It's not that John P. Robinson is saying, "Stop whining about not having enough free time. You have more than you think. Open your eyes AND SHUT OFF THE TELEVISION!" That wouldn't be his style. That would be too simplistic, too crude, too suggestive of harsh value judgments that a thoughtful fellow like Robinson is not inclined to make.
However, Robinson, a University of Maryland sociology professor, is the co-author of a ground-breaking new book that, in its scholarly way, says something like that. "Time for Life," written with Geoffrey Godbey of Penn State University, says that in matters involving time, perception and reality often conflict. Paradoxes abound.
The news is: We have more free time than we imagine, we are working fewer hours than we were 30 years ago and the gap in work time between men and women - including housework and paid work - is narrow.
Some of this would seem welcome news, but, once again, things seldom are as they seem.
The fact is, Robinson and Godbey had a tough time getting the book into print. One woman editor objected to the statistics showing that with housework and paid work combined women work only about an hour more a week than men, about a quarter of the gap that existed 30 years ago.
Some editors thought the book's arguments were too technical. Too many numbers, too many tables and charts. Others thought the conclusions did not make sense. After all, everybody knows we're all overworked, rushed, frantically cramming more and more stuff into an ever-shrinking envelope of free time.
"My son called and told me that the book had been talked about on a local TV show and they'd interviewed people and everybody said, `That's crazy.... We're all out of time,"' says Robinson.
Well, yes and no. We certainly think we're out of time, but the research that Robinson and Godbey consider the most reliable says otherwise.
The 367-page book compiles research that's been conducted by Robinson, Godbey and others since 1965. It's not a how-to time-management book, but an analytical and occasionally philosophical look at the ways we spend our time and why.
Its conclusions are based chiefly on so-called "time diary" studies conducted by the Americans' Use of Time Project, of which Robinson is director. Since 1965, thousands of people have kept hour-by-hour diary accounts of what they do and for how long from the time they awake to the time they go to sleep. The diary, the authors write, "is a sort of social microscope that allows us to examine facets of daily life that are not otherwise observable."
Although the diaries show only what the subjects are willing to reveal, the writers still believe the method is more accurate than interviews or after-the-fact estimates of how time is spent. Research shows that people consistently overestimate the time they spend working and underestimate their leisure time. Being overworked seems to carry a certain status in this culture, says Robinson, and that may influence what subjects tell an interviewer.
But, according to the time diaries and supporting information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average workweek has shrunk since 1965: about 6 hours shorter for working women, about 7 hours for men.
In the same period, average weekly free time has grown, from 27 to 34 hours a week for working women; 33 to 36 for men.
One might think this would make us feel more relaxed about life. Not so, the writers say: "Even as free time increases, more people feel they are rushing past life."
The problem, once again, is perception.
"Free time is expanding," Robinson and Godbey say, "but not as fast as people's sense of the necessary."
In this culture we are overwhelmed by choices of things to do, to see, to experience, to buy. No matter what you're doing you feel like you could be or should be doing more. But the amount of available time, unlike money, cannot be increased by wise investment or hard work. As a result, time has become for some people a commodity more precious than money.
"My colleague was talking about how he encountered a woman the other day who was running all over exasperated. And he says, `What's happening?' She says, `Well, I'm going to a picnic.' She's going to a picnic and she's wiped out."
The woman was in a hurry to squeeze in a time when she could relax.
Then, of course, there's television, "the 800-pound gorilla of free time," as the writers call it. Since the time diary studies began 32 years ago, television has gobbled ever more free time. Women watch 14.5 hours a week, up from 9.3 in 1965. Men watch 15.8 hours, up from 11.3.
Television is such an ingrained habit, says Robinson, that "people say they don't have any time because they're watching television. It's like it's some sort of force, alien force out there, over which they have no control."
The paradox is that although Americans are spending ever more time watching television, they also say in surveys connected to the diary studies that television is one of the first activities they would give up if they had to.
In 1985 ratings of activities from least to most enjoyable, television ranked the same as reading newspapers and below reading books or magazines or listening to music. Yet Americans spend far more time watching television than reading anything.
Except when they're on vacation. When they see that they have large blocks of free time, Americans spend more time reading than watching television, more time playing sports and in conversation - all activities that rate higher than television on the pleasure scale.
Television is just so easy to slide into and stay with, even if you'd rather be doing something else that takes more effort.
The time dilemma, this sense of always feeling rushed, cannot be solved just by shutting off the television. That might be part of it, says Robinson, but the solution has more to do with an approach to life than any single activity. Rather than learning how to jam more into a day with time-saving skills, the writers say, we may need to "cultivate time-savoring skills, in order to appreciate the simpler delights of life as they are occurring."
There's a bit of the Buddhist concept of mindfulness in that, but Robinson says his research, readings and recent travels on the book tour talk-show circuit suggest that Americans are wondering if all the rushing about is worth it. More people seem to be asking themselves: "Is busy better?"