How an Expert on Time Spends His Days

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

John Robinson knows more about time than just about anyone. In an interview with THE FUTURIST, he talks about his discoveries over the years.

There are a thousand different ways to look at time and an even greater number of ways to describe it. But to University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson, the most important aspect of time is-quite simply- how do we spend it?

Robinson directs the Americans’ Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, and has been studying time use longer than just about anyone in the United States. He pioneered the time-diary research method, wherein individuals self-report their activities across a day, a week, or longer, by the hour. The time diary is “a sort of social microscope that allows us to examine facets of daily life that are not otherwise observable,” he writes with colleague Geoffrey Godbey in their book Time for Life.

Robinson has written more than a hundred articles on time use and has spent more than 40 years of his professional life analyzing what other people do with each of the 24 hours that occur from midnight to midnight. The subject comes naturally to the 71-year-old sociologist: “Money is what economists study but time should be what sociologists study,” he says.

Among his various accomplishments, he was one of the first academics to chart the increase in American television watching between 1965 and 1975.

“I published a couple of papers on those [data sets], and low and behold, in looking at the 1975 data, in comparison to the 1965, the biggest trend was that TV viewing had increased dramatically in the United States. We think that color television had something to do with that,” Robinson recalls. His discovery, with leisure-studies scholar Godbey, that Americans have roughly the same amount of free time that they did in 1965 received considerable coverage, much of it incredulous.

Lately, Robinson has focused on how changing economic and social patterns influence the way that families use time. One recent revelation is that fathers are spending much more time interacting with their kids than they have in decades past. However, women continue to do most of the routine child care, which is a finding he elaborates on in his most-recent book, The Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, co-written with Suzanne M. Bianchi and Melissa A. Milkie.

Another unexpected trend is what Robinson refers to as the rise of the “androgyny society”: “Men and women are becoming more similar both in terms of personal-care activities and in terms of free-time activities. Men’s and women’s lives are becoming more similar. That reveals itself first and foremost in time studies,” he says.

How will time use change in the future? Robinson sees more people using wireless communication devices to multitask-a trend that’s causing him to reexamine some of his key research methods (and giving him a bit of a headache). “The time-diary method has worked for 40 years, but when you get into multitasking, it doesn’t capture all that,” he says. Technology, according to Robinson, is changing American time use constantly, and not always for the better. The increase in multitasking gives him a real worry.

“All of these things work to crowd life, and maybe make it more superficial. So you can’t pay attention to any one thing. Your attention span is taken away. That’s what a lot of people who study today’s younger generation are seeing, and that’s a real concern for organizations in the future: How will people deal with all of these different technologies calling for their attention?”

Ironically, America’s most established time-diary expert doesn’t, himself, keep a log of what he does with his day. “I haven’t kept one in a while,” he confesses. “The last time I kept one, I was having an extremely busy week. At the end of it, I estimated that I had put in more than 100 hours of work, and when I counted it up I saw that I had actually only worked 72. That’s the same problem I think a lot of other people have. In time-diary studies, people tend to overestimate the amount of time they spend on work.”

Directing a time-use institute keeps Robinson busy. He’s organizing the International Association of Time-Use Researchers conference, which will be held in Washington, D.C., in October 2007. In the little spare time that he has, Robinson tries to see a live music performance “once a day.” He enjoys wine and beer festivals and recently joined the Slow Food Movement, an international organization that seeks to promote ecologically safe food production and encourage traditional methods for creating and consuming food. He can also be seen dashing around the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in his fuel-efficient Smart Car.

The car is a joint collaboration between DaimlerChrysler and timepiece maker Swatch (Smart stands for Swatch Mercedes art). From an environmental standpoint, the car is a clear winner: Robinson says he gets 50 miles to the gallon in his. But from a time-saving perspective, his experience has been mixed. He’s spent seven years and “hundreds of hours and made thousands of phone calls satisfying all the red tape” that was required to import the microvehicle due to U.S. regulations. On the upside, Robinson says he’ll now spend “a lot less time looking for parking spaces.”

What does the time-use expert see himself doing 10 years from now? He responds, “If I were retired, I would be doing the same thing. It never runs out of interest for me.”

-Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2007.

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