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Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time

Brigid Schulte

(London Times)

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that future generations would be working 15 hours a week and that their biggest worry would be what to do with their leisure time. That forecast seems laughable now since most of us are working harder than ever and living our lives at an increasingly frenetic pace. Everyone feels harried and rushed - we are working long hours, juggling family responsibilities and finding it hard to carve out any time for ourselves. New technology that was meant to help appears to have added to the burden.

Yet there is growing evidence that the problem of time might be all in our minds. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that British women spend 339 minutes a day relaxing and entertaining, second only to Norwegian women. The findings have been greeted with splutters of disbelief and even outrage from harassed women everywhere.

John Robinson, a professor of sociology and director of the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, is probably the world's foremost expert in time management and has been studying his subject for more than 50 years. He has collated research that shows we have more free time than we think. Robinson and his team ask 12,000 people each year to fill out time diaries, meticulous accounts of what they are doing during a 24-hour period. He calls these documents social microscopes, that allow researchers to examine facets of daily life that are not otherwise observable.

Broken down into activities such as work, commute, housework, cooking, shopping, childcare, adult care, gardening, exercise and personal grooming, they are minute-by-minute chronologies of daily life. His research is carried out in the United States but reflects the situation in most Western countries.

Free time is shaped across the life-cycle, Robinson explains, reaching more than 40 hours a week for teens and young adults, then dropping to 30 hours or less for those adults raising families during the peak of their careers in their thirties and forties, then rising to 40 hours again during the 'empty nest' years and approaching 50 hours in retirement years past the age of 55. The disparity is not because of age per se, he reports, but the obligations that peak in middle age: work, marriage and children.

'Getting married probably costs you ten hours or so a week because it's about managing a household and all the practical stuff that goes along with that decision and it's about having to do things for two or more people. The wife is the one who is more likely to pick up the marriage penalty, but it impacts men too,' he says. Being divorced gives a person at least an extra five hours of free time a week.

Children also make a big dent in free time. 'With birth control, we're not having so many children accidentally. The ones that you get you really want, and you want to devote time to them, so that cuts into the hours you might have spent doing something else,' Robinson says.

Working mothers feel the biggest squeeze. Married women with children have up to ten hours less weekly free time a week than single childless women of equivalent work status, his research shows. There is also evidence of continued gender inequality. Women have three to five hours less free time than men, with employed women having about four hours less than employed men. They also have more than ten hours less than non-employed women.

Nevertheless, Robinson says, we have actually gained five more hours of free time a week since the 1960s, mainly because of demographic changes. People are entering the workforce later in life because of college or university studies, people are working part-time (some involuntarily), many people are retiring early (also involuntarily) and people are living longer and therefore have more free time during their retirement years. 'The bottom line is that leisure time is continuing to increase for both men and women, though nobody believes this,' he laughs.

Robinson says people's perception of time is often wrong and we frequently exaggerate how much time we spend on a certain activity. 'We overestimate how much time we spend on work by about 5 to 10 per cent but if you ask people how many hours they spend doing housework, it's double what they actually do,' he says. 'Women, for example, estimate that they do 30 hours a week of housework and family care, but their time diaries say they do 15 hours a week. For men the estimates are 15 hours a week for housework and family related care when the actual figure is about 10 hours.'

Robinson points out that there has been an interesting shift in the amount of time men and women spend on housework. While men are doing more, women are doing less. 'It's a very important shift. Women are cutting way back on their housework,' he says. 'I'm not sure if it's because their meals aren't as ambitious and they don't feel they have to clean as often or as thoroughly . . . It used to be that men did 20 per cent of the housework; now they do 40 per cent. It's not 50 per cent yet - that's still a decade or two away - but its inching its way there.'

Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter and a mother of two, has written about the plight of the multitasking mother in Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time. Intrigued by Robinson's research that she actually has 30 hours of free time a week, she set out to look at why we all feel we are on a hamster wheel, running furiously and getting nowhere.

