Got a minute? Yes you do.

The April issue of Real Simple features a long package on women and time. Based on a survey done for Real Simple and the Families and Work Institute by Harris Interactive, the package argues that women feel they have little free time, but not for the reasons you think. It’s not because harried working moms are putting in long hours at the job. More than two-thirds of respondents said that their jobs don’t interfere with their personal lives. Rather, it’s because women are spending a lot of time hovering over their kids, and cleaning their houses, refusing to release these chores from their grips, even if their spouses have similar standards, and even if they can afford to outsource things. Which, by the way, Real Simple readers can (if the $565 Max Mara pants in the fashion section mean anything).

It’s an interesting conclusion, though I’d argue with a few things about the package. First, the opening line: “Got a minute? No, we know you don’t.” Of the survey respondents, about half said they don’t have enough free time. But that means about half do have adequate free time. We could focus on these women who feel their lives have adequate leisure. But we don’t.

Instead, we get a pie chart showing that 52% of women have less than 90 minutes of free time a day — about 11 hours a week — and “what’s worse, 29% have less than 45 minutes a day. Not even enough time to watch a whole episode of The Good Wife.” I wonder if that line is meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, because I’m pretty certain that if you’d asked people, prior to the question about how much free time they have, to list their favorite TV shows, they’d have told you some names. According to the American Time Use Survey, the average employed mother of preschool aged children watches over 11 hours of TV per week. And what is TV watching but leisure? I wonder what percent of the women who claimed little free time have Facebook accounts. Or ever write personal emails. Or read Real Simple. (Also, answering Harris Interactive polls isn’t required for people’s jobs either, so the 4% of women who say they have no free time show they are deluding themselves simply by responding).

Real Simple makes a more supported case with its assertion that women’s free time is often contaminated. To the magazine’s credit, the writers of the various time essays argue that this contamination often occurs for self-inflicted reasons. A woman who wants to read, and who sees dirty dishes in the sink, will often get up and go do the dishes — loudly, hoping her husband reading the newspaper will hear — before sitting back down again. But why? Why not read and wait and see if he’ll go do it? Did it have to be done right then? Why not go to bed and see if it gets done? While 6 in 10 women say their spouses have the same or higher standards when it comes to housework, 45% of these women refuse to give their spouses control over household organizing. There is a lot of gatekeeping going on. I appreciate that Real Simple reported that women are spending a lot more time with their kids these days than in 1965. Some of this is good, but some of it makes for antics of the sort Lenore Skenazy mocks. If you’re still supervising your teens’ homework instead of going for a walk, you should consider whether, at some point (college?) they’ll need to start doing their homework on their own.

Some useful poll results: 50% of women who schedule their free time regularly are satisfied with their lives, but only 41% of women who postpone free time until they finish other tasks are satisfied. The lesson? Leave the dirty dishes there! Don’t pick up the house after the kids go to bed. It will just get dirty again but you’ll never get that time back. Just because you go to bed with a clean house doesn’t mean you’ve done something if a clean house isn’t one of your over-arching life goals. Schedule free time than can’t be contaminated, like a yoga class or a volunteer gig that takes you out of the house.

I tend to think that we use “lack of free time” as a proxy for feeling stressed. We do the same thing with lack of sleep. But these are not the same. I have a fair amount of stress in my life at the moment. But I know that I sleep enough, and I have free time — more than 11 hours a week. I make sure of this partly to deal with the stress. Going through an intense time at work while raising three small kids is just stressful. But how I spend my time is a different matter.

How much free time do you have?

32 thoughts on “Got a minute? Yes you do.

  1. reminds me of Friedan’s notion that housework expands to fill time available. The converse is just as true. It contracts to fit the time available chez nous 😉

  2. The studies I’ve seen of “TV time” count “when the TV is on”. Is it leisure to have a morning show on while preparing for work and making lunches? If I watch Wheel of Fortune on the treadmill, is this “TV leisure”? I would argue that having the TV on while preparing lunches does not make this “leisure time.”

