Editor's Note: Evidence suggests we don't spend our days exactly the way we think we do. How's that? Stephanie Thomas shares the research and a hypothesis as to why we might be kidding ourselves in this Cafe Classic.
Are you overworked? Do you feel like there's never enough hours in the day to get everything done?
Most people would probably answer "yes" to these questions. But recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that you, like most people, are probably overestimating the number of hours you spend working each day.
Data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) indicates that when asked to estimate the number of hours they work per day, employees tend to overestimate their work hours by five to ten percent, relative to the hours they report in their time diaries.
The American Time Use Survey asks participants to keep a time diary, and record how much time they spend doing the things they do during the day, such as sleeping, personal care, eating and drinking, housework, shopping, working, caring for household members, going to church, and watching television. When these time entries are compared to verbal responses about work hours, there's a five to ten percent gap.
Here's what we know about the gap:
- Estimates across all activities ultimately sum to more than 168 hours per week;
- The gap in work hours is found in several other countries;
- The gap was smaller in the 1960s and has varied over time;
- Even larger overestimates have been found for time spent on housework.
The figure below summarizes the gap by gender and number of hours typically worked during the week. (click on the figure to see a larger version)
How can we explain this gap? A paper by John Robinson, Steven Martin, Ignace Glorieux and Joeri Minnen offers some hypotheses on why the gap exists. Respondents may include time spent on commuting or on lunch or other breaks in their estimates. Respondents may also fail to subtract time lost from work to household crises or other sudden non-work demands (e.g., picking up a sick child from school, repairing a car, etc.).
But I think their most plausible hypothesis relates to "social desirability". Respondents may believe that low estimates of time spent on paid work or housework could be taken as a sign of being lazy or irresponsible. So in an effort to not be perceived as lazy or irresponsible, we overestimate the time spent on these activities, consciously or subconsciously.
The social desirability argument also fits with the observed underestimates for sleeping and leisure activities. The average time spent on sleep reported in the time diaries is about 8.35 hours per day, but other surveys report an average of 7 hours. When asked to estimate the amount of free time they have during the week, respondents report less than 20 hours per week, while their ATUS diaries indicate at least 35 hours.
So, how do you feel about your work load now? How do you really spend your day?
Stephanie Thomas, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics at Cornell University. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on economic theory and labor economics in the College of Arts and Sciences and in Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Throughout her career, Stephanie has completed research on a variety of topics including wage determination, pay gaps and inequality, and performance-based compensation systems. She frequently provides expert commentary in media outlets such as The New York Times, CBC, and NPR, and has published papers in a variety of journals.