Where did your time go? Here’s an actual breakdown.

by Pop on June 24, 2010

Post image for Where did your time go? Here’s an actual breakdown.

You probably watched T.V. A lot of T.V.

Sometimes I’m not totally sure why the government tracks all the things it tracks. Private universities get funding to study all sorts of strange issues, but it’s really the Labor Department that has incredible repositories of data, some of which never even get seen unless an economist or journalist or crazy person calls up and asks for it. But I’m extremely glad they do track it. Otherwise, I’d have nothing to write about.

But in case you missed it, a couple days ago the Bureau of Labor Statistics released their annual survey of how, exactly, Americans spend the 24 hours they have in a day. It’s effectively a life audit and just as interesting to me as how we spend our money. Here are the stats displayed in a very nice pie chart. The most interesting takeaways for me were these:

We watch a lot of T.V.

On average, we watched 2.82 hours of television every day. That’s a lot. Way more than we checked e-mail. In fact, it was way more than any other specific activity except working and sleeping. T.V. is one of those leisure activities that’s easy to do and yet gives us the least bang for our minutes. Socializing (clocking in at less than an hour in the survey) at least builds relationships that can contribute to many aspects of life aside from leisure. Television, on the other hand, is a mindless time suck. Unless you’re watching educational programming, you come away with nothing except a point of conversation at the water cooler.

Even before this survey came out, I found that I spent way too much time watching the tube to the detriment of productive leisure activities like this blog. Proud to say I finally canceled cable on Monday. Here’s one of my favorite videos on productivity with one of my favorite lines about the T.V. black hole. “Stop watching $#(*&$ Lost.”

We spend a lot of time buying stuff.

About 46 minutes of every day, actually. I’m not a shopper. So to me this is inconceivable. Though it’s unclear from my cursory read of the definitions, it doesn’t seem that this includes buying food (eating clocks in at an hour and 13 minutes). The number has stayed about the same since the recession started—it’s dropped a minute since 2007. And that says a lot about whether Americans have gotten rid of our conspicuous consumption culture. We haven’t.

That triple-action suck Dyson vacuum cleaner has apparently not reduced the amount of time we spend cleaning.

Household activities took up an hour and 48 minutes, which is about the same as last year. In 2003, the earliest data available, we also spent about an hour and 48 minutes cleaning. I suspect that 20 years from now, we’ll also spend an hour and 48 minutes cleaning.

Why do technological improvement not save us time? Apparently, as I mentioned in an earlier post on work, as technology gets better, our standard of cleanliness rises. In other words, that Dyson might just lead you to want a cleaner floor rather than achieve the cleanliness that you have now quicker.

One of the positives I drew from the BLS report was that we actually spend eight hours and 40 minutes sleeping. Which begs the question: Who are these people, and where do they get the time?


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

rg June 24, 2010 at 9:26 am

I view this data as somewhat analogous to BMI. Very interesting and useful for trends and averages and an ‘overall’ picture, but really, really misapplied if used on an individual.

Lumi June 24, 2010 at 9:43 am

A point in cleaning – it might also be because of the ever-bigger houses. If you have more floor to clean, it also takes longer even with the time-saving appliances.

Blair MacGregor June 24, 2010 at 9:55 am

Met Gary V briefly at Internet Week NY a few weeks ago. As awesome in person as he is in his videos/interviews. I’m a big fan of his.

And it’s great to see another cable cutter! How’s this first week without cable been for you? Do you miss it? Any relapses? :)

The sad part for me is that I actually don’t watch much TV at all besides sports; yet local sports are impossible to get online with all of the blackout restrictions that the leagues/providers have set up. What’s funny is that I actually WOULD be able to dump cable and just get the NHL/MLB sports packages online to see my favorite teams if I moved because I’d be out of the blackout zone. Something to consider I guess; at least until some daring entrepreneur takes on the cable behemoths!


Pop June 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Blair, I canceled on Monday but still have service for some reason. They’re collecting my box next week. Unfortunately, having service is making me think “hey, I’m getting it for free!” and forget that the real cost for me is time, not money.

Pop June 24, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Lumi, that’s a great point. I think average home sizes are dropping again for the first time in a long time. Wonder if that will reverse the trend.

Pop June 24, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Rg, I agree that averages are dangerous when you have the possibility of extremes. I know the BLS has the data, so someone could theoretically ask them for it and break it down by, say, employed, 35-year olds who are male, and possibly come up with something more closely relevant. Would take a lot of work though. Thanks for the comment.

apollom June 24, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I’d like to question that sleep number as well. No one I know gets remotely that much sleep. Which makes me wonder, who’s bringing up that number?

