How Everything We Tell Ourselves About How Busy We Are Is A Lie

Insights from the time-diaries collected from Americans over the past 11 years show we’re shifting in our priorities.

How Everything We Tell Ourselves About How Busy We Are Is A Lie
[Stopwatch: Flickr user Chad Kainz]

If you can’t catch a breath during the frantic daily grind, don’t blame it on not having any free time.


Americans actually have more leisure time, are less rushed, less stressed, and sleep much more than we think we do. According to sociologist John Robinson, or better known as “Father Time” to his colleagues, most people have around 40 hours of free time per week.

Robinson, a professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project, has been studying how people spend their time for more than 50 years. In 1972, he became one of the first social scientists to collect detailed time diaries of people all over the country. According to his massive studies and research, Robinson tells Fast Company that modern Americans only merely feel like we are working more hours and we also tend to exaggerate about our work hours since the actual hours on the job have been decreasing steadily for the past 40 years.

If this is the case, then why don’t we feel like we have more time and what exactly are we spending our time on? Below Robinson gives us the major findings from decades of time-use and social attitudes research:


1. We work less than we think we do.

Most of us may think that we’re working nonstop, but we’re actually not working as much as we think we are, according to data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which collects time diaries from large national samples by the U.S. Census. Since 2003, the project has collected time diaries from more than 130,000 respondents.

In an article published in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Robinson, along with his coauthors, writes that people tend to overestimate their work hours by 5% to 10%. This gap was actually much smaller in 1965 when the first national diary was collected at 1.3 hours compared to 2.4 hours between 2003 to 2007. At its highest, the gap was at 6.2 hours in 1985. The article says:

“It is argued here that the movement of the labor force into more service occupations and other occupations in which work schedules are becoming more irregular (with not time clock to punch as a vivid reminder), workers have fewer benchmarks to use in estimating the number of hours in their workweek.”

2. We sleep more than we used to.

In the latest ATUS released a few weeks ago, the findings showed the average American sleeps 8.75 hours per day–much more than we work, which is an average of 7.55 hours per day. The hours of sleep we get every night has been steadily going up in the past few years, but the average person is still claiming to be exhausted.

The findings say that employed people tend to sleep less because they have obligations they can’t ignore. Nonetheless, an increased number of sleep advocates such as Arianna Huffington, have been spreading the sleep gospel in recent years and it seems to be making a difference. However, when it comes to asking people how much they sleep on a given night, they’ll most likely estimate less since “it says you’re busy” and “if you’re busy, you’re important,” Robinson says in an interview with DBK.

3. Women feel more rushed than men.

In surveys conducted between 2009 to 2010, the number of employed and unemployed respondents who said they felt “always rushed” declined by six to nine points compared to surveys in 2004. However, women are more likely than men to feel rushed.


“They have more things going on,” says Robinson. “They are more concerned about a relative or other things that they may be thinking about, but may not show up in a time diary.”

Women also feel rushed because they typically don’t have as much leisure time as men do, but they have more leisure time now than they did in the 1960s. In fact, Robinson finds that women have at least 30 hours of free time every week.

Despite time surveys between 2009 to 2010 concluding that Americans, in general, are less rushed, the same surveys also reported a decline in respondents feeling “very happy.” Basically, women tend to feel more rushed than men, but Americans, in general, are feeling less rushed today compared to 2004. Nonetheless, we still aren’t happier.

4. Women are still doing more housework compared to men.

In his research, Robinson finds that both men and women dislike doing housework about the same, but women still do more of it on any given day. Fortunately, split chores have become more of a reality in recent years.

Before 1965, women were doing about 85% of the housework. After 1965, there was a shift and gradually, women started doing less housework and now we’re closer to 60%.


“There’s greater equality in doing housework and childbearing now, but it probably won’t be 50% for awhile.” On an average day, women will spend more than two hours and 10 minutes doing housework while men spend one hour and 17 minutes, according to the 2012 ATUS.

5. Television is taking over free time.

Believe it or not, we’re watching a lot more television than we used to. Today, watching television takes up 50% of people’s free time, says Robinson, and it’s probably because “programs have been a lot more sophisticated.”

But this doesn’t mean that watching television makes people happier. Robinson says that those who watch more television also reported feeling less happy compared to those who spend their free time reading and socializing.



Surprisingly, new technology hasn’t played a major role in affecting our free time, says Robinson, and social media may, in fact, lead to more visits with friends.

Now that you know how most people spend their time, it’s important to consider improving your own productivity by knowing exactly how you spend your day. Think about keeping your own time diary, making quick notes throughout the day regarding what you’re doing, and keep a watch nearby to log your hours.

When looking back later, you may find, as Robinson has found with his collected diaries, what you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing may be two very different scenarios.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.