You've heard it before: We're working longer, getting less sleep, and doing less exercise. Only, it turns out we're not. Yes, despite what countless news reports have told us over the years, none of that is actually true. We are sleeping more, exercising more, and working the same hours as we did more than a decade ago. How many hours exactly? The answer may surprise you.
To make sense of all of this, TSheets caught up with productivity expert Laura Vanderkam, author of “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think,” who has been tracking her time every day since 2015. Together, we looked at the American Time Use Survey, published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and found some fascinating trends.
Compare how you spend your time against the nation
The American Time Use Survey shows the average time people spend on the activities they do in a typical day. The data has been collected once a year since 2003.
This timeline breaks each activity into its constituent parts (e.g. "work" comprises travel time as well as working time). The data shows the average time spent by people who are engaged in each activity — so you may see activities that you don't do yourself every day.
How many hours does the average person work?
On average, 7.5 hours a day.
Laura says, "The biggest thing I learned from tracking my time was about the hours I work. I had this idea that I worked 50 hours a week, but it turned out I was working much closer to 40 hours when averaged over the year. And that was good to know. People have always thought that they are working harder than anyone else. We live in a competitive world. There is no benefit to anyone who says, 'Yes, I work a lot less than my colleagues.' We have these stories we tell ourselves about our lives and I think it's important we examine these stories to find out if they are really true. Tracking my time has definitely done that for me."
The biggest thing I learned from tracking my time was about the hours I work. I had this idea that I worked 50 hours a week, but it turned out I was working much closer to 40 hours when averaged over the year.– Laura Vanderkam
Meanwhile, we sleep, on average, almost nine hours a night.
“When you look at the amount of time people sleep on average, you have to remember that the data covers everyone over the age of 15. Teenagers are probably sleeping nine hours or more and many retirees are too,” Laura says. “But even if you look at people who are employed, it still does tend to come out at about eight hours a night. If you're not a chronic insomniac — and that's a separate medical issue, not what I'm talking about here — most people have a pretty strong catch-up impulse. If I get six hours of sleep one Tuesday night, for example, I'll find myself turning in really early the next day so it averages out over the week to a higher number. But the Tuesday night is the one that we remember as typical.”
The typical American workday
We're not working as many hours as we think.
"People think everyone's working longer because everyone says they're working longer," Laura explains. "Stories can become evidence of themselves. I've read old business magazines from the 1950s, like Fortune, with articles about executives claiming to be overworked, and this was before email and smartphones, so it seems strange now. But it's easy to forget that bosses used to keep people in the office late at night or over the weekend, because that was how people got work done. Today, there are definitely weeks when people work long hours, but as a whole, the time use survey data points in the other direction. We tend to remember longer workdays as typical but forget the days when we came in late and had to leave early because we had an appointment. Those days don't fit into our mental model, even though they happened and will probably happen again."
People think everyone's working longer because everyone says they're working longer. Stories can become evidence of themselves.– Laura Vanderkam
We have more time than we think.
Laura continues, "I think a lot of people have trouble accounting for time that isn't spent at work because it has no accountability whatsoever. It's easy to think, 'I never have any leisure time' or 'I never get to spend time with my kids,' when actually, if you track that time, your time logs reveal that it's not the case. I know from my time logs that I sleep seven and a half hours a day and that means there are 75 hours a week when I'm not working or sleeping — and that's a lot of time. Just knowing that this time exists is helpful because then you can ask yourself what you'd like to do with it. Start by telling yourself that the time is there and then you can find the time for the things that you want to do."
Lifestyles are changing
There are some things we all do everyday — sleep, eat, and drink, for example — but how many of us work today compared to 2003? How many of us travel for work? Are we more or less likely to be working a second job?
We're doing less work-related travel.
"It makes sense that people are travelling less for work, because we can communicate in ways we couldn't before. I also think people are more used to working with distributed teams that have people in different locations, so we don't feel like we have to travel as much. It's hard to get good data on the number of people working from home, because you could count someone as working from home if they check their email in the morning before they leave, but that's not what people mean by 'working at home.' There are still benefits in working face to face and I don't think that's ever going to change," Laura says.
Keeping track of time is not just about figuring out how much time we waste or how much time we spend on different work projects; sometimes it's about showing that your life is pretty good. And you should celebrate that.– Laura Vanderkam
The workforce is changing
The structure of the American workforce has changed a lot since 2003. The proportion of men in work has dropped from 51 percent to 47 percent while the proportion of women in work has remained fairly constant. We may also be seeing evidence of the elusive gig economy in the American Time Use Survey data, with women now more likely to have second jobs than men and spending longer on them.
What's the secret to a really productive day?
"If you tell yourself the story that you don't have time to do things, you have to remember that it's not necessarily true. Keeping track of time is not just about figuring out how much time we waste or how much time we spend on different work projects; sometimes it's about showing that your life is pretty good. And you should celebrate that,” Laura explains. “I think low expectations in the short run can lead to high expectations in the long run. On any given day, if you just make forward progress and keep devoting time to things that are important to you, in the long run, that really does add up. Having some intentions for your time can help you make the most of it."
Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including "168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think," "I Know How She Does It," and "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast." She has written for Fast Company, Fortune, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal. Find out more about her work at LauraVanderkam.com.
American Time Use Survey
The data in this article comes from the American Time Use Survey, which is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS collects the data from annual telephone interviews with a representative sample of the population based on 24-hour time diaries that run from 4 a.m. one day to 4 a.m. the next.