How do we spend our time?

I’m always excited when the new data from the annual American Time Use Survey is released in early summer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has thousands of Americans report how they spent time yesterday — with “yesterday” rolling through all the days of the year — going from 4 a.m. to 4 a.m. Because the survey looks at yesterday (not a “typical” day), and includes weekends and holidays, and because the survey doesn’t ask about particular categories of time (so people don’t just give socially desirable answers), it’s more solid as a data set than a lot of other time research.

There are always the usual stunners. People sleep a reasonable amount. In 2021, the average person slept 8.95 hours per day. Since the ATUS covers people over age 15, that number includes teens and retirees. However, even very busy folks do sleep. The average employed woman with kids under age 6 slept 8.61 hours/day, with employed fathers of young kids sleeping 8.42 hours. How is this possible? While there is probably some time spent falling asleep or being up in the middle of the night, that’s not going to be 2 hours per day for most people (and long stretches of time awake would be picked up in the way the survey is done). Instead, to think about this, it might help to multiply these numbers by 7 to obtain a weekly tally — probably people don’t sleep 8.61 hours on a Tuesday, but add in weekend sleep, holiday sleep, naps, crashing on the couch, sleeping through an alarm or hitting snooze, etc., and the number will be higher than the general mental picture of a typical day.

The ATUS picks up big societal shifts — and one of the biggest in the past few years is the rise of remote work. In 2021, on the days they worked, 38 percent of employed people did some or all of their work at home, and 68 percent did some or all of their work at their workplace. In 2019, these numbers were 24 percent and 82 percent, respectively. That’s a 14 percentage point shift in people completely leaving the office on whatever workday they were surveyed.

Now maybe 14 percentage points doesn’t sound so huge, but keep in mind that some jobs need to be done at a workplace. It is hard to drive a truck from home, or be a waitress from home. Since those categories of work couldn’t see a huge shift, the shift is concentrated in other categories. And sure enough, this has been an uneven revolution. The ATUS reports that on the days they worked, 59 percent of those in management, business and financial operations occupations, and 57 percent of those in professional and related occupations did some or all of their work at home. Among people with an advanced degree, 67 percent did some or all of their work at home, vs. 19 percent of those with a high school diploma.

There’s lots to unpack in the data, which looks at how men and women spend their time, and how people who have kids at home and do not have kids at home spend their time, and how being employed affects how people spend their time. The American Time Use Survey is one of the big things that drove my initial interest in time. At first, I wanted to write about various shifts in time use for various demographics, but the wiser marketing advice was to write about time management. Still…I find the numbers fascinating!





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