We Are Terrible at Knowing How We Spend Our Time

Human beings are really bad at guessing how they spend their time. The more someone works, the greater the exaggeration of their estimate for how much time they spent doing it (Robinson 2011). For every hour beyond six that people sleep, they overestimate how much they slept by about half an hour (Lauderdale 2008). When asked to guess the time they put into household chores, how often they went to a swimming or tennis club in a month, or how long it will take them to complete a task, people get it wrong.

To have any control over our own productivity, we need to learn how we actually spend our time.

168 Hours in a Week

Several of the examples I cite above come from a report (Robinson 2011) analyzing data from the American Time Use Survey, as well as other large data collection projects about how people spend their time both in the U.S. and Europe.

The report and others like it found that when people think back on a task or stretch of time, like a week, and are asked to recount what they did and how much time they spent, they just simply get it all wrong.

How do the researchers know it’s wrong? In some cases, when asked to recount how they spent their week, people gave reports that added up to “considerably more than the 168 hours in each week,” according to Robinson. Other researchers simply checked the estimates against recorded data or time logs. For example, if you ask someone how many times she went to a fitness club last month, you can check her response against the club’s records. Researchers Chase and Godbey (1983, as cited in Robinson) did just that with tennis and swim clubs and found that people overestimated how often they went by more than 100 percent.

Time Diaries

Interestingly, accuracy is a lot better when people keep time diaries. A time diary or time log is a simple accounting of how a person spends her day by blocks of time, such as every half hour or hour. In keeping a time diary, it helps to account for how the blocks of time were spent at least once a day, though two or three is probably better. Common sense says the sooner we write down an activity, the more likely we will be accurate in estimating how much time we spent doing it.

Keeping a time diary is very similar to counting calories. It’s easier to count calories if you log them soon after each meal, when the details of what you ate are still fresh in your memory. You’re less likely to overlook the 4 tablespoons of ketchup you added to a hamburger or the extra packet of sugar you put into a coffee if you think through the details of your meal right after eating.

Time Tradeoffs

And in the same way that counting calories can help people lose weight, accounting for time can help them become more mindful of where the hours in their days actually. For people looking to increase their productivity and get done things they say they want to get done, this awareness of time is essential. It may eliminate excuses about “not having enough time” to do such and such.

How much time do you spend watching television, playing video games, answering email, reading about sports, or scrolling through social media? How much more time do you think you need in the day to, say, write a book or fix up a website for your business?

People who want to increase their productivity generally either have a project they want to work on more (e.g., write a book) or something in their personal life that they’d like to do more of instead of working (e.g., spend time with family).

Accounting for how we spend our time lets us be more realistic about making tradeoffs. When we don’t know how we spend our time and we inflate the number of hours we spend at work, it’s difficult to justify giving up our relaxing TV time in favor of working more. But if we realize that we don’t work nearly as much as we think we do, and we watch many more hours of television than we guessed, then it’s much easier to consciously make a choice to limit TV time and put that newly reacquired time into a project. Likewise, if we feel guilty about not spending enough time with our loved ones, it can be very helpful to know exactly how many hours per week we actually do spend with them in order to appreciate that time more and be fully present during it.


Chase, D. & Godbey, G. C. (1983) Accuracy of Self-Reported Participation Rates: Research Notes, Leisure Studies, 2: 231–35.

Robinson, J. P., Martin, S., Glorieux, I., & Minnen, J. (2011). The overestimated workweek revisited. Monthly Labor Review, June 2011. Retrieved May 20, 2016 from http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2011/06/art3full.pdf

Lauderdale, D. S., Knutson, K. L., Yan, L. L., Liu, K., & Rathouz, P. J. (2008). Sleep duration: how well do self-reports reflect objective measures? The CARDIA Sleep Study. Epidemiology, 19(6): 838–845. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e318187a7b0

Image by Martina Yach, CC.


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