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American Time Use Survey

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

On this Page:

General Information
Collection of ATUS Data
ATUS Data Availability
ATUS Measurement and Concepts
Other Time-Use Surveys

I. General Information

What is a time-use survey?

Time-use surveys measure the amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as work, childcare, housework, watching television, volunteering, and socializing.

When did the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) begin?

Data collection began in January 2003, and the first estimates were published on September 14, 2004.

Who conducts the ATUS?

ATUS is sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau collects and processes the data.

Who is asked to respond to the ATUS?

Households that have completed their final (8th) month of the Current Population Survey are eligible for the ATUS. From this eligible group, households are selected that represent a range of demographic characteristics. Then, one person age 15 or over is randomly chosen from the household to answer questions about his or her time use. This person is interviewed for the ATUS 2-5 months after the household's final CPS interview.

I was asked to participate in the ATUS. Where can I find more information about participating in the survey?

The ATUS Respondent's Web site provides additional information for those selected to participate in the ATUS.

Who uses the information from the ATUS?

Researchers, journalists, educators, sociologists, economists, government lawmakers, lawyers, and individuals are all users of time-use information. The survey produces nationally-representative estimates of the U.S. population's time use by labor force status, demographic characteristics, and other factors. Analysts are able to compare Americans' time use with similar data from many other countries that have time-use surveys. To find out more about how time-use data can be used, go to the ATUS Overview.

How often are ATUS microdata published?

BLS publishes a news release of time-use estimates annually. BLS periodically publishes news releases with time-use estimates for certain populations or topics, such as married parents and unpaid eldercare. All of the news releases are available on the ATUS News Releases Web page. In addition, ATUS microdata files are published annually and are available for free on the ATUS Datafiles page.

May I use ATUS data to develop my own tabulations?

Yes, public use microdata files and documentation are available for free from the ATUS website. Links to the microdata are available on the ATUS Datafiles page. Information about working with the ATUS data files is available on the How to Use ATUS Microdata Files page.

Which variables should I use when developing my own tabulations?

Many variables appear on the ATUS public use microdata files. The ATUS data dictionaries provide information about the variables that appear on the microdata files and explain how the files can be linked. For a list of variables that are frequently used to tabulate the ATUS microdata, see the ATUS documentation Frequently Used Variables (PDF).

II. Collection of ATUS Data

How are the data collected?

ATUS data are collected via telephone interviews. Census Bureau interviewers use Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing, a system that automatically advances interviewers to the next question based on a respondent's answers to previous questions. Respondents receive an advance letter and pamphlet explaining the purpose of the ATUS and notifying them of the day they will be called. The main part of the ATUS interview is the 24-hour time diary. This part of the interview is used to collect a detailed account of the respondent's activities, starting at 4 a.m. the previous day and ending at 4 a.m. on the interview day. For each activity reported, the interviewer asks how long the activity lasted. For most activities, the interviewer also asks who was in the room or accompanied the respondent during the activity and where the activity took place.

How many times are respondents interviewed?

Respondents are interviewed one time about how they spent their time on one day.

Are households that do not have a telephone and those with unlisted telephone numbers eligible to participate in ATUS?

Households without telephones and those that did not provide a telephone number in the CPS can be selected for the ATUS sample. In a letter about the survey, Census asks selected individuals in these households to call a toll-free number to complete the interview.

How are daily activities classified into time-use categories?

After the interview is complete, coders assign a 6-digit code from the ATUS activity classification system to each activity. The classification system contains 17 major time-use categories, each containing two additional levels of detail. These 17 coding categories are recombined into more relevant analytical categories for publication. To find out more about the ATUS coding categories, see the ATUS Coding Lexicons.

What is an ATUS module?

The ATUS periodically adds special, topical questions. These questions are added to the end of the ATUS interview, in a 5-minute interval of survey time referred to as a module. 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. Please see the ATUS Module page for more information.

III. ATUS Data Availability

What kinds of ATUS time-use estimates are available?

Time-use estimates for various activities and selected demographic and labor force characteristics are available on the ATUS Web site under the headings News Releases, ATUS Database, Charts and Tables. In addition, a limited number of unpublished tables are available from the ATUS staff. These tables include time-use estimates by age, race, ethnicity, employment status, educational attainment, marital status, the presence and age of household children, and other detail. For more information about these unpublished tables, contact ATUS staff.

