Saturday, February 18, 2006


Ask anyone in the office: they absolutely believe they have less free time and are working more hours than "we used to." I would certainly have said the same thing. But, a recent study by Mark Aguiar (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston) and Erik Hurst (Univ. of Chicago) shows that this is not quite true. Americans are working about 8 hours less now than in the 1960s. Depending on how you classify leisure (ie, just "not working", or on activities people say are "fun"),
"Over the past four decades, depending on which of their measures one uses, the amount of time that working-age Americans are devoting to leisure activities has risen by 4-8 hours a week."
This certainly seems contrary to "common knowledge", but by collecting data using time-use diaries, they have found that at least some of the gains have been because we're spending less time on normal daily chores like shopping, cooking, and housework.
"However, Messrs Aguiar and Hurst show that Americans actually spend much less time doing them than they did 40 years ago. There has been a revolution in the household economy. Appliances, home delivery, the internet, 24-hour shopping, and more varied and affordable domestic services have increased flexibility and freed up people's time. "
Nice to know that online shopping and cleaning services have helped!

The problem, according to the study, is that we view our leisure time as much more valuable. We try to make the most of every hour not working by multitasking or choosing tasks that are completed quickly instead of long-term projects that are more satisfying. Most people simply don't relax anymore and as a result feel more harried and stressed about our time.

It certainly rings true to me. I constantly multitask. Right now, I'm editing this blog entry, watching a movie on television, doing a backup of my laptop, and writing photos to DVD. I tend to fold clothes in front of the television, or download music while I do bills. It's second nature now. Only a few things really require that I do them as a singular task -- cooking, perhaps; even my driving overlaps with listening to an audio book or class.

I wonder if we (as a group) really need to stop all this instantly-available-always-connected urge to do everything at once. Turn off the cellphones, sit down and do ONE thing at a time. Read a book. Write a letter. Clean the closet. Take a walk. There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction in completing a long-term task, or learning a new skill that took months of classes.

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