Rob Bennett June 25, 2010 at 7:41 am

The problem with television is not just that it takes up a lot of time. It is that there is something in the nature of television that often makes that time non-thinking time.

We need to occasionally just let random thoughts into our heads, to enjoy non-structured time. I have found that taking long walks works great for this. I always learn something from talking things over with myself on a long walk. Always.

You don’t get this with television. The hours just go by with nothing to show for them. Television requires just enough of your attention to keep your brain from working on anything other than what is taking place on the screen.


K Smith June 28, 2010 at 12:46 am

apollom, you are wise to question this data.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is famous for manipulating data, using questionable methodology, and for releasing data in an attempt to sway public opinion. One of the most glaring examples is what they have done to CPI – the Consumer Price Index.

The BLS has removed homeowner housing expenses from the CPI calculation, and attributed as income to homeowners the amount of rent homeowners could get if their homes were rented. Homeowner housing expenses typically run about 1/3 of total outlay, so for homeowners this skews CPI 2/3 lower than it really is. CPI as published by the BLS creates the perception that inflation is much lower than it actually is.

Could it be that the reason this data was released is because recent research shows a correlation between obesity and the amount of TV viewing? Hmmm…

Correlation is not causation. TV watching does not cause obesity. Perhaps the reality behind the numbers is that since obese people find it difficult to engage in physical activity, they spend their leisure time engaged in passive pursuits, the most common one being TV watching.

And since we are asking questions, why is it that blogging is considered a productive leisure activity, but watching TV is not? Why is it that watching an art film in a theater is seen as laudable, but watching sports or an action adventure flick on TV is not?

Topics like this can help us think about how we spend our time, and help us to be mindfulof the choices we make.

But what we choose to do with our time is a personal choice. I choose to not sit in judgment of those who choose to watch TV – or any other choice they make for their leisure time.

Pop June 28, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Eh, I think it’s right to question government data and ask yourself if it’s skewed in one way or another, but I think you’re going about it the wrong way. The BLS includes “owner’s equivalent rent”—that is, what homeowners would pay if they were renting their homes. They’ve written a bit about why they do that, and other economists have written about why they should reflect home prices more exactly. But regardless of how you feel, the very fact that it’s up for debate belies the far more insidious motives that you seem to be suggesting. It they just wanted to goose the numbers, it’d be far more effective to do it in a way that wasn’t so public.

And regardless, owner’s equivalent rent makes up 25% or so of CPI. So even if it’s lower than what it would be if home prices were reflected, it wouldn’t be 1/3 lower.

Most economic releases are on a set schedule (as the time survey is). I think it’s really a stretch that the federal government has twisted data on a relatively obscure study to support anti-obesity efforts.

Anyway, I’m just saying that skepticism is great, but where you choose to be skeptical is going to go a long way to determining how much everybody else is going to listen to said skepticism. Also, I consider blogging to be a productive activity (for me) because this conversation wouldn’t have even happened if I chose to watch the Real Housewives instead. : )

Thanks, as always, for the comment.

K Smith June 29, 2010 at 5:24 pm

I’m glad you find blogging productive – your posts always make me think. And thank you for clearing up my misconception on how owners equivalent rent is applied to the CPI calculation.

My misstep does not negate the fact that there is a great deal of debate over how far off CPI is from the real rate of inflation. Some credible analysts believe it is off by as much as 100%.

The BLS says it uses owners equivalent rent “(b)ecause the asset price method can lead to inappropriate results for goods that are purchased largely for investment reasons.” This mindset, evaluating financial transactions in light of their investment potential, leads to trouble. It is not based on how real people behave.

It is largely responsible for the pervasive assumption in the mortgage security market – prior to the mortgage meltdown – that home prices would always go up.

The vast majority of home buyers do not buy homes for investment. They buy homes to live in. Many have concluded that the use of owners equivalent rent in CPI led our economic leaders to believe there was no housing bubble.

The BLS site states, “Clearly, the rental value of owned homes is not an easily determined dollar amount, and housing survey analysts must spend considerable time and effort in estimating this value.” This just creates even more opportunity for totally skewed, not-based-in-reality numbers.

Whether or not we attribute nefarious motives to CPI or other BLS data, there is no arguing with the facts.

It is a fact that CPI has a huge impact on the financial lives of millions of Americans. It is a large component of consumer confidence. It is used to calculate changes in cash payments for innumerable financial transactions, including commercial rental rates, payouts on insurance contracts, and Social Security benefits.

