more accurate than typical surveys, and the results show that men overestimate by about 400% and women by about 500%. This is a big problem if you're trying to make any point about American life and housework and use a quick response poll as your evidence.

So what's going on? It's not that we're lying. It's a few things. First, few people have any idea how much time they spend devoted to many tasks. If you get paid by the hour you probably know how many hours you work. But doing dishes doesn't have the same structure. Most people don't even know that a week has 168 hours, so how would you know how much time you spend on something like dishes?

Second, few people enjoy the routine aspects of housework like scrubbing pots and pans. Because we do these things frequently, we feel like we're always doing them, even if each instance only takes a few minutes. So we tend to overestimate.

Well, so what, you say. Here's why this matters: many of the things we "know" about American life--that we are overworked and sleep-deprived, for instance, or that women work a second shift doing housework after work--come from quick response surveys. But if we get dish washing so wrong, why would we think these other impressions are right? The answer is that the situation is not always as it appears. This is important to keep in mind when we issue pronouncements about the modern world.

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3 Responses to How much time do you spend washing dishes?


  1. Tonya says:

    Hmmmm. One thing I noticed when I hired a housecleaning service was that yes, it really did take a full half hour to load the dishwasher and wipe the countertops and stove, etc if the dishes had been left to accumulate to a full load. Not 5 hours per week perhaps, but certainly more than 1.1

  2. Adam says:

    Are we referring to hand washing or the dish washer? In my case, I (have to) wash by hand, and was hoping for a solution to my incredibly slow approach which is 3x your indicated average/week (which I have noted in terms of how long it takes me). I am unsure why and either a) I am beneficent in my approach despite washing dishes since I was 12 (I am 43); or b) I am overly meticulous with each dish (likely). I notice other people who hand wash whip through it with no worries of insufficient washing nor rinsing, I have tried this approach to it (i.e. whipping through it), only to discover a greasy film on touch post-drying afterwards. So, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t need it to be 5 minutes, but it’d be nice for my average to be 1.1 hours (or the 0.7…given that I am a guy). It’d be nice to know how to achieve a balance between clean and efficient…[Side note: If your article was aimed at use dishwashers, I’d agree with (mis)perceptions of time) being at issue].

    • Adam says:

      Sorry, in the above, should have said “inefficient” not “beneficent”…

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