New Proof That We’re Not As Busy As We Think

A new national study finds Americans work reasonable hours and get enough sleep, even if we often think otherwise

New Proof That We’re Not As Busy As We Think
[Photo: Flickr user Christopher Woo]

There are certain things that we all believe about our modern working lives, namely that we are overworked and sleep-deprived. We come home from long workdays to a mess of chores, and hence have no time for leisure. Ask anyone how life is going, and he’s likely to answer: “Busy.”


But what if that’s not the whole story? New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that Americans on the whole are not that starved for time, and even those we think of as busiest tend to have a good amount of breathing space in their lives.

Every year, throughout the year, researchers from the BLS contact thousands of Americans and have them talk through the previous day. The resulting American Time Use Survey (ATUS) gives the most complete statistical picture of how people spend their time, without some of the biases inherent in other surveys. Since the BLS doesn’t ask about particular categories of time, people are less inclined to give socially desirable answers. Since the survey looks at the previous day (including both weekdays and weekends), people don’t have to guess what is a typical day and what is not.

More Sleep & Less Work

The results paint a picture of modern life that’s quite at odds with the usual assumptions. According to the ATUS, the average American sleeps 8.8 hours per day. That’s 8.54 hours on weekdays and 9.4 hours on weekends and holidays. This survey does include older teens and senior citizens, who perhaps might have more hours available for sleep, but even looking at slightly busier demographics, the sleep totals are still pretty high. The average working mom with a kid under age six got 8.67 hours of sleep per day; the average working father of young kids got 8.27 hours.

We have enough time to sleep because we work less than we think. The average full-time work week comes out at just a bit shy of 42 hours.


There are 168 hours in a week. If one works roughly 40 hours a week and sleeps 8 hours per day (56 per week), that leaves 72 hours for other things, so it’s no surprise that Americans find time for leisure. On an average day, 96% of Americans found some time for leisure activities such as watching TV. Indeed, we watch quite a bit of TV: 2.8 hours a day, which is just a bit under 20 hours per week. On average, we’re not too stressed about the housekeeping, it seems, or at least the male half of us. To quote the BLS: “On an average day, 20% of men did housework–such as cleaning or laundry–compared with 49% of women. Forty-three per cent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 69% of women.”

Seeing what we choose to see

When I repeat these numbers to people, some proportion tell me that they cannot possibly be true. To be sure, no study is perfect, but I also think it’s possible that how we think we spend our time (which is what most surveys look at) and how we actually spend our time when forced to recollect it hour by hour (which the ATUS does) are entirely different. We may all be in the throes of confirmation bias. As we repeat the story that we are busy, busy, busy, we look for evidence to support that thesis.

Life is complex, and consequently it’s easy to find pieces of such evidence. I can recount a dire weekend afternoon whose logistics required me to get three of my four children to three different places at once. But I can also recount more relaxed moments, like sitting on my back porch sipping wine for an hour after the children went to bed. We can choose which stories to view as emblematic of life, and this new data from the BLS suggests that the more relaxed hours happen plenty, too. Look at the whole picture, and we’re not as busy as we often seem.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at