Covid Changed How We Use Our Time by the Minute

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The pandemic has upended every aspect of daily life in the past year – work, leisure, even sleep. New government data paints the most detailed picture ever of how fundamental these disruptions are.

Americans spent nearly 10 waking hours a day at home in 2020, compared to less than eight hours a day in 2019. They commuted less (down from an average of 16 minutes per day in 2019 to 11 minutes per day in 2020), shopped less (down from 21 to 17 minutes in 2020), and worked more (from 19 to 22 minutes).

And perhaps unsurprisingly, in a year of canceled holidays and government-mandated quarantines, they spent much more time alone – about an hour more per day than in 2019. The elderly, in particular, spent more than eight hours a day alone in 2020.

These numbers are from Turkey. American Time Use SurveyAsking thousands of people every year to keep track of how they spend their day, minute by minute. Normally, the changes are small from one year to the next. Not this time.

Some of the most striking changes are those that reflect the unique nature of the pandemic. People spent more time talking on the phone and less time socializing outside of their homes last year. They spent more time caring for the lawn and less time on their personal appearance. And of course, they’ve spent a lot more time working from home: About 42 percent of working adults were working at home on a given day in 2020, nearly double the share in 2019.

For some people, the glitches were much more fundamental. Mass layoffs meant millions less jobs in 2020, bringing the average working time down by an average of 17 minutes. (Among those who kept their jobs, there was little change in the amount of time they worked.)

Parents of school-aged children spend an average of 1.6 more hours a day providing “secondary child care”—time they spend looking after children and doing other things like work. Women shouldered this burden more than men.

The pandemic has even impacted the data: The government suspended the survey from mid-March to mid-May, so the numbers don’t reflect the peak lockdown and business shutdowns last year. (The report, released on Thursday, compares the period from mid-May to year-end in 2020 with the same period in 2019.)

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