Covid Modified How We Use Our Time, Right down to the Minute

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The pandemic turned every aspect of daily life upside down last year – work, leisure, even sleep. New government data paints the most detailed picture yet of how profound these disruptions were.

Americans spent nearly 10 awake hours a day at home in 2020, compared to less than eight hours a day in 2019. They commuted less (an average of 11 minutes a day in 2020 versus 16 minutes a day in 2019), bought less (17 minutes in 2020, compared to 21) and exercised more (22 minutes, compared to 19).

And perhaps unsurprisingly, in a year of canceled holidays and government-imposed lockdowns, they spent a lot more time alone – almost an hour a day more than in 2019. Seniors in particular spent more than eight hours a day alone in 2020.

These numbers come from the American Time Use Survey, which asks thousands of people every year to track how they spend their day minute by minute. Usually the changes are small from year to year. Not this time.

Some of the most revealing changes are those that reflect the unique nature of the pandemic. Last year people spent more time talking on the phone and less time being in contact outside of their home. They spent more time looking after their lawn and less time looking after their personal appearance. And of course they spent a lot more time working from home: around 42 percent of employed adults worked at home on a given day in 2020, almost twice as much as in 2019.

For some people, the disturbances were much more basic. Mass layoffs resulted in millions fewer people having jobs in 2020, reducing average working hours by an average of 17 minutes. (For those who have kept their jobs, the working hours have hardly changed.)

Parents with school-age children spent an average of 1.6 hours more per day in “secondary childcare” – time they spent looking after children and doing other things such as work. (“Primary” childcare, i.e. the time that is spent looking after children without devoting themselves to other activities, has hardly changed.) Women bore this burden more than men: women with school-age children spent more than seven hours a day with children in their care, compared to less than five hours for men.

The pandemic even hit the data itself: the government suspended the survey from mid-March to mid-May, so the numbers don’t reflect the most intense period of lockdowns and business closings in the past year. (The report released on Thursday compares the period from mid-May to the end of the year in 2020 with the same period in 2019.)