Are time-series data available?

The ATUS Database of time-series data is available from LABSTAT, the Bureau of Labor Statistics public database. The ATUS time series correspond to the annual and quarterly estimates presented in the annual news release and estimates appearing on tables A-1 and A-2. Time-series data by age, employment, and parental status are also available. Guidance for extracting time-series data is available on the ATUS LABSTAT tips page.

Do ATUS staff members produce time-use estimates upon request?

ATUS staff members are unable to produce tabulations upon special request.

Can I obtain ATUS estimates by geographic location?

Unpublished tables showing time-use estimates for states, Census regions (Midwest, Northeast, South, and West), and Census divisions (Mountain, New England, Pacific, etc.) are available by contacting ATUS staff. This map shows the Census regions and divisions. Estimates on these tables are 5-year averages.

What geographic information can researchers obtain from the public use microdata files?

Variables identifying the state in which survey respondents resided at the time of the interview, their Census region, Census division (beginning in 2014), and metropolitan status appear on the ATUS-CPS data file. While the county and core-based statistical area codes are also available from the ATUS-CPS files, these codes are frequently suppressed to maintain the confidentiality of CPS survey respondents. The CPS suppresses geographic identifiers if the defined area has a population less than 100,000; in some cases, they'll also suppress geographic areas with more than 100,000 residents, if a suppressed complementary geographic area could be identified. Researchers should be careful using smaller geographic areas in their work, as the ATUS sample sizes often do not support analysis at these levels. Most researchers who use the detailed geographic codes are generally linking the ATUS to another data source, such as weather data. Please see the ATUS-CPS data dictionary for more information about the variables that appear on the ATUS-CPS file. For information about working with the ATUS-CPS file and linking it to the other ATUS data sets, please read the introduction to the ATUS-CPS data dictionary and also see the How to Use ATUS Microdata Files page.

Does the ATUS have data on simultaneous activities?

The only simultaneous activity ATUS regularly collects is secondary childcare. Secondary childcare is care for children under age 13 that is done while doing something else as a primary activity. This includes times when respondents were loosely supervising a child while doing something else, such as "keeping an eye on a child while cooking dinner"; it also includes times when respondents were more actively engaged with a child while doing something else, such as when respondents were "reading to a child while traveling" or "changing a child's diaper while talking on the phone." The ATUS does not regularly collect information about any other simultaneous activities. If a respondent reports doing more than one activity at a given time, the interviewer first asks her if she can separate the activities into different time intervals. If she is unable to do this, the interviewer asks her which activity was her main activity and records the response. For example, if a respondent reports listening to music while reading the news for pleasure, the interviewer will ask her if she can separate the two activities into two different time intervals. If she cannot separate these activities, the interviewer will only collect the activity she reports as the main activity. Travel activities are an exception to this rule; if a respondent reports traveling along with another activity (e.g., "I was listening to the radio while driving to work"), the interviewer always records traveling.

From 2006-08 and 2014-16, questions about secondary eating and drinking were added to the ATUS as part of a special Eating & Health Module sponsored by the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. More information on this module is available on the Eating and Health Module page.

Can I obtain general health data from the ATUS?

Questions about general health were included in the 2006-08 Eating and Health Module; the 2011 Leave Module (only for employed wage and salary workers); the 2010, 2012, and 2013 Well-being Modules; and the 2014-16 Eating and Health Module. More information about the modules, including the questionnaires, is available on each module's data files page:

Does the ATUS capture time spent using a computer?

The ATUS does not have good data on computer use because of the way the ATUS collects activity information. Interviewers are trained to ask for more information when someone says he was "on the computer" or "using a computer." The interviewer's goal (and that of the ATUS) is to find out how the computer was being used—what activity was the respondent doing on the computer (playing games, doing homework, corresponding with friends, grocery shopping, banking, researching something for personal interest, etc.)? An activity code is then assigned based on how the computer was used. For example, if someone used a computer to pay bills, this would be captured in the activity category Household Activities/Household Management/Financial Management (020901). The category "computer use for leisure (excluding games)" includes computer use, but it is not comprehensive.

Does the ATUS have information about how much time people spend online?