    1. That is the difference between Nielsen (set on) and ATUS, which measures television as a primary activity. It doesn’t mean someone isn’t doing something else, but the numbers are much lower than the 30 hours per week often cited, and tend to mean paying attention.

  3. Once, after dinner, my dad looked at my mom and said, “you know, the kitchen window sill is looking really grungy.” My mom looked at him with a big smile and a twinkle in her eyes and replied, “Yes it is! Thank you so much for volunteering to give it a good clean!” My dad never brought it up again. (I, of course, was SO ready to burst out laughing).

  4. I have a busy life, but it’s pretty much all a good kind of busy. Most of my work is comprised of things I enjoy…teaching my kids, doing music at church, cooking, maintaining my home (something I enjoy), blogging, photography, walking, eating with my family, and so on. And I get plenty of sleep…about 8 hours a night.

    I always chuckle at the clothing in most magazines…the prices are insane. Shape Magazine often has things like $500 shorts. Seriously?

    1. @Kristen – if I owned $500 shorts, I would not dare sit in them. On a more serious note, I do think that part of people not feeling like they have enough free time is that they don’t enjoy their work. If you’re spending 40 hours a week doing something they don’t like, then the inevitable impositions on the rest of the time (like emptying the dishwasher) feel even more draining.

  5. I don’t really know how much free time I have right now- so much has changed since my last time tracking exercise. Also, I’m doing a lot of “non-work work” as I kick around some ideas to try to get to a place where I can try to start my own business. I wonder if that counts as free time or work?

    But, I’m actually pretty happy with the time balance in my life right now. Daylight savings time-induced issues aside, the kids’ bedtimes aren’t the time sucks they have been at times in the past, and it is usually bedtime suckiness that makes me feel like I don’t have enough free time.

    But then- 90 minutes of free time per day sounds like a lot to me!

    1. @Cloud- you do blog, though, which is a great, structured way to spend your leisure time. As for 90 minutes, you probably work more and you have younger kids than the average woman.

      1. Oh, yes, I definitely consider the blogging as free time. But it isn’t anywhere near 90 mins/day! Probably about 30 mins/day.

        It will be interesting to see if my free time goes up when the kids are older. I hear conflicting reports from people with older kids. I’m trying not to have any expectations, beyond the hope that I will soon be reliably sleeping through the night in my own bed!

        We have lateish lights out times, too- 8:30 for the toddler, 9 for the preschooler. We’ll probably tweak those come fall, when our routine adjusts to handle school.

    2. @Cloud – I couldn’t agree more with you about bedtime suckiness. Mon-Thurs typically my son takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to go to bed (and that’s not including bathtime). I think this is because he is away from me on those days and so wants to spend time with us before going to sleep. It just feels too long to be spending on bedtime and means I feel I don’t have any time to myself on those days…

      1. @Nicola – I sympathize. This is one reason we put the kids to bed pretty late. They want to hang out with us and they’re not that tired. If I tried putting them to bed at 7:30, it would definitely take an hour and a half. By putting them to bed at 9, it takes very little time.

        1. YEs ! exactly.. as long as they get up for school who cares about bedtime… why a working parent would want to put their kid to bed at 7:30 is beyond me also ! also then they sleep right until they have to so if you are good you can get up at like 5:30 or so and run or read or work … evenif they start school at 8 that gives you at least an hour..

        2. I guess I haven’t yet had the courage to try that because I’m worried that if I leave it til 9 then we’ll be up till 11 and then have trouble getting up in the morning. As it is we just have lots of stories and chat in bed for an hour or so which is a nice thing to do and then he is asleep by about 8.45. I just need to change my perspective on it I think and see it as a good way to spend time.

  6. Ah yes, housework. No vale la pena.

    Though this weekend DH tackled the bathroom with harsh chemical cleaners while I gave the kitchen a good one over with water and elbow grease. We do have some standards. And every weekend we do laundry as a full family activity.

