Through the Lens of Time

By Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA — Sep 11, 2023
How do we spend our time? Not individually, but globally? Channeling Frederick Taylor, the “father” of time management, a group of researchers sought to answer how the eight billion members of our species spend a mythical 24-hour day. It may not have quantitative meaning, but the qualitative findings should give us pause to reflect.
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay


Frederick Taylor was the first to, in a scientific manner, improve work efficiency. His primary tool was a stopwatch that counted the seconds of each part of a manufacturing process. With this data, he found ways to improve the work environment and the motions of the workers to shave seconds off of each step and, as a result, make production faster. So, as a note, the data collected by these researchers speak not only to how we spend our day but how we have made some of our labors very efficient

“…we assemble a complete estimate of what humans are doing, averaged over time and across the entire population, to provide an aggregated high-level view that we refer to as the global human day.”

To arrive at their calculations, the researcher used available data on our economic and social activities from over 140 countries from 2000 to 2019. Some data was weighted to reflect varying demographics. This is a qualitative study; no p-values need be sought. They also made use of a standardized description of human activities. One picture will save us several hundred words.

No surprise, sleeping, a biological need, leads the list. Why so long? Remember, this considers all of us, including the little tykes who sleep for 10 or 11 hours and the oldsters getting in 6 or 7. For the remaining 15 or so hours, we spend on three large categories, the first involving direct human outcomes, the second, external outcomes, and the third, organizational activities. Let’s break them down.

Direct Human Outcomes

These activities take up another 9+ in our global day, and that too should not be surprising because these activities are for us directly. They include:

  • Somatic maintenance: You have to love the term; it refers to taking care of bodies and health. 1.1 hours on hygiene and grooming, 0.3 hours on childcare, and 0.2 hours on health care.
  • Deliberate neural restructuring: What a great term; it refers to education and research 1.1 hours and religious practice 0.2 hours.
  • Experience-oriented activity: includes 1.6 hours on eating, 0.4 hours on active recreation and wait for it, 4.6 hours on passive and social interactions.

These are our first of many possible insights. We spend 4-fold more time eating than in active recreation; perhaps a small shift, save moving 10 minutes away from eating into active recreation, might help our bulging waistlines. And if giving up those minutes of eating is not your choice, then certainly there are some minutes from passive interactions – watching screens – that could be moved to active recreation.

External Outcomes

These are the activities in which we change our environment. The clearcut winner in this category is another one of those biological functions that, like sleep, take precedence. In this case, we are discussing food provision. For those following along, the 96 minutes we spend eating is just a few minutes shy, 8 to be exact, from the time we spend growing, collecting, and preparing food (0.8 hours and 0.9 hours, respectively). Food processing, the great Satan, which is also responsible for the food supply chain being very resilient, takes up 6 minutes of the global day.

  • Maintenance of surroundings: We spend part of our day “grooming” our habitat, roughly 48 minutes. Contrast that with the 66 minutes we spend grooming ourselves. It's a tough call here, but in channeling my wife, I think one or two fewer minutes of showering allocated to “straightening up” would be appreciated. We spend one minute a day on waste management. For those seeking a solution to the environmental degradation produced by our waste, perhaps we could spare another minute or two reusing rather than recycling.
  • Creation: With our abilities and tools, we make a lot of stuff. Twenty-four minutes a day are spent globally making artifacts, but we know it as stuff, likely delivered by Amazon. We spend 12 minutes a day building, presumably places to hold our stuff, ourselves, and our work. We spend 3 minutes a day on infrastructure.
  • Extraction: Making stuff and running our infrastructure takes materials, 4.2 minutes a day, and energy, 2.8 minutes a day. That energy includes fossil fuels and coal, and those materials are everything on the planet’s surface and top layers. This is perhaps a good moment to remind the reader that these times reflect labor and that we have become very efficient and time-saving in the extraction of materials from Earth so that we can alter its appearance to suit our needs and to make stuff to “improve” our lives.

Organizational Outcomes

This refers to moving ourselves and stuff around, transportation, and how we allocate our time and access. We spend much less time moving stuff, 18 minutes than we do moving ourselves, 54 minutes. Here is another tradeoff opportunity: we could add 2 minutes a day to infrastructure building and perhaps find our human transportation times drop by the same or more – think of it as a more permanent form of remote work. It is far harder to reduce the time of moving stuff as many materials are found in one area but must be distributed over far larger areas, even globally.

The largest organization category is allocating our time and what the researchers term access to human rights – government, law, and trade. We give 54 minutes to those activities, but I think the number reflects inefficiencies rather than its value to us – Do the terms divided government and gridlock ring bells?

Our economic activity, which includes the work we are paid for as well as the “production of nonmarket goods within households,” takes up 16% of our waking hours – a global 41-hour work week.

Money matters

The researchers took their time estimates and correlated them with country's GDP, gross domestic product, a measure of wealth.

Nearly 12-fold more, an hour compared to five minutes, is spent growing and collecting food in low-income countries – wealth brings “labor-saving” devices. The time those wealthy countries save on food production is applied to a nearly 1.5-hour increase in experience-oriented activities, active recreation, and passive and social interactions. Wealthy countries spend more time allocating their wealth and maintaining and building the infrastructure that supports their societies.

In comparison, GDP does not affect the time necessary to prepare food, eat meals, care for our personal hygiene, and transport ourselves around. The lack of a correlation between human transportation and GDP wealth is another of those insightful moments. Simply applying technology to enhance the speed of transportation may not be sufficient. Human transit and the built environment co-evolve; one need look no further than New York‘s subway system to see the co-evolution at work. Many advances in human transportation times result from existing co-evolved systems, such as the railroads of Europe, or were created after the built environment was leveled during a war.

One of the great values of learning about economics is that it provides a new lens to view our activities – not necessarily a better or best lens, but a different one. Diversity is the current mantra; diversity of view provided by diversity of lenses is part of that process.

Source: The global human day PNAS Sustainability Science DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2219564120

Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA

Director of Medicine

Dr. Charles Dinerstein, M.D., MBA, FACS is Director of Medicine at the American Council on Science and Health. He has over 25 years of experience as a vascular surgeon.

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