Today, these files are part of the biggest collection of time-use diaries in the world, kept by the Centre for Time Use Research at the University of Oxford, UK. The centre’s holdings have been gathered from nearly 30 countries, span more than 50 years and cover some 850,000 person-days in total. They offer the most detailed portrait ever created of when people work, sleep, play and socialize — and of how those patterns have changed over time. “It certainly is unique,” says Ignace Glorieux, a sociologist at the Dutch-speaking Free University of Brussels. “It started quite modest, and now it’s a huge archive.”
The collection is helping to solve a slew of scientific and societal puzzles — not least, a paradox about modern life. There is a widespread perception in Western countries that life today is much busier than it once was, thanks to the unending demands of work, family, chores, smartphones and e-mails. But the diaries tell a different story: “We do not get indicators at all that people are more frantic,” says John Robinson, a sociologist who works with time-use diaries at the University of Maryland, College Park. In fact, when paid and unpaid work are totted up, the average number of hours worked every week has not changed much since the 1980s in most countries of the developed world…
But certain groups have experienced a different trend. According to analyses by Gershuny, Sullivan and other time-use researchers, two demographic groups are, in fact, working harder. One consists of employed, single parents, who put in exceptionally long hours compared to the average; the other comprises well-educated professionals, particularly those who also have small children. People in this latter group find themselves pushed to work hard and under societal pressure to spend quality time with their kids. “The combination of those pressures has meant that there is this group for which time pressure is particularly pertinent,” Sullivan says.
Some researchers are also testing new ways to record people’s activities as they can compare the results to the diaries:
In her preliminary analyses, Harms has found that gadget diaries and paper diaries show the same sequence of events, but that the gadgets reveal details that paper diaries missed. Most researchers in the field agree that the future lies in collecting data through phones and other devices. “Maybe this will bring a new boost to time-use research,” Glorieux says. He anticipates a situation in which reams of diary data — such as location, heart rate, calories burned and even ambient noise — are collected through phones and linked-up gadgets.
Much social science research is focused on particular events or aspects of people’s lives – not just a cross-section of time but also specific information measured in variables that we think might be related to other variables or that we think are worth measuring. In contrast, time-use diaries and other methods can help get at the mundane, everyday activity and interactions that make up a majority of our lives. Much of adult life is spent in necessary activities: making and eating food, resting and sleeping, cleaning, more passive leisure activities, caring for children. We also spend a decent amount of time alone or in our own head. These activities are occasionally punctuated by big events – something exciting happens at work or home, lively social interaction occurs, an important thought is had, etc. – to which we tend to pay more attention both in our own minds and in our data collection. Our methods should probably more closely match this regular activity and time-use diaries represent one way of doing this.