Research Shows We Might Not Be As Busy As We Think We Are

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Constantly feel like you're short on time? You're not alone. There's a popular perception that life has gotten more hectic and harried in recent years, with longer work hours and less time for recreation. But time use researchers have found that while we may feel more rushed these days, we might not actually be much busier.

According to Scientific American, experts at the Centre for Time Use Research at the University of Oxford, UK, have collected thousands of time use diaries dating back more than five decades. Since the journals were collected from a variety of sources—including a BBC television study from 1961 that consisted of 2363 diaries—researchers use a numerical categorization system developed in the 1980s to break down and standardize the thousands of entries. Gardening for instance is recorded as a nine, sleeping is 16, and general relaxation is 36. 

After comparing time use statistics across several decades, the researchers found that the number of hours worked per week (including both paid and unpaid work) hasn’t changed significantly for most countries in the developed world since the 1980s. The amount of time spent performing specific tasks, however has shifted slightly: They found that men today spend slightly more time on domestic tasks than they did in the past, while women spend more time doing paid work. They found that, if anything, men may even be slightly less busy. According to Scientific American, “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.”

Why, then, do we feel so busy? Researchers aren’t sure—though they have several theories. The Centre’s founder, John Gershuny, explained to Scientific American that attitudes toward work and leisure have shifted over the last century: While having leisure time was once a sign of upper class status, now the opposite is true. Being busy, nowadays, is often worn as a "badge of honor." Gershuny notes that people may exaggerate how busy they are for the sake of appearances, explaining that, in fact, it’s common for people to over-report the number of hours they work by 5 to 10 percent. 

He also explains that while overall people may not work more than in the ‘80s, there are two groups that do have less free time than in the past: employed, single parents, and well-educated professionals, especially those with young children. Since the latter demographic encompasses journalists and academics, Gershuny proposes that some of our feeling of being overworked may come from their reporting—they are, after all, "the people in society with a loud voice."

However, Gershuny notes, we may also be busier than some of the time journals indicate, since they're not great at recording multi-tasking. Plus, people may be doing work on phones and other mobile devices without even thinking of it as work. For instance, if you compose an email during your morning bus ride to work, would you categorize that as “commute” time or “work” time? Technological shifts have opened up the possibility of working without fully realizing it, adding to our feeling of being constantly rushed.

[h/t: Scientific American]