At the beginning of the book she describes her life as 'scattered, fragmented and exhausting'. She writes: 'I am always doing more than one thing at a time and I never feel I do any one particularly well. I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door. Entire hours evaporate while I'm doing stuff that needs to get done. But once I'm done I can't tell you what I did or why it seemed so important.'

Robinson, who collaborated with Schulte, says people do feel more rushed nowadays because 'we can't bear to be caught without having something to do'. He says: 'Being busy is a kind of status symbol. If you're not busy then it doesn't seem right and it doesn't seem like you're interesting or successful. It's the same for men and women. People like to say: 'Oh I've got so many things going on' or 'I've got to go, I'm really busy'. Time is the new badge of honour. It's also the main reason for telling people that you don't want to do what they want you to do.'

There is research, he says, that shows if people suddenly stop looking after a sick relative, for example, they will go out and actively search for something else to do to fill up that empty time. 'There's that feeling that if you're sitting in the back yard, sipping a lemonade and just watching the grass grow, then you’re a lazy person and you're missing out on something. We can't just 'be',' Robinson says.

His analysis of how people spend their free time shows that it is mostly frittered away on watching television. The most recent figures show that people in the US watch television for 17 hours a week or 41.4 per cent of their free time while in the UK they watch 15.6 hours of television which equates to 40.9 per cent of their free time. In France, people watch television for 13.2 hours or 37.9 per cent of their free time, in Germany the figure is 12.1 hours or 43.5 per cent and in Italy it is 10.6 hours or 37.4 per cent.

In her book, Schulte went through her time diary with Robinson and she was astonished at the results. She typically works 50 hours a week (though is paid for 37½) and sleeps 6 hours a night. Robinson found 28 hours of leisure in her week, broken up into segments - exercise, reading the newspaper, lying in bed for a few extra minutes, listening to the radio, visiting friends, talking to friends on the phone, eating pizza with her children and so on. Feeling guilty that she didn't spend enough time with her children, she was astonished to learn that the situation wasn't as bad as she feared. 'One week, when both they and the babysitter were sick and I worked at home, out of 73 hours that my children were awake that week, I spent all but 7 in their presence,' she writes. 'It wasn't all quality time, mind you - 'I love you. I'm working. Shut the door and go away' - but I was there.'

Schulte lists in the book how people - working mothers especially - can minimise constant multitasking and learn how to 'knit scraps of time together' to have more time for themselves and their families. She says she is now less seized with the urge to do 'just one more thing' and that she has learnt to enjoy those moments with her children or a few extra minutes in bed more.

Robinson agrees that too many of us are incapable of appreciating leisure. 'We're rushing past life and not fully experiencing it,' he says. At 78, he practises what he preaches. Robinson says he rarely feels rushed and actively builds leisure time into his week. Instead of flopping down in front of the television, he goes to concerts and plays and meets friends. 'I call it time savouring,' he says. 'We need to back up, see what we're missing and accept the gift of time.'

How to keep a time diary

People feel increasingly time-pressured, but much of this is of our own making because we fail to recognise how much leisure time we actually have in a single day because it is often fragmented. Leisure time is broadly measured as doing things that we don't have to do and that are not necessary. The best way to find out how much leisure time you have is to examine a typical 24-hour period in your life and calculate how much free time you have after subtracting the hours spent on the necessities of life. The easiest way to do a 'time diary' is to look at what happened the day before, keeping in mind that weekdays are different from weekend days. People have up to five hours of free time during the week, rising to about seven on Saturdays and about eight on Sundays.

Necessities of life



Family and household care: looking after children and playing with them, cleaning the house, laundry, cooking, ironing, pet care, paying bills, gardening, grocery shopping and services such as banking, going to the post office or seeing a doctor or dentist.

Personal care: sleeping, bathing, dressing, grooming and sex.

Free time.

Socialising: outside entertainment such as going to the cinema, museum or theatre, socialising with friends or family.

Recreation: fitness activities and hobbies.

Organisational activities: being a member of a club or organisation, going to church, volunteering.

Media use: television, telephone, reading, radio, listening to music, internet and other social media.

Other: recreational trips, resting and relaxing without doing anything.

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