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We Aren’t Busier. So Why Do We Think We Are?

Source | FastCompany : By LAURA VANDERKAM

I was purchasing a sandwich in a cafe recently when the clerk asked me this: “How has your day been so far? Busy?”

The truth is that I had just woken up from a nap. It wasn’t a particularly busy day. Yet “busy” is the modern equivalent of “good,” and the assumption underlying much modern conversation, even a transaction in a sandwich shop, is that we are all busier than people have been in the past. With smartphones and the constant demands of work and family, we are the busiest we have ever been.

There’s just one problem with this story: It isn’t true.

At least that’s my takeaway from a recent article inNature highlighting the work of the U.K.’s Centre for Time Use Research. Housed at the University of Oxford, the center is home to the world’s largest collection of historic time diaries. The center is now using new methods, such as having people wear cameras, to seamlessly record how modern folks spend their time.


The results aren’t as bleak as we often think. A study that compared modern time diaries to ones the BBC collected in 1961 found, per the Nature article, that “Men had reduced the number of hours they spent on paid work, increased those in unpaid work, and overall came out ahead, with just under 50 minutes more free time per day. Women were doing more paid work” — reflecting the fact that many more women work for pay now than in 1961 — “and less unpaid work, producing little change overall.”

The article continues: “All in all, there is little support for the idea that everyone is working harder than ever before.”

And yet when you ask people if they’re busier, they say they are. So what’s going on?

Talk to sociologists and time-use researchers, and they’ll point to three things. First, when you combine paid work and nonpaid work, a small proportion of society does have longer workweeks than in the past: well-educated professionals with small kids. A number of the people who write, speak, and create studies about modern busyness fall into this category. It is easy to believe that what is true for you is true for everyone else.


However, even for these people, the hours aren’t too intense. That brings us to attitudes. Nature notes, “In 19th-century Europe, having ample leisure time signified a person of high social status: One philosopher described the literary types in Paris around 1840, who had such an abundance of time that it was fashionable to walk a turtle on a leash through the arcades.”

Now, we all talk about how busy we are. It’s a sign of status, even if some days we do have enough time to take a turtle for a walk.

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