We Aren’t Busier. So Why Do We Think We Are?

Time diaries reveal that people aren’t working more than in the past. But our experience of time has changed.

We Aren’t Busier. So Why Do We Think We Are?
[Photo: Flickr user Pedro Fernandez Photo]

I was purchasing a sandwich in a cafe recently when the clerk asked me this: “How has your day been so far? Busy?”

The truth is that I had just woken up from a nap. It wasn’t a particularly busy day. Yet “busy” is the modern equivalent of “good,” and the assumption underlying much modern conversation, even a transaction in a sandwich shop, is that we are all busier than people have been in the past. With smartphones and the constant demands of work and family, we are the busiest we have ever been.

There’s just one problem with this story: It isn’t true.

At least that’s my takeaway from a recent article in Nature highlighting the work of the U.K.’s Centre for Time Use Research. Housed at the University of Oxford, the center is home to the world’s largest collection of historic time diaries. The center is now using new methods, such as having people wear cameras, to seamlessly record how modern folks spend their time.

Changing The Story

The results aren’t as bleak as we often think. A study that compared modern time diaries to ones the BBC collected in 1961 found, per the Nature article, that “Men had reduced the number of hours they spent on paid work, increased those in unpaid work, and overall came out ahead, with just under 50 minutes more free time per day. Women were doing more paid work” — reflecting the fact that many more women work for pay now than in 1961 — “and less unpaid work, producing little change overall.”

The article continues: “All in all, there is little support for the idea that everyone is working harder than ever before.”

And yet when you ask people if they’re busier, they say they are. So what’s going on?

Talk to sociologists and time-use researchers, and they’ll point to three things. First, when you combine paid work and nonpaid work, a small proportion of society does have longer workweeks than in the past: well-educated professionals with small kids. A number of the people who write, speak, and create studies about modern busyness fall into this category. It is easy to believe that what is true for you is true for everyone else.

“Busy” As A Status Symbol

However, even for these people, the hours aren’t too intense. That brings us to attitudes. Nature notes, “In 19th-century Europe, having ample leisure time signified a person of high social status: One philosopher described the literary types in Paris around 1840, who had such an abundance of time that it was fashionable to walk a turtle on a leash through the arcades.”

Now, we all talk about how busy we are. It’s a sign of status, even if some days we do have enough time to take a turtle for a walk.

Finally, though, the sheer volume of modern distractions may make life feel busier than it is. Constantly trying to do two things at once means you can feel pulled in multiple directions. You can be working a regular 40-hour-per-week job, and check work email five times at night while eating dinner or watching TV. At just two minutes at a pop, that adds a mere 10 minutes of work, but can pollute whole hours.

If that’s the case, then the key to feeling less busy may be quite simple: stop multitasking. Make the distractions less distracting and time will feel just like it always has.

I was reminded of this the other day when the Internet connection in my home office failed in a particularly aggravating way. Through a rather elaborate process, I could get it working for five minutes at a time, and then it would go down again.

The result was that I could use the Internet, but only with considerable pain. I had to think hard about which emails were worth sending, and which factoids were worth finding. I felt unproductive–and yet, as I look back at how I spent that day, I see that when I wasn’t easily distracted, I spent two hours pondering book ideas, and another two hours writing fiction. Both of those are activities I always claim I should do, but I’m too “busy” for.

Maybe, it seems, I’m not.

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 www.lauravanderkam.com.

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