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The Test of Time: A busy working mother tries to figure out where all her time is going

Working moms and time management
(Hunter Freeman)
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"Yes, you do," Robinson said. "Come up here and do a time study with me, and I'll show you where your leisure time is."

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Reluctantly, I agreed. Part of me wanted to prove him wrong. Here was just one more man who had no idea what it was like to live in a working mother's shoes. But another part of me worried that he might be right. What if I did have 30 hours that could be filled with leisure and I was just too distracted or disorganized to find them? Would the exercise end up being one more thing to feel badly about?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I am grateful to have a full, happy, if somewhat crazed life. I have a loving family, good health, good friends, a great job and a cozy bungalow in a close-knit neighborhood. It's just that I'm not particularly proud of the scattered way I spend my time. In truth, I don't even want to be sharing it with you. Or, at least, I don't want to be honest about it.

That might be why it took six months before I found the time -- or the nerve -- to get to College Park. I arrived late. Robinson -- tall, gaunt and stooped with a silvery Beatles-style mop top -- handed me the time diary. I was to record every minute of my time -- filling in little blanks, starting at midnight, for seven days -- and then come back.

Over the next few months, I made several attempts. But it took too much time. Some weeks, I'd track Monday and Tuesday, then not get back to the diary until Friday or Saturday. By then, I had absolutely no recollection of Wednesday or Thursday, so I'd start over. And my life was messy. I always seemed to be doing more than one thing at once. Did I count it as work time when I was answering an e-mail in the office but was on hold with the pharmacy to refill my son's EpiPen prescription? Wasn't that housework, too? And what about the window on my computer screen at work opened to a State Department Web page so that, between interviews, I could figure out how to get my brother-in-law's death certificate from China? What kind of time was that?

"Just write a diary," Robinson told me when I called to report my utter inability to fill out the time sheets properly. "I'll figure out how to code it."

One year later, I was ready.

***

John Robinson has been getting under people's skin for decades. He has spent his entire professional life trying to convince people that the way they think they spend their time is wrong. The popular belief that Americans work harder than ever? Wrong, he says. Time-diary data show that Americans, on average, work fewer hours than they did 20 years ago. Americans so stressed out that they're sleeping less? Wrong. Time diaries show a fairly constant eight hours over the last four decades. Mothers coming home from work to the exhausting "second shift" of housework and child care? Working mothers spending less time with their children than at-home moms did in the 1960s? Everyone too busy for leisure time? Wrong, wrong and wrong.

According to Robinson's research on how people spend the 1,440 minutes in a day and 168 hours in a week, fathers and mothers are moving toward "androgyny" and have about equal workloads (64 hours a week) if you count both paid and unpaid (housework and child care) work. Despite predictions that mothers would spend 40 percent less time with their children once they entered the workforce, Robinson has found that, compared with 1965, mothers now spend nearly three hours more time every week caring for their children, even though most women now work. People do indeed have plenty of time for leisure, Robinson argues.

What he does not dispute is that people think they have no time. "It's very popular, the feeling that there are too many things going on, that people can't get in control of their lives," he says. "But when we look at people's diaries, there just doesn't seem to be the evidence to back it up. It's a paradox. When you tell people they have 30 or 40 hours of free time every week, they don't want to believe it."

For years, nobody wanted to believe Robinson. He once received a Golden Fleece award for wasting taxpayer money. The science of measuring time use was fairly new when he got into it in the 1960s. For centuries, people noted the passage of time by the chores that got done or the changing of the seasons. With the coming of the industrial age and the rise of the clock, time-and-motion studies on factory floors became all the rage. Time became a commodity that could be earned, spent or wasted.


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