Time-use research

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Time-use research is an interdisciplinary field of study dedicated to learning how people allocate their time during an average day. Work intensity is the umbrella topic that incorporates time use, specifically time poverty.


The comprehensive approach to time-use research addresses a wide array of political, economic, social, and cultural issues through the use of time-use surveys. Surveys provide geographic data and time diaries that volunteers record using GPS technology and time diaries. Time-use research investigates human activity inside and outside the paid economy. It also looks at how these activities change over time.

Time-use research is not to be confused with time management. Time-use research is a social science interested in human behavioural patterns and seeks to build a body of knowledge to benefit a wide array of disciplines interested in how people use their time. Time management is an approach to time allocation with a specific managerial purpose aimed at increasing the efficiency or effectiveness of a given process.

Questions relating to time-use research arise in most professional and academic disciplines, notably:

Categories of time

Time-use researcher Dagfinn Aas classifies time into four meaningful categories: contracted time; committed time; necessary time; and free time. [1]

Contracted time

Contracted time refers to the time a person allocates toward an agreement to work or study. When a person is using contracted time to commute this person understands that this travel time is directly related to paid work or study and any break in this commute time

Committed time

Committed time, like contracted time, takes priority over necessary and free time because it is viewed as productive work. It refers to the time allocated to maintain a home and family. When a person is commuting using committed time this person may feel that the commute is a duty to family such as walking children to school or driving a spouse to work. Contracted and committed time users may feel that their commute is more important than the commute of necessary or free time users because their commute is productive work. Therefore, they may be more inclined to choose a motorized mode of travel.

Necessary time

Necessary time refers to the time required to maintain one’s self as it applies to activities such as eating, sleeping, and cleansing and to a large extent exercising. People who commute using necessary time may feel that the commute is an important activity for personal well-being and may also take into account the well-being of the natural and social environment. The person commuting in necessary time may be more inclined to choose an active mode of transportation for personal reasons that include exercise on top of transportation.

Since sleeping is included in this category, necessary time usually constitutes the majority of people’s time.

Free time

Free time refers to the remains of the day after the three other types of time have been subtracted from the 24-hour day. This type of time is not necessarily discretionary time as the term “free” time may imply because people tend to plan activities in advance and creating committed free time in lieu of discretionary time. People who commute using free time are more apt to view the commute as a recreational activity. Commuting in free time provides the greatest gains for social capital because the person commuting in free time is more likely to slow down or stop the commute at his discretion to undertake another activity or engage in social interaction. He or she may also view the commute as part of his destination activity to which he has gladly committed his or her free time.

Primary vs. secondary time

The distinction between primary and secondary time is a way to include activities when multitasking. Activities that take place at the same time are separated into primary and secondary categories based on priority assigned to each, with the activity with the highest priority considered to be the primary. This distinction plays an important role when evaluating time spent on activities that often considered secondary when multitasking, as overlooking secondary activities can lead to significant underestimations of the time committed to those activities.

According to research in Australia, approximately two thirds of time spent on childcare is considered secondary time. [2] Research in the United States is more variable ranging from approximately one third [3] [4] to approximately three fourths [5] of time spent on childcare being secondary time.

Primary time

Primary time refers to time spent on a primary activity only. The primary activity is the activity that has the highest priority. For example, the primary task when drinking coffee while working would be working and the time therefore classified as contracted time. Assigning priority to each activity is left up to the person recording their time usage and similar combinations of activities may be treated differently under different circumstances. While eating in front of a television, both eating and watching T.V. could be considered the primary activity depending on the circumstances.

Secondary time

Secondary time is the time spent on secondary or side activities. When drinking coffee while working, drinking coffee would be the secondary activity and would be considered necessary time even though the primary activity, working, would be classified as contracted time. Unlike primary time, secondary time does not necessarily add up to 24 hours each day because there may not always be a secondary activity. It is also important to note that including secondary time may make it appear that a person spends more than 24 hours a day on activities due to the overlapping nature primary and secondary time.


See also

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  1. Ås, Dagfinn (1978). "Studies of Time-Use: Problems and Prospects". Acta Sociologica. 21 (2): 125–141. doi:10.1177/000169937802100203. JSTOR   4194228. S2CID   210399922.
  2. "How Australians Use Their Time." 4153.0. Australian Bureau of Statistics,21 Feb. 2008.Web.
  3. John Robinson, and Geoffrey Godbey, Time for Life. The Surprising WaysAmericans Use Their Time (University Park: Pennsylvania State University,1997), 107
  4. Keith W. Bryant and Cathleen D. Zick, “An Examination of Parent-Child Shared Time,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58 (1996): 227-237
  5. Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Maternal Employment and Time with Children: Dramatic Change or Surprising Continuity?” Demography 37 (2000): 401-14