This is part 4 in a series on How Americans Live.

The US Labor Department released the 2011 Time Use Survey on June 22. So far, we’ve seen how the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) is designed, why the hours worked measure appears to be low, and, why the computer use measure of 7 minutes is a product of coding design.

On Simultaneous Activities

ATUS focuses on quantifying primary activities only. And yet, it is the rise of the simultaneous activity that explains a lot about how Americans live.

  • On average, an American spends 1.7 minutes a day listening to music (not radio), as a primary activity.

That keyword – primary – is really important.

  • On average, an American spends 2.85 hours a day engaging in Household activities, including housework, food prep and cleanup, lawn and garden care, and household management.
  • On average, an American woman spends 3.16 hours engaging in those activities.
  • On average, an American man spends 1.77 hours engaging in those activities.

There’s some face validity there. But have you ever known these activities to occur in a vacuum?

What we don’t know, for sure:

  • Is the radio on? 
  • Is music playing? 
  • Is the TV on?
  • Is RDIO streaming in the background?

It’s not as though simultaneous activities are new. You may have seen stock photography of a man sitting down in a chair, turning on the radio, and opening a newspaper. The radio continues to exist in part because of long commutes enabled by the automobile, and, in some workplaces at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven.

The nature of simultaneous activities can’t be seen from the ATUS data set. Yet, just because something isn’t in the data set under consideration doesn’t mean we suspend all disbelief and discount what we may know about other data sets.

How Simultaneous Are Some Activities?

If you’re asleep, you’re not engaged in another activity. You’re sleeping. As a result, that’s an exclusive primary activity. There isn’t any secondary activity going on.

Consciousness complicates matters. If you’re awake, most Americans aren’t that far away from a medium.

Take, for instance, the activity of eating and drinking. Americans spend, on average, 1.10 hours eating and drinking. That figure increases to 1.36 for Americans with no household children under 18. The state of eating alone, without communication, is imaginable. Eating in dead silence, without music, Internet, or TV, would yield a much lighter population. It’s reasonable to assume that people have meals together or with ambiance.

People do other things while TV is reported to be the primary activity. They talk. They may be trying to reduce the pain of another agonizing ‘The Bachelor’ by reading a book. And, increasingly, they’re on the tablets. TV is increasingly exposed to becoming a secondary activity owing to the underlining technological change.

Music is a major secondary activity. It’s auditory and doesn’t require too much attention to know it’s there.

I wouldn’t know how to answer the question “How many hours a day do you spend listening to music”, because, really, I’m not certain if I’m really listening.

If asked the question, “How many hours a day do you hear music?”, I’d reply “4 hours”. And, even that might be an underestimation.

The same may start to go for TV.


I’m Christopher Berry.
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