Television, Time Use, Lent, and the Divine Office

by Jack Rakosky

During high school I gave up television for Lent (except for Bishop Sheen). That began a lifetime of low television viewing. In comparison to the average American male, if I had completely given up television between college and retirement I would have gained 4.5 years of waking time to do things other than watch television. That is the equivalent of more than six weeks of vacation per year.

Time Diaries

Research on how people spend time is interesting, complex and controversial. Our beliefs about how we spend time are not very accurate. Time diaries (recording what one does for a 24 hour day) give very different results from survey questions asking how many hours per week people work, watch television, etc. Similar to higher estimates for church attendance in surveys, people tend to say what they usually do (e.g. weekly) rather than what they actually do (e.g. two or three times a month).

Summary of time trends from 35 diary studies in 20 developed countries from 1961-1990 (based on 120,000 persons aged 20-59 from Gershuny book, below)

With rare exceptions, this data shows highly consistent results true of all the surveyed nations across time and within nations across successive surveys.

Since sleep is a near constant across time and nations, the waking day can be divided into paid work, unpaid work (e.g. housework, child care, shopping) and leisure (e.g. religion, meetings, events, visiting, sports, hobbies, communication, television, reading, listening).

Both paid and unpaid work declined over time; therefore leisure time increased.

For the whole period, men did more paid work than women and women did more unpaid work than men. However men and women converged over the period in all countries! Women increased their paid work while men decreased their paid work. Women decreased their unpaid work, especially house work. Men increased their unpaid work, mostly by doing some housework.

Why then do we hear so much about a time crunch? Both paid work and housework declined, while leisure time increased.

In 1960, well educated people (both men and women) had more leisure than less educated people. This reversed by 1990. Less educated people now have more leisure than well educated persons. (No, it is not simply because the less educated are more likely to be unemployed.) Well educated people experience the time crunch, especially those in dual income families with children. Status and prestige have become correlated with being busy rather than having leisure.

Summary of US diary studies: Total leisure hours from 1965 to 1995, persons aged 18-64 (based upon Robinson and Godbey, below)

For women, leisure time rose by 4.7 hours from 34.0 hours per week in 1965 to 38.7 hours per week in 1995. For men, leisure time rose by 7.9 hours from 35.7 to 43.6 hours per week during the same time period. Much leisure time was channeled into television viewing. TV time rose by 5.7 hours from 9.3 hours per week to 15.0 hours per week for women; it rose by 5.4 hours from 11.9 to 17.3 hours for men.

Increased television time not only absorbed time freed up from paid and unpaid work it reduced the number of hours spent socializing, reading and listening to stereo. Hobbies, fitness and sport time did increase, but not nearly as much as television. Religion time stayed constant. Less people attending church may have been offset by some people going to church more often.

Why has television time taken over such a large portion of leisure time?

TV is inexpensive and easily available in comparison to alternatives. Increased free time has become available in small amounts spread over the week rather than increased weeks of vacation, or less work days per week. When people go on vacation they don’t watch much television. People report television is less satisfying than alternatives such as socializing, hobbies, sports, etc. However these more satisfying alternatives generally need larger chunks of time and more advanced planning. When asked what they would do if they needed more time, people say they would give up television.

If utilization of smaller episodes of time encourages television use, we should not despair at finding better uses for those small chunks. There is a great amount of evidence that distributed time is more effective than massed time, e.g. a half hour of study four times a week is better than a two hour study period. Evidence from at least one area, academic faculty, shows skill in use of small episodes resulted in better teaching, more publications, etc. See the book by Boice below.

Lent: fasting from television, discerning and converting time use

Fasting from television, i.e. reducing our consumption of television, presents itself as a Lenten possibility. Gershuny estimates that in 1780 about 37% of a waking day in England was food related, e.g. production, processing, and consumption. Data from 1980 indicated that total food related time was down to 15%. Reduced food consumption produced important social and economic benefits in societies when food related activities consumed so much time. Reduced television consumption could give analogous benefits in contemporary society.

Since we have inaccurate perceptions of our time usage, Lent would be a good time to keep a time diary. Besides discerning and converting uses of time, one might develop skills in the use of small time episodes for a particular purpose. Boice gives a general model and three applications in academia (writing, class preparation, and faculty socializing); its general principles can be adapted to other settings.

