Feeling pushed for time? TV may be the problem


May 22, 1994|By John P. Robinson | John P. Robinson,Special to The Sun

If you're like many Americans, you feel pushed for time.

A growing parade of best-selling books tells you how time is passing by, no matter how hard you try to get your life into overdrive: Juliet Schor's "Overworked American" says over the past two decades we've added a month a year to our work lives. Arlie Hochsield's "Second Shift" describes the working woman's plight: she still has a second, unpaid full-time job managing her home. "Busybodies" by Lee Burns says we are squeezing more activities into less time.

Yet it's not clear from various surveys asking Americans how they manage or feel about their time whether our lack of it is just a faulty perception, or whether a real time famine is dooming our culture.

First, on the subjective side, several national surveys show that:

* In 1992, 38 percent of Americans ages 18-64 said they always feel rushed. Only 24 percent felt that way in 1965.

* In 1990, 56 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced "a lot" or "moderate" stress in the prior two weeks compared to 50 percent in 1985.

* In 1992, 49 percent of respondents felt they had less free time than five years ago.

* In a national survey taken in 1991, almost half of working respondents said they would be willing to give up a day's pay to get an extra day off from work; that figure was 47 percent in a 1993 repeat of this question in Maryland.

* In the same survey, a third of respondents said they didn't spend enough time with their family or friends or that they were constantly under stress, trying to accomplish more than they could handle. Respondents estimated they had only 18 hours a week of free time, a number we'll come back to shortly.

When we compare these results to a more objective accounting of where their time actually goes, however, we get a different story. These accounts are based on time diaries studied by the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland College Park since 1965. The diaries are verbatim accounts of how a person allocates his or her time. When we tabulate how the 24 hours gets distributed, we find people actually have more free time than they think they do -- and that several reports to the contrary have measurement problems.

* People spend less time working for pay since 1965 -- even taking the increased number of working women into account.

* Women spend less time doing housework -- not only employed women, but full-time housewives, as well.

* The time spent on personal care, sleeping, eating or grooming has not declined. It has stayed virtually the same since 1965.

According to the diary accounts, then, even though we're working less in and out of the home, our newly acquired time has not gone into other "personal maintenance" activities such as sleeping or eating. The bottom line is that we actually now have five more hours of free time to add to the 35 we had in 1965 -- totaling up to about 40 hours a week in all.

These studies also provide another interesting statistic. We spend 18 hours of free time watching television. That's right, it's the same figure as for the number of hours of free time we estimate we have.

While watching TV does take up almost half our 40 hours of weekly free time, we still have time for visiting and socializing, reading, exercising, hobbies and religion and many other leisure activities. And these are activities that people say they enjoy more than TV.

What if you took one of those TV hours a day and spent it doing something more fulfilling?

Or why not keep your own time diary for a week? Once you've realistically assessed how you spend your time, you can make better decisions about where you want your time to go.

John P. Robinson is a professor of sociology and director of the Americans' Use of Time Project at University of Maryland, College Park. He is working on a book titled "Time for Life," to be published by the University of California Press.

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