    I think I spend too much time on the internet!

  7. I used to be so on board with the “let the housework go” mantra. But a few years ago I started to find that attitude was causing its own stress.

    I really didn’t like living in a cluttered house and finding other people’s stuff lying around in public spaces really started to get to me. I also developed more severe allergies that were not compatible with the cleaning service vacuuming every 2 weeks. I started dreading coming home from my clean, orderly office to that chaos of a house that no one else but me seemed to notice.

    My FIL’s house could be something out of the TV show, “Hoarders.” There are rooms of his house that are uninhabitable because of the piles of old newspapers stacked around (from 2006 and even earlier). So when my husband’s newspaper-reading and -saving habits started to resemble his father’s, I felt that I had cause to be concerned. We had to negotiate a system for how many newspapers could stay in the house. We now have a basket, and when that basket is full, that’s it, anything that doesn’t fit in the basket gets recycled. (It still holds about 6 months worth of newspaper, so I think that’s a reasonable compromise. And we still had to cancel the Sunday paper.) I think this was time and effort well spent, because now we have a system and we don’t have stacks of newspapers all over the house. But it took, and still takes, time every week to manage these newspapers.

    I needed to start vacuuming and cleaning more frequently so that I didn’t feel stressed and allergic all the time and dread coming home. It had almost nothing to do with trying to meet other people’s, or society’s, unrealistic standards. Instead, it was more about respecting myself and my own needs.

    I think this kind of thing is in play for some of those other women, too, who feel unable to just blow off housework.

    1. @Karen – 6 months seems like a lot of newspapers. That’s generous of you to allow that. I think any individual family can have a certain dynamic, but I also think it’s interesting to look at how these things have changed over time. Women do a lot less housework now than they did in 1965. Did respecting ourselves and our needs change over time? Or did society’s standard of acceptable change?

      1. @Laura, I think both have probably changed. Women have more opportunities now for accomplishment and fulfillment outside the home and that probably enables them to let more of the housework go. And society’s standard of acceptable has also changed.

        I think both of these changes are to the good both for the broader society and for me personally. I still let the housework go to the extent that I’m comfortable with doing so, and I certainly don’t clean to 1950’s housewife standards.

        But (and maybe this is because of the extent of the change that has already happened) at this point I also find that “let the housework go” may have reached the limits of its usefulness as time-management advice.

  8. I used to repeatedly use the phrases “super busy,” “no time,” and so forth. One day, I realized just how draining it was to keep saying this, how down I felt about it, and how others probably feel when talking to me go on and on! I think this is the time when I discovered your blog and read “168 Hours.” 🙂

    Now, I’m much more intentional about how I use my time and I’ve been practicing the “it’s not a priority” mantra (at least inside my own mind). As a result, I’ve gradually shed the volunteering busy-work I’ve been sucked into over the years, and instead, I’ve proudly declared that I’d rather spend that time with my kids. As a full-time working mom with a commute in the DC area, my time with the kids is limited, so I try to make the most of it when I can. (I have to remind myself of this on nights when the bedtime routine takes waaaay too long or after days when work or commuting has left me drained.) I know I only have a short window of time to enjoy the little things like Sunday morning pancake breakfasts, impromptu Play-Doh sessions, trips to the library, “pillow talk” at bedtime. Committees and volunteer activities will always be there for me later when the kids are older.

    1. @Amy – nice. I’m viewing volunteering as one of those seasons of life things. Now is not the right time for many things, and it’s disrespectful to say yes when you can’t give something adequate attention. I’m glad the book was helpful.

