How we really live now

FullSizeRender-8The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the American Time Use Survey last Friday. This annual survey has thousands of Americans talk through how they spent the previous day, rolling over the entire year. This ingenious methodology cuts down on a few problems that plague other time surveys. BLS researchers don’t ask about any specific category of time (“how many hours do you work?”), which cuts down on the temptation respondents might feel to give socially acceptable answers. Since the questions deal with yesterday, as opposed to a “typical” day, this cuts out the bias that arises in making a decision about what is a typical day and what isn’t.

The results paint a very different picture of modern life than tends to appear in more alarmist surveys and articles. I wrote at Fast Company about the sleep findings. Not only does the average American sleep well over 8 hours per day — 8.83 to be exact! — this is about 15 minutes more per day than in 2003. I asked the BLS if this was a statistically significant increase, and in fact it is. This breaks down to 8.59 hours on weekdays and 9.40 on weekends and holidays. To be sure, an average means nothing for any individual person (my average, over an entire year, was 7.4 hours/day). Certain categories of Americans sleep less than others. In general, work hours are inversely related to sleep hours, though even employed Americans with school-aged children averaged 8.36 hours/day (8.31 for men, 8.42 for women). Americans who work longer hours will generally have lower averages; in my Mosaic project, women averaged 7.7 hours/day.

As the economist from the BLS that I interviewed told me, there is evidence that people tend to remember the nights they don’t sleep as much, which is likely because negative experiences in general stand out more than positive ones. This is why asking about a “typical” night is problematic. I am feeling a bit beat down right now from my non-resting toddler, but while I am getting 6.5 hours some number of nights, last night it was more like 8. One night last week it was 8.5. This should all be taken in context.

One other interesting finding was the complete bifurcation of the workforce on working from home. On an average workday, 39 percent of those with college degrees did some or all of their work from home; just 7 percent of Americans with high school diplomas did. Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that the 39 percent were telecommuting the whole day. This could just as easily mean you put in an 8-hour day at the office, come home, and then do an hour of email at night. But it does suggest that increasingly, more educated workers wind up in non-place specific jobs, whereas those with less education generally have jobs that are done in a specific place.

The gender gap in housework is narrowing. To quote the BLS:

“From 2003 to 2015, the share of men doing food preparation and cleanup on an average day increased from 35 percent to 43 percent. The average time per day men spent doing food preparation and cleanup increased by 5 minutes, from 16 minutes in 2003 to 21 minutes in 2015. From 2003 to 2015, the share of women doing housework on an average day decreased from 54 percent to 50 percent. The average time per day women spent doing housework declined from 58 minutes in 2003 to 52 minutes in 2015.”

We are still watching plenty of TV: 2.8 hours/day on average, or about 20 hours/week. (This is TV watching as a primary activity). Another not-terribly-surprising finding? There is a leisure gap between people with kids and without kids. “Employed adults living in households with no children under age 18 engaged in leisure activities for 4.5 hours per day, 1.1 hours more than employed adults living with a child under age 6.” Still, 3.4 hours of leisure time per day isn’t so bad! It is a wee bit more than the self-reported 17 minutes this article is lamenting.

In other news: I’ll be doing a Facebook Live chat with James Clear at 11 A.M. Eastern time today (June 28). Just go to and like his page to watch. Thanks!


11 thoughts on “How we really live now

  1. I love your findings on spending time. I agree whole heartedly with the “lies” we tell ourselves. I find though that while I may not be actually working, I tend to count any hours not spent on leisure or at home with my children as work hours. While I love my job, I continually consider those hours that are more miscellaneous than actual work, but are related to work such as travel time and the like as work hours. I am sure I am not alone in this. I think we tend to categorize any hours not spent on the fun stuff or family time as work. This division probably contributes to the unrealistic number we attach to working.

    1. @Jennie- Possibly. I have had people I interviewed try to subtract their sleep hours from 168 hours and then use that as the number of hours they work per week. Hmmm… Also, I’m fine with people counting the time spent thinking about work when they’re not at work as work, as long as the reverse is true too. Anytime spent daydreaming at work is subtracted from the total. It seldom is — we just calculate in ways that make the work number higher.

      1. An interesting side note, that you may appreciate or already know about, is Leo Zabuta’s blog about our internal stories. His idea is that we tell ourselves stories and they become facts to us. So if we tell ourselves we are busy, we probably feel like we are. We have to change the way we define ourselves. This is where your ideas really come in because you provide a quantitative means to prove that we are actually not over worked and under rested.

        1. Oh, thank you for sharing that blog- I will check it out.. I am recently obsessed with the topic of the stories we tell ourselves. Laura first brought this to my attention with her research. I have been paying more attention to the stories I tell myself about everything from marriage, work, parenting, and my health. I’m also really loving the recent batch of studies and articles that are discussing the value of mastery- that really most people can do most things and improve on those things if they just put in the work. Poof- there goes your excuse for ‘I’m just not good at X’. This, for me, seems absolutely obvious. However, there are stories people have told me about myself that I have started to believe, and I am realizing that influence on my life. There is great power in the thought that IF you put the time and effort into anything, you will improve.

          1. I’m notorious for “being busy.” Granted, I am a bit. I have 2 careers and 3 children, but I’m not going 24-7. But, this story I tell myself leads to anxiety and stress. I am also more conscious of the fact that I’m bad to make excuses based on these stories. Laura’s books and blogs have really made me conscious of it. Leo’s blog is more about relaxation and zen habits. Between the two of them I feel like I’m becoming more productive, and less stressed.

        2. @Jennie Evans,
          I only have 1 job and 2 children, but I think my problem is the opposite, I have a little too much time- but I procrastinate and that leads to anxiety which leads to not getting anything done; and I also suffer from being unsure in what to do with myself. I’m still waiting for the voice in my head to tell me what it is I want to do with my life ( I am 36 and I still can’t figure it out).
          Do you read Gretchen Rubin’s books? or listened to her podcast Happier- There are some great tips there…. and also I have just found The Running Lifestyle Show podcast ( Laura V. was a guest a few weeks ago) holy cow, I can’t get enough- I love, love, love the show and the guests- it is focused on having an active, balanced lifestyle and it focuses on how the benefits of running/being active really permeate the different sectors of our lives.
          Cheers to you- productive and peaceful Mama!
          ~ Angela

          1. @Angela. I have read and follow Gretchen Rubin. She kind of started me on this journey. That led to Leo Zabuta, then Laura… I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Basically, I am a control freak. Both Laura and Gretchen appeal to my productive side. A way to change how you see yourself quantitatively and with precise steps. Zabuta reminds me to breathe a bit. I’m not happy unless I’m busy. This is a true statement that I have learned about myself. At 37, I feel like I am just now really figuring myself out. Late bloomer I guess. Right now, due to health issues, I am like you, too much time on my hands and a feeling of being a bit stir crazy. So I spend that time on blogs, journaling, and making plans. This is easing my anxiety a little.

          2. @JennieEvans That was kinda my path too! I actually read Gretchen first, but then I followed, Sarah’s blog at, and she was a big Gretchen and Laura fan.. I think she reads Leo’s blog also– I was actually a little resistant to read Laura’s work, her titles made me think it was not for me, because I am not a type A very organized person. Thank goodness I got over myself and read her work— because her work is for EVERYONE. I tell anyone who will listen to read her stuff.
            I do not think 37 is a late bloomer at all, I feel like that’s the beauty of age, we have had the time to get to know ourselves…
            Good luck to you, and I wish you quick resolve with your health issues. : )

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