The American Time Use Survey (ATUS) is not a good source of information about how much time people spend online. Activities are coded based on how survey respondents were using the Internet, not whether they were using this tool. For example, if a respondent reports "ordering groceries online," this activity would be assigned the activity code for "grocery shopping." If a respondent reports "updating my blog," the activity would be coded as "writing for personal interest." The category "computer use for leisure (excluding games)" includes some Internet use, but it is not comprehensive and it also includes non-Internet-based activities.

What data does the ATUS collect about working at home?

The ATUS provides measures about work at home that are derived from data collected in the diary section of the ATUS interview. In the diary, individuals report what they were doing over a 24-hour period and where they were for most activities. ATUS estimates about work at home are calculated from the times individuals reported working while at home. Work done at home includes a mix of work performed on days people were scheduled to work and on days people were not scheduled to work. Reported work times may have been as short as one minute spent checking a work email account to more than a 12-hour work shift.

The ATUS does not include any questions specifically about work schedules or formal arrangements to work from home, and so it is impossible to know whether a survey respondent who reported working from home was doing so on a scheduled work day, whether it was work done in addition to the respondent's usual work hours, or whether the respondent regularly or usually works from home.

Does the ATUS have data available on shift work?

The ATUS does not collect information on formal work arrangements or work schedules, so it is impossible to know whether someone usually works a particular shift. The ATUS does collect information about the timing of work in the diary portion of the interview, where survey respondents report how they spent their time during a 24-hour period. These data can be used to calculate the percentage of employed individuals working at a particular time of day or to identify when people employed in a particular occupation typically work.

IV. ATUS Measurement and Concepts

How do estimates of the time a population spent doing an activity differ from estimates of the time participants did an activity?

Estimates for a particular population (e.g., men or women) show the average time individuals in the population spent doing an activity, whether or not they engaged in the activity on a given day. Estimates for participants show the average time per day people who did the activity spent doing it. For example, consider the time people spend doing laundry. The population measure for time spent doing laundry on an average day is an average for all people in the population and all days in the week, whether or not an individual spent time doing laundry on a given day, whereas the participant measure provides the average duration people who did laundry on a given day spent doing this activity. The population measure is much lower than the participant measure, because some people never do laundry and those who do typically do not do laundry every day.

Why does my experience differ from the published time-use estimates?

Several factors affect how people spend their time. These include one's age; gender; whether one is employed for pay, parenting young children, or enrolled in school; the day of the week; and other characteristics. Many published ATUS estimates are for all persons age 15 and over and are averages of all seven days of the week. Because these estimates include a wide variety of people, of different ages and at different life stages, it can be difficult to relate to averages for the population. When examining ATUS time-use estimates, it is critical to understand the population and days represented by the estimate. Looking at time-use statistics for a specific group—such as mothers who are employed full time with a household child under the age of 6 on weekdays—often provides a more useful and relatable context.

Who is counted as employed, unemployed, and not employed?

The terms employed, unemployed, and not employed are used to classify people in different employment situations.

Employed persons consist of:

  • All persons who did any work for pay or profit during the survey reference week (in ATUS, the reference week is the 7 days prior to the interview).
  • All persons who, in the 7 days prior to the interview, were temporarily absent from their regular jobs or own businesses, whether they were paid or not.
  • All persons who usually perform at least 15 hours per week of unpaid work in a family-owned enterprise operated by someone in their household.

Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work. Workers expecting to be recalled from layoff are counted as unemployed, whether or not they have engaged in a specific jobseeking activity.

Persons who are not employed do not meet the conditions for employment. People who are not employed include the unemployed, as well as individuals who do not have a job and are not seeking one. Many individuals who are not employed are retirees, students, or individuals caring for children or other family members.

How does the ATUS measure sleep times?

Sleep estimates from the ATUS refer to all sleeping activities done over a 24-hour period, including times people reported they were sleeping and times they reported sleeplessness. This includes activities such as sleeping, falling asleep, dozing off, napping, getting up, waking up, dreaming, cat napping, getting some shut-eye, and dozing. It also includes times people reported sleeplessness, such as insomnia, tossing and turning, lying awake, and counting sheep.

