Covid Changed How We Use Our Time, Down to the Minute

Each year, the government asks thousands of people to track how they spend their days. Normally, the changes are minuscule. Not this time.

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More phone calls, less shopping: how the pandemic changed American lives, down to the minute.

July 22, 2021, 1:26 p.m. ET

Time spent doing different activities before and during the pandemic

Average time spent per day, May through December in 2019 vs. 2020

Among the biggest increases:

Telephone calls
5 min.
8 min.

Lawn and garden care
12 min.
16 min.

Relaxing and leisure
3.9 hr.
4.6 hr.

Sports, exercise and recreation
19 min.
22 min.

Housework
32 min.
36 min.

Food preparation and cleanup
37 min.
40 min.

Animal and pet care
7 min.
8 min.

Sleeping
8.8 hr.
9 hr.

Among the biggest decreases:

Household management
11 min.
11 min.

Caring for and helping children in household
20 min.
19 min.

Working
3.2 hr.
3 hr.

Grooming
41 min.
36 min.

Travel related to consumer purchases
14 min.
12 min.

Socializing and communicating
36 min.
30 min.

Shopping
21 min.
17 min.

Travel related to work
16 min.
11 min.

Notes: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, data was not collected for March and April of 2020. Time spent on each activity has been rounded but the percent change from 2019 to 2020 was calculated from raw values.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

By Ella Koeze

The pandemic upended every aspect of daily life last year — work, leisure, even sleep. New government data paints the most detailed picture yet of just how fundamental those disruptions were.

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

And, perhaps unsurprisingly in a year of canceled vacations and government-mandated lockdowns, they spent a lot more time alone — nearly an hour a day more than in 2019. Seniors, in particular, spent more than eight hours a day alone in 2020.

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

Some of the most telling changes are the ones that reflect the unique nature of the pandemic. People spent more time talking on the phone last year, and less time socializing outside their homes. They spent more time taking care of their lawns, and less time taking care of their personal appearance. And, of course, they spent far more time working from home: About 42 percent of employed adults were working at home on a given day in 2020, nearly double the share in 2019.

For some people, the disruptions were far more fundamental. Mass layoffs meant that millions fewer people had jobs in 2020, pushing down the average time spent working by 17 minutes on average. (Among those who kept their jobs, there was little change in the amount of time they worked.)

Parents with school-aged children spent an average of 1.6 hours more a day providing “secondary child care” — time spent taking care of children while also doing other things, such as working. Women shouldered more of that burden than men.

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

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