  9. I love this post ! I will try to read the real simple article.. do they give any good suggestions.. I definitely do not watch 11 hours of tv a week.. and I definitely don ot feel I have enough free time to exercise or read… those are the 2 things I would try to do more of .. if I felt I had more time .. I totally agree about leaving the housework and yes your husband will do it. my husband is more likely to do dishes if I leave them my standards are so low on what is a clean dish that he often begs to do them.. more so on housework than on childcare.. if I try to just leave him the kids that works less well unless i leave the house which I donot want to do a lot of times since my home office is in the house etc. communication is key too. the other frida night I went out with the kids to something my shy husband did not want to do … and when I came back 3 hours later unfolded laundry was all around him as he watched tv… and he was genuinely surprised that I was annoyed b this which was so fair as I hadn’t asked him to do this… so when I took them out sunday a.m. I left him specific honey do directions and all laundry was done and put away and I spent my sunday at the zoo while he did laundry and then got to do the cutting down funoutdoor chores his manliness wanted to do for fun! for the women who say hey bedtime is so much work… is ay lower our standards on bedtime.. that is why daycare invented naptime etc. I put both my kids to sleep with me and when I’ve had enough I just go to bed and they usually just go to bed with me… then can be moved to another bed… also I never give a little kid a bath every day once or 2 x a week seems plenty

    1. ” that is why daycare invented naptime etc. I put both my kids to sleep with me and when I’ve had enough I just go to bed and they usually just go to bed with me… then can be moved to another bed”

      I LOVE this comment – it’s so easy to feel guilty about not doing bedtime “right”. I seem to be surrounded by people whose children are asleep in their own beds by 7pm and cannot understand why I have trouble getting my nearly 2 year old to go to sleep and stay asleep. I will definitely think about dropping my standards as he so obviously wants to be with us and sleep with us.

        1. Ha ha! I’ve already used the intelligence argument. Thanks for the link – will go and look at that one 🙂

  10. I think one issue is that spending free time wisely and purposefully takes some startup energy. Inertia activities like surfing the internet (and commenting on good blog posts!) take so much less, but also don’t really feel like a break.

    This weekend, I woke up at 3 a.m. to see a 340 ton rock arrive at an art museum in a huuuuuuge truck “transporter.” It was cool and wacky, and I was tired the rest of that day. It would’ve been so much easier to stay in bed and wish I had time for such things, but I have been completely energized for the 3 days since, just for having done something fun and unusual.
    I hope I remember this experience the next time I am lacking that “start up energy.”

    1. @Liz- I think I did a post a while ago about resolving to “do it anyway.” Plan in your fun (like seeing a 240 ton rock!) and then, even if you’re tired, go do it. Because we’ll always be tired. But we draw energy from activities we enjoy.

  11. Some weeks I’m really busy but some weeks I’m not (or less busy). I really try not to say I’m always busy because it’s not true for most people even if most like to claim they’re busy.

    I know many who always say they’re busy and I actually stop believing these people; it’s probably more a bad time management issue and I should send them your book! Or it’s really an inability to enjoy leisure time because there’s always one more chore to do. (I’m guilty of thinking like this and not truly enjoying weekends).

    1. @Oilandgarlic – I also think it’s just a verbal tic – someone asks how things are going and I often say “good, busy as usual.” It’s like a meaningless, acceptable thing to say. Now, when people start going on and on about the different things they have to do… that’s when it’s time to get another drink at the party.

  12. My favorite part:
    “(Also, answering Harris Interactive polls isn’t required for people’s jobs either, so the 4% of women who say they have no free time show they are deluding themselves simply by responding).”

    I love your capability for calling it as you see it. I learned a lot from your book. And also from my husband who I have finally started to try and listen to:

    “If you wait till the last minute, it only takes a minute.”

    If we meet half way between the kids’ 1 hr bedtime routine and the 30 minute one, we get 30 more minutes to ourselves, for ourselves or each other.

    1. @Star- thanks, so glad you learned something from the book. I go back and forth on the last minute thing. I do, indeed, like to build in margin time to my life so I don’t feel rushed. On the other hand, I often think I need so much margin that I don’t do things. You can shower in 5 minutes. You can run to the store for milk in 15 if you push it. I was meeting my husband for dinner last night and didn’t get gas on the way there because then I would have been 5 minutes late. But, of course, he was 5 minutes late.

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