THE BLOG
07/18/2014 11:41 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

How We Use Our Time

I'm a financial analyst, not a philosopher, and yet in my writings about money I often touch on the subject of time. Generally, this is because the two are somewhat interchangeable with one another -- some people sacrifice their free time to plunge headlong into their careers, while others sacrifice income to have more leisure time.

Time and economics are related in other ways, as I was reminded when I perused the results from the latest American Time Use Survey, released a few weeks ago by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. How Americans spend their time is in many ways driven by economics - consumption habits, career stage, qualifications, and social status. Here are some observations about some of the study's findings:

  1. Most like TV better than their friends. On any given day, 79.4 percent of Americans watch television, for an average of 3.49 hours. In contrast, only 36.8 percent socialize or communicate on any given day, and even then only for an average of 1.95 hours.
  2. It's no wonder we are out of shape. 73.8 minutes out of the typical American's day is spent eating and drinking; just 18 minutes is spent exercising.
  3. People shouldn't be so tired. Despite being out of shape, the average person should not claim to be exhausted. We hear about the rigors of modern life, but it turns out that Americans sleep more than they work. The average person sleeps 8.75 hours a day, while the typical worker puts in an average of 7.55 hours -- and that's just the 43.2 percent of Americans who work on any given day.
  4. Some people must be fibbing about their phone use. According to the survey, just one person in five spends time on the phone or engaged in correspondence by e-mail or regular mail on any given day. Supposedly that one person in five spends an average of just 43.2 minutes on these activities. Presumably then, the legions of people you see every day who seem to have a phone surgically attached and continually in use were too tied up on the phone to answer this question. Either that, or they didn't think texting was included in telephone usage. (The wording of the survey category does look a little outdated.)
  5. Mrs. Cleaver is alive and well. Do you think gender roles have changed radically since "Leave it to Beaver?" Guess again. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be engaged in housework on any given day, and in total spend more than three times as long doing housework than men do.
  6. A second job can ruin your weekends. Roughly a third of all Americans work on weekends, but this number jumps to just over half when it comes to multiple job holders. Taking on a second job is an economic necessity for many, and your weekends off may be the first thing to go if you need to do this.
  7. Your college degree won't necessarily get you off the weekend shift. It might be under very different circumstances, but folks with a bachelor's degree or better are about as likely as those with less education to work on weekends. In fact, having a bachelor's degree makes you slightly more likely to be found at work over the weekend, with 34.0 percent of bachelor's holders working on weekends, compared with 32.6 percent of high school graduates with no college degree, and 32.8 percent of people who did not graduate high school.
  8. Workload peaks between ages 35 and 44. People in that age group spend an average of 4.82 hours a day working (if that sounds low, it is because this average includes people who don't work). This falls off slightly, to 4.66 hours a day, between the ages of 45 and 54, and then more sharply between the ages of 55 and 64, to 3.62 hours. People 65 to 74 work an average of just 1.15 hours a week.
  9. The telecommuting trend is an evolution, not a revolution. Perhaps the trend towards telecommuting has been overstated because one of the groups best positioned to take advantage of it are people who write about these things. However, over the past ten years the percentage of employees who physically show up for work has edged down only from 88.8 to 85.0 percent. Telecommuting has freed up few more part-time workers, as the percentage that of this group showing up at the workplace has dropped from 79.3 to 74.4 over the same ten years.
That's a diverse group of observations, but I could tie them together this way: Our habits and circumstances often drive how we spend our time more than conscious choice does. However, the more we can take control of the use of our time, the more satisfying that time is likely to be.


Speaking of which, thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope you found it time well spent.

Also by Richard Barrington:

The economics of running out

The side effects of credit cards

Retirement saving: Size isn't the only consideration