Research has shown that the type of question a survey uses to measure the duration of sleep can have a significant effect on the estimates produced. The ATUS uses a time diary to collect information about how much time people spent in all activities, including sleep, on the previous day. Other sources for sleep estimates use stylized questions that ask specifically about the amount of sleep people "usually" get. BLS staff have been studying the differences between stylized and diary sleep measures, and conclude there are several factors that may explain the differences. However, there is likely measurement error in both diary and stylized estimates. Research suggests that diary questions tend to yield higher estimates while stylized questions tend to yield lower estimates. The actual duration of sleep likely falls somewhere in between.

Research by BLS staff on sleep measures is available online: "Contrasting Stylized Questions of Sleep with Diary Measures from the American Time Use Survey."

V. Eldercare

What is eldercare?

Eldercare is providing unpaid care or assistance to an individual who needed help because of a condition related to aging. This care can be provided in the recipient's home, the provider's home, or a care facility, such as in a nursing home. Eldercare can involve a range of care activities, such as assisting with grooming and feeding, preparing meals, arranging medical care, and providing transportation. Eldercare can also involve providing companionship or being available to assist when help is needed, and thus can be associated with nearly any activity. Eldercare estimates are derived by summing the durations of activities during which respondents provided care or assistance for an adult who needed help because of a condition related to aging.

What is a condition related to aging?

A condition related to aging is an ongoing ailment or physical or emotional limitation that typically affects older people, such as becoming more frail; having difficulty seeing, hearing, or physically moving; becoming more forgetful; tiring more quickly; or specific medical ailments that are more common among older adults. It also refers to existing conditions that become progressively worse as one ages.

What is an eldercare provider?

An eldercare provider is someone who provided eldercare more than one time in the 3 to 4 months prior to the interview day. This time frame varies slightly by respondent because the question asks about care provided between the first day of a given reference month and the interview day.

Why does the BLS collect data on eldercare? Why now and not earlier?

Prior to 2011, the ATUS did not collect data on time spent providing eldercare. Recognizing the need for quality eldercare data, BLS had made many efforts over the years to develop questions to collect this information. In 2005, BLS hosted a subject matter expert panel to refine the concept of eldercare, to determine the most appropriate method for collecting the data within the ATUS design, and to obtain feedback on the kinds of measures that would best inform the eldercare research and policy communities. The development process over the years also included a review of existing eldercare measures, focus groups with caregivers, reviews of draft questionnaires by subject matter experts and survey methods experts, internal testing and refinement of the questions, and cognitive testing of the questions.

Questions on eldercare were introduced to the ATUS in January 2011. The ATUS eldercare questions were designed specifically to identify eldercare providers and to measure the time they spent providing eldercare. Additional information, such as the relationship between the care provider and care recipient, the age of the care recipient, and the types of care activities that care providers do also are collected. The eldercare questions replaced the questions on trips away from home.

VI. Other Time-Use Surveys

Are time-use data collected in other countries?

Time-use data have been collected in over one hundred countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Korea, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. The ATUS coding system was designed to ensure that time-use information in the United States could be compared, at broad levels, with information from other countries. To learn more about surveys in other countries, go to Related Links.

Do any other groups collect time-use information in the United States?

The Universities of Michigan and Maryland have conducted time-use surveys periodically since 1965. The ATUS is the first federally-administered, continuous survey on time use in the United States.

Are estimates of Americans' time use available for years prior to 2003?

Several organizations conducted time-use surveys in the United States before the ATUS began in 2003. Because of differences in methodology between these studies and ATUS, estimates produced using these studies are not directly comparable to ATUS estimates. Early efforts in the United States included USDA-sponsored studies during the 1920s and early 1930s; these studies collected time diaries from farm housewives. The University of Michigan conducted time-use studies in 1965, 1975-76, 1981, and 1985. The 1965 study's sample was intentionally drawn from a population of urban, mostly employed individuals. The University of Maryland conducted time-use studies in 1992-94, 1998, and 2001. ATUS staff can provide a list of documents containing historical time-use estimates upon request.

How can I obtain microdata from previous U.S. time-use surveys to do my own calculations?

The American Heritage Time Use Study (AHTUS) contains historical time-use data from studies done in the United States since 1965. Additionally, the Multinational Time Use Study (MTUS) is a collection of time diary data from a number of countries. Both the AHTUS and the MTUS are harmonized for comparability over time and are available through the IPUMS system.


Last Modified Date: August 28, 2018