Almsgiving and prayer have traditionally accompanied fasting. Both can be alternative uses of television time. Spending time with other people is probably the best form of almsgiving, especially since time with people outside the home has suffered from television. Prayer that can be done flexibility in small amounts of time without advanced planning may be particularly useful as a substitute for television. might be a good place to start a Lenten television fast. With auditory and visual stimulation that make few demands and can be experienced as background, it is available on demand, and therefore can fill up 15 to 30 minute intervals of free time. Since one can hit the pause button, that 20 minutes could be distributed into smaller intervals of time if desirable. The early monks in Egypt would basket weave while someone read the psalms. There are many creative ways that this easily accessible form of the Divine Office could be integrated into one’s life.

Praying one of the Hours takes about two hours per week; praying Readings, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer takes about a hour a day, or seven hours a week. All these figures are well under the weekly use of television by most people. A weekly parish support group meeting could provide the opportunity for people to pray the Office together, share experiences, and provide a foundation for parish celebration. The support group might also share their experiences with time diaries and the conversion of time to better uses. Daily personal praying, weekly group praying, and occasional large group celebrations of the Divine Office would be similar to the very successful model employed by Little Rock Scripture Study.


Changing Times: Work and Leisure in Postindustrial Society (2003) by Jonathan Gershuny covers an immense amount of data on a very complex topic in a very creative and interesting manner combining economics and sociology. Gershuny makes the point that one person’s leisure and consumption provide another person’s work. Our choices about leisure and consumption on the personal and social policy levels shape our societies. Gershuny contrasts his approach to “liberal market” and “social democratic state” models of social and economic development.

For those who might want more information on American time diary research a good starting point is Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time (Second Edition, 2000) by John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey (with a Foreword by Robert Putnam). Chapter 22 of the updated Second Edition provides some good charts and graphs, and a quick overview for those who might want more detailed information.

Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (2000) by Robert Boice, provides simple rule based advice to young faculty members based on years of research and consulting that found that faculty who used small amounts of time were more successful teachers and writers. Sample rules include: wait mindfully (e.g. at set times); begin early before feeling ready, stop in timely fashion (e.g. early and often); and let others do some of the work.

Jack Rakosky has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current interests are spirituality and voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.


2 responses to “Television, Time Use, Lent, and the Divine Office”

  1. Scott Pluff Avatar
    Scott Pluff

    A fascinating look at sociological trends, thanks for sharing.

    In my various attempts to recruit choir members, especially for children’s choirs, I hear again and again that people just don’t have time.

    For professional working adults, the 40-hour work week has gone the way of the dodo. Driving for increased productivity and profits, companies expect fewer and fewer people to do ever more work. As a result, most people of working age fall into two categories: grossly overworked or unemployed.

    Children and teens are also over-committed. As the father of three young girls, I have seen the “drive to succeed” starting as early as pre-school. We have limited our girls’ extracurricular activities to one at a time (two if you count PSR as ‘extra’), while other parents ask if we aren’t worried that they aren’t “building their resume” to get into a good [Catholic high] school.

    These trends are certainly related to a drop in church attendance among people who desire to attend but are overwhelmed by demands on their time, both imposed and socially expected. Our society no longer expects one to attend Church on Sunday, while one is expected to run ragged on the treadmill of modern life.

  2. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky


    My basic retirement interest is voluntarism. Religiosity and education are the two primary predictors of voluntarism. My focus is primarily on the education factor, secondarily on the context of religiosity.

    The education motivation for voluntarism is becoming a real challenge. Not only are educated people overwhelmed when working, they tend not to retire when they could. However the motivation to keep on working is not entirely money related, most of it is continuing to use one’s talents. That gives voluntarism an opening.

    The TV angle to this post came as a side thought. Putnam years ago in Bowling Alone put the decline in social capital and many voluntary organizations to television. I began to wonder if any pastoral staff had ever tackled the television time issue when it came to stewardship of time and talent, and decided to put together the research and a few ideas of how it might be packaged in case anyone wanted to try.

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