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Handbook of Methods American Time Use Survey Data sources

American Time Use Survey: Data sources

The American Time Use Survey (ATUS) universe consists of the civilian noninstitutional population ages 15 and older and residing in occupied households in the United States. ATUS sample members are drawn from the population of households that participated in the Current Population Survey (CPS), a separate survey carried out for BLS by the U.S. Census Bureau. Two months after households complete their eighth CPS interview, they become eligible for selection into the ATUS sample. Because the ATUS uses the CPS as its sample frame, some information—such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, educational attainment, employment status, and household composition—has already been collected before the ATUS interview is conducted. Some of this information is updated in the ATUS interview. Respondents are asked to confirm that each member of the household still lives there; if a former household member has moved or passed away—or, alternatively, if someone new has been born or moved into the household—the information on household members is updated accordingly. Respondents also are asked to provide updates on any changes in employment for themselves and for their spouses or unmarried partners. ATUS respondents ages 15 to 49 are asked about school enrollment. Information on educational attainment, race, and ethnicity is not asked again in the ATUS, but their CPS values are used to generate estimates, and this information is included in the ATUS microdata files. A PDF of the ATUS questionnaire is available online at

All ATUS interviews are conducted over the phone, using Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI) software. For all parts of the interview except the collection of the time-use diary data, the interviewer reads scripted text on the CATI screen and enters the responses reported. For the time-use diary—the core component of the ATUS—the interviewer takes a conversational interviewing approach rather than asking scripted questions. The interviewer begins by asking, “At 4 a.m. yesterday, what were you doing?” and then continues to collect 24 hours of time-use activity data. Conversational interviewing is a flexible interviewing technique, intended to allow the respondent to report on his or her activities comfortably and accurately. This technique also allows the interviewer to use methods to guide respondents through memory lapses, to probe for the level of detail required to code activities, and to redirect respondents who are providing unnecessary information. As each activity is reported, the interviewer records the responses verbatim and, for most activities, also collects information about where the respondent was and who was with the respondent while he or she was engaged in the activity. Interviewers are trained to ensure that respondents report activities (and their durations) actually done on the previous (diary) day, not activities done on a “usual” day. One way they do so is by placing continual emphasis on the word “yesterday” throughout the interview.1 After the interview is completed, each activity reported is coded according to the activity lexicon so that it can be aggregated into the ATUS time-use estimates.

After completing the time-use diary, ATUS respondents are asked general questions on secondary childcare, eldercare, paid work, and income-generating activities, as well as on volunteering. The questions on secondary childcare ask whether there were any times during the diary day when the respondent had a child under the age of 13 in his or her care while the respondent was doing another primary activity. Similarly, the questions on eldercare ask whether any of the activities the respondent reported doing on his or her diary day were done as care activities for someone who needed help because of a condition related to aging. Responses to the questions about paid work, income-generating activities, and volunteering assist ATUS coders in accurately identifying and coding the activities. The questions on work ask whether any activities done on the diary day were performed for one’s job(s) or for some other purpose but still for pay; if so, they are classified as work or income-generating activities in the ATUS classification system. For example, babysitting and making crafts intended for sale would be identified as income-generating activities. Similarly, the questions on volunteering ask whether any activities done on the diary day involved volunteering for or through an organization; if so, they are classified as volunteer activities in the ATUS classification system.

In some years, an additional set of module questions is added at the end of the ATUS interview. Each module consists of a series of questions that take the respondent no more than 5 minutes to complete and that are fielded for a full year. Before a module is implemented, several requirements must be met: the survey matter must fall within the public interest, there must be a relevance to time use, and the questions must be tested for comprehension. Information on previous modules—including the questionnaires and microdata files—can be found at

All activities reported in the time-use diary are assigned a six-digit code in the ATUS Coding Lexicon. Originally based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics 1997 time-use survey lexicon,2 the ATUS Coding Lexicon uses a three-tiered system with 17 major, or first-tier, activity categories, each having two additional levels of detail. (See table 1.) An additional category is used to classify activities that cannot be coded. Codes are periodically evaluated and updated. (See the Concepts section for definitions for each major activity category.)

Table 1. Major activity categories in the ATUS
Activity number Activity description
01 Personal care
02 Household activities
03 Caring for and helping household members
04 Caring for and helping those who are not household members 
05 Work and work-related activities
06 Education
07 Consumer purchases
08 Professional and personal care services
09 Household services
10 Government services and civic obligations
11 Eating and drinking
12 Socializing, relaxing, and leisure
13 Sports, exercise, and recreation
14 Religious and spiritual activities
15 Volunteer activities
16 Telephone calls
18 Traveling
50 Data codes

Census Bureau coders assign a six-digit classification code to each diary activity. The first two digits represent the major activity category, the next two represent the second-tier level of detail, and the final two digits represent the third, most detailed, level of activity. For example, the ATUS code for making the bed is 020101. Making the bed is an example of a third-tier category, interior cleaning, which is part of the second-tier category housework, which falls under the major activity category household activities. The hierarchy of coding is as follows:

02 Household Activities

                01 Housework

                                01 Interior cleaning

                                02 Laundry

                                03 Sewing, repairing, and maintaining textiles

                                04 Storing interior household items, including food

                                99 Housework, not elsewhere classified

The final code in all second and third tiers is 99, which represents miscellaneous activities that are included in a given tier but that cannot be assigned separate four- or six-digit codes.

Each time-use diary is coded by two coders working independently, and any discrepancies are adjudicated by a third party. All coders are also ATUS interviewers. This dual role helps the interviewers during data collection, giving them a full understanding of the types of activities that are able to be coded and how much probing they may need to do if a respondent does not provide a suitable description of an activity. Interviewers are monitored to ensure that they are following ATUS interviewing protocol: probing when appropriate, building a rapport with the respondent, and so on. These data quality checks reduce total survey error.

For more information on data sources for the ATUS, see chapters 4 and 5 of the ATUS User’s Guide. Chapter 4 of the User’s Guide provides details about how ATUS data are collected, including information on advance materials sent to those in the sample, incentives offered to respondents, strategies for making telephone calls, and how the interviews are structured. Chapter 5 of the User’s Guide explains how ATUS data are coded. To learn more about the full ATUS classification system and definitions of activities—including examples—see the Coding Lexicons and additional resources available at


1 For more information on conversational interviewing, see Michael F. Schober and Frederick G. Conrad, “Does conversational interviewing reduce survey measurement error?” Public Opinion Quarterly 61, December 1997, pp. 576–602.

2 For more information on the development on the ATUS coding system, see Kristina J. Shelley, “Developing the American Time Use Survey activity classification system,” Monthly Labor Review, June 2005,

Last Modified Date: September 17, 2021