It is a fact that the BLS has gone to great lengths to substitute real life data with massaged data in its calculation of CPI. It is a fact that over time the data continues to be massaged in new ways, further removing the results from real life. The more substitution that is made and the more massaging that takes place, the more unreliable the inflation data becomes.

As you state, there is indeed a more effective way to goose inflation numbers – just stop publishing them. This is what the Fed did in 2006. They stopped publishing M3, the metric that is the best measure of the money supply.

It is a fact that the BLS continues to manipulate CPI, and that the Fed stopped publishing M3. Is it possible that our financial leaders no longer want us to know the true extent to which our currency is being debased?

Pop June 29, 2010 at 7:13 pm

I still don’t buy that the government is deliberately hiding and/or manipulating numbers for political reasons. First, there’s been an election and administration change since 2006. Inflation fears are top-of-mind right now, yet no politician is using the absence of M3 to argue that inflation is actually an issue at present. In fact, a couple people smarter than me have recreated M3 using data that the Fed still does report. And that would argue that the money supply is contracting (though about in line with where it was in 2006): http://www.nowandfutures.com/images/m3b_long_term.png

As far as CPI goes, it’s kind of a rough estimate anyway that’s ultimately not accurate for anyone’s personal economy. I mean, my parents have owned the same home for 20+ years. Would inflation as calculated by the change in CPI have been accurately reflected for them if it included the drop in prices in the 90s (in their area), the rapid run up in the 2000s and the 20% drop they now face? Of course not. Housing is purchased at once but consumed over decades. And then after it’s consumed, it’s sometimes sold for a good portion of what it cost you.

So, basically, CPI is really no good for anyone. But I still think it’s because economists aren’t smart enough to come up with a better solution—not because they’ve been instructed to hide something. But hey, to each his own.

K Smith June 30, 2010 at 3:46 am

I’m sorry if I implied that the government is deliberately hiding and/or manipulating numbers for political reasons. This was not my intent.

I believe the numbers are being manipulated for reasons that are beyond politics.

Changes in political administrations do not result in changes in our financial leadership or direction. Our current treasury secretary, nominated by President Obama, was handpicked by his predecessor – who served under President Bush. Ben Bernanke was nominated to succeed Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman by President Bush, and President Obama nominated him to continue on as Fed chairman at the expiration of his first term.

Our nation’s financial future is not subject to political whims.

CPI was never intended to be accurate for anyone’s personal economy. It is – from the BLS site – “a measure of the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services.” Commercial property owners, commercial property tenants, Social Security recipients – and scores of others – would disagree with you that CPI is really no good for anyone. They may agree that it is a poor measure of inflation, but it has a major impact on millions of daily financial transactions.

Inflation isn’t an issue – yet. Many believe it will be a huge issue in the near future. Last week the Daily Telegraph reported that the Royal Bank of Scotland has advised its clients “to brace for a full-fledged crash in global stock and credit markets over the next three months as inflation paralyses the major central banks.”

Our national debt has grown to such stratospheric levels that many believe we will soon be unable to find buyers for our ever rising debt, and that we will have to print money – debase our currency – to pay what we owe.

I find it interesting that you say economists aren’t smart enough to come up with a better solution to CPI. If this is so, why are you so willing to accept at face value the BLS data and analysis on how Americans spend their time? Why do you cite data and analysis of economists here in your blog, and encourage readers to take to heart what they have to say?

If this is so, what is your opinion of the economists employed by our Treasury Department and the Fed, who are relied upon to provide data and analysis on which important national financial decisions are based?

If economists aren’t smart enough, who is?

Last week the Fed published a report by one of its economists in which he opined “neither non-economist bloggers, nor economists who portray economics…as a simple enterprise with clear conclusions are likely to contribute any insight to discussions of economics and…should be ignored by an open-minded lay public.”

This economist also says that “writers who have not taken a year of PhD coursework in a decent economics department – and passed their PhD qualifying exams – cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economic policy.”

So Pop, who are we to believe – the bloggers, or the economists?

Rob Bennett June 30, 2010 at 10:54 am

“Writers who have not taken a year of PhD coursework in a decent economics department – and passed their PhD qualifying exams – cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economic policy.”

How convenient for the economists!


Weasel August 1, 2010 at 12:09 pm

If one applies the same “logic” as BLS does when including market equivalent rents in CPI, one could also make the case for including the value of any work you do for yourself as income – cleaning your house, repairing your car, home-schooling your children.
I’m surprised the IRS hasn’t advanced this theory yet, but then again, I am sans PHD.

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