Collective Human Time: How Does it Measure Up to How You Use Your Time?

Each of us has 24 hours a day, every day, to use however we see fit. And, we all deploy those minutes and hours differently. We have different goals and how we use our time is a reflection of what is important to us as individuals. Multiply those choices on we use time by the 8 billion people across the world and you get a fascinating picture of the human species.

collective human time

How Much Money is There in the World and How Much Time?

We talk and think a lot about how much money we have. And, the corollary is time. You probably have a sense of how much you have of these resources, but what about the world?

How much money is there in the world?

This can be difficult to answer, but experts estimate that there is around the equivalent of $8 trillion U.S. in circulation with around $2 trillion of that being in the United States. But, that estimate does not include other kinds of assets beyond currency. The total value on planet Earth is probably in the quadrillions.

How much time is there in the world?

We have an estimated 8 billion people on planet Earth right now. Those people represent 192 billion hours every single day or more than 70 trillions hours a year.

How is Time Used on Planet Earth? A Look at the Global Human Day

Scientists from McGill University recently did an unprecedented analysis. They aggregated data on time use from 145 different countries.

The researchers assembled 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. 

The results may seem surprising.

5 Categories of Human Activity

Researchers categorized all human activity into 4 categories.

1. We spend 9.1 hours on sleep and bedrest

Across the globe and all humans, sleep accounts for 9.1 hours of a 24 hour day. As a species, this takes up most of our time.

This might seem like a lot, especially for those of us who wake endlessly through the night for various reasons. But, the difference is due to the inclusion of children in the estimate and also the time spent in bed without sleeping.

2. Activities that have direct human outcomes take up 9.4 hours

The largest amount of collective time is spent on activities that have a direct impact on human beings, activities like eating, grooming, playing, watching television, socializing, caring for children, education, and religion.

These types of activities take 9.4 hours a day and include:

  • 4.6 hours in passive leisure or social activities
  • 1.6 hours at meals
  • .4 hours in active recreation
  • 1.1 hours in hygiene and grooming
  • .3 hours in childcare
  • .2 in healthcare
  • 1.1 hours in schooling or doing research
  • .2 hours in religious practices

3. Activities that result in external outcomes take up only 3.4 hours

Only 3.4 hours are collectively spent on activities that result in external outcomes. These are things that change the physical world: all food provision (including farming, raising livestock, and manufacturing and cooking things we eat), mining, logging, oil and gas extraction, cleaning, construction, telecommunications, and manufacturing of physical goods.  

  • .9 hours in food preparation
  • .8 hours in food growth and collection
  • .1 hours in food processing
  • .8 hours maintenance of our inhabited environment
  • .01 hours in waste management
  • .7 hours in technosphere creation (construction, civil engineering, telecommunications and manufacturing of all physical goods)
  • .1 hours in nonfood provision (extraction of natural resources)

4. We spend 2.1 hours on activities with organizational outcomes

The smallest block of communal time is spent in organizational activities. These endeavors include: transportation, government, military, trade & commerce, real estate, and the financial industry.

  • .9 hours in human transportation
  • .9 hours in allocation (trade, commerce, government, finance, law, etc…)
  • .3 hours in material transportation

Fajzel, W., Galbraith, E. D., Charmes, J., Frie, E., Hatton, I., Le Mézo, P., Milo, R., Minor, K., Wan, X., Xia, V., & Xu, S. (2023). The global human day. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(25), e2219564120. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2219564120

Observations and Insights on Collective Time Use

In their report, the researchers had some interesting observations about our use of time. Here are some of their insights:

  • Surprisingly, time spent on activities like meals, daily travel, hygiene and grooming, and food preparation doesn’t change with the material wealth of a population.
  • However, the time spent growing and collecting food varied strongly with wealth, from over one hour in low-income countries to less than five minutes in high-income countries.
  • The decrease of approximately 1.2 hours in food growth and collection in rich countries is counterbalanced, perhaps unsurprisingly, by an increase in the time spent engaged in experience-oriented activities – entertainment – and on infrastructure, construction and maintenance activities.
  • Given how incredibly dependent we are on natural resources, globally the time spent directly extracting materials and energy from the Earth system is small, on the order of 5 min per average human day.
    • Because the global supply of energy and materials is currently provided with a small fraction of the total time (amounting to ≈ 3% of the global economic time), the time allocated to these activities could be altered to a relatively large degree without necessarily having a large impact on the time allocated to other activities. This assessment suggests that climate change solutions, such as shifting labor away from fossil fuel industries and into the construction of global renewable power infrastructure, are highly feasible in terms of the global time budget, in that there exists a clear physical scope for humans to reallocate time among the relevant activities without significantly disrupting the overall distribution of time at the population level.
  • Material wealth has a negligible effect on travel time at the population level. Faster cars and access to air travel doesn’t reduce the amount of time we spend getting from place to place.
  • The time directly dealing with waste is on the order of 1 min per day
    • It seems plausible that many waste problems, including the accumulation of ocean plastics and water contamination by toxins, could potentially be greatly alleviated through a relatively small reallocation of the total human time budget. 

Make the Most of Your Time and Money

As the research team behind this study on collective time use points out, how we spend time determines the impacts we have on our surroundings as well as how we experience life.

It is critically important that you make the most of your time and that probably involves thinking about how much time you spend making and allocating money.

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