Enjoying Your Work
Americans not necessarily ‘busier than before’
Going through her mail, Julia Kubota opened a letter with two tickets to a political fundraiser that would be held in two weeks.
"Just what I need," she complained. "Here's another request for my time. And from talking to others, it's not just me. People are so much busier, with more demands on their time, than in years past. No one seems to have leisure time during which they can do exactly what they want."
While complaints like Julia's are commonly heard, research by behavioral and social scientists indicates an opposite conclusion: Americans have more leisure time than they did 40 years ago.
The University of Maryland's John Robinson has been one of the most active researchers on people's use of time, and he has published a book titled, "Time for Life." One conclusion, based on his work and that of independent research teams, is that people say they are busier than in years past but in reality have more time for hobbies, relaxation and interactions with friends.
What could be causing the difference between people's feelings about how busy they are with the fact that their leisure time has increased?
One reason is the difference in how information behind the two conclusions -- "busier" and "more leisure" ---- are reached.
Let's consider the use of time over the last two months. When people talk about their uses of time, they are recalling many events and are coming up with a conclusion based on their memories. So when they say, "I am busier than in years past," they are making a conclusion today based on memories of the last two months. But in the research of Robinson and his colleagues, conclusions are based on hour-by-hour diaries. People report what they have been doing each hour, shortly after the events that they record in their diaries.
Some readers may be familiar with the diary method of data gathering. They may have been participants in radio-listening or television-viewing surveys. They report their use of radio and television by filling in a daily diary when memories are fresh. Often, diaries show more television viewing than retrospective reports a month or so after people actually sat down in front of their televisions.
People do not try to be deceitful when they recollect past behaviors. Memories are not perfect, and people simply forget events that did not make much of an impact. They may have watched reruns of "Friends" and "Seinfeld" a month ago, but they simply do not remember these behaviors when asked about television viewing four weeks later.
The same imperfections of memory affect reports of various uses of people's time. People may have had three important meetings at work that lasted about an hour each. All these meetings could have involved the possibility of working with new clients whose business would increase company revenues. Further, if their meetings were successful, this fact would be taken into account during people's yearly workplace evaluations carried out by company executives.
A month after such meetings, people are more likely to remember them than they are the informal party that involved watching a three-hour football game on television in the company of familiar friends.
Given their memories, they are likely to make a conclusion that they have been very busy. But if they keep hour-by-hour diaries, the time spent watching football is recorded.
Another reason, suggested to me by Robinson, involves reports of business as a status symbol. In the United States, much of people's social identity is based on the work they do. When meeting others for the first time, people are more likely to ask "Where do you work?" than "How do you spend your leisure time?" Social status, then, is more related to reports of hours spent at work than hours spent in activities of people's own choosing.
The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office at firstname.lastname@example.org