At 3:30 p.m., America's master clock-watcher, John P. Robinson, glances at the time and notes he is supposed to be at a 3 o'clock meeting. This is mentioned not as a preamble to rushing out, but more as a point of information. No problem, the meeting could wait, or be postponed, or flex in some way.
Mr. Robinson, who is to American time what Masters & Johnson are to American sex, has found during 30 years of observation a certain fluid quality to time. As director of the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, he has seen the minutes flow: away from work toward leisure, and most of that leisure toward television, the colossal time sponge.
Although in increasingly extensive surveys done by the project every 10 years since 1965, Americans say they have more free time, yet feel ever more rushed. In the universe of time, as in most everywhere else, a gap often lies between perception and reality, Mr. Robinson finds.
It might seem that having a dishwasher would reduce the time spent washing dishes, but Mr. Robinson's studies do not show this. Neither does the microwave oven appear to have significantly reduced the amount of time spent preparing meals. The car gets us where we're going faster, but we have a tendency to move farther from work, thereby spending more time commuting. Wash-and-wear clothing is easier to launder, but we wash clothes more often than we used to, thus the total time spent on the chore has not changed so much.
All of which brings to mind one of Mr. Robinson's favorite maxims, Parkinson's Law, which holds that work expands or contracts to fill the time available.
"There is an elasticity to time," says Mr. Robinson, who demonstrates the point by not showing up for an 11 a.m. appointment with a reporter at his office in College Park. Samuel Beckett would have enjoyed the scene: waiting outside the office of America's time guru, who never appears.
Hours later, Mr. Robinson telephones to apologize. "I thought it was noon," he says.
At the appointed time for the rescheduled interview the door is ajar, so that one sees the sociology professor seated amid stacks of paper, boxes of paper, a litter of books.
"I've tried to get more organized, but it's a struggle," he says. He quickly rises from his chair, hustles from the office and shuts the door, moving to a conference room down the hall.
He is slim, gray and attired in a fashion suggesting little time spent shopping. Mr. Robinson says his favorite leisure activity is listening to live music, mostly jazz and classical.
Commuting is a waste
He lives in College Park, about two miles from campus, because he considers commuting "a total waste" of time. He declines to lecture about the evils of TV-watching, but says he curbs himself to 10 or 12 hours a week: Letterman, Leno, news shows and some public television.
There is too much else to do. Mr. Robinson teaches two courses a week, is working on his 10th book, is a contributing editor of American Demographics magazine and, of course, oversees the Americans' Use of Time Project, which he started at the University of Michigan and brought with him to Maryland in 1980.
Asked to explain this fascination with time, Mr. Robinson says: "Because it was there."
Or not there. While studying for his doctorate in mathematical social psychology from the University of Michigan in the early 1960s, he noticed there was no current statistical information on the use of time. In the 1920s, some studies were done on housework and leisure time, but that was all.
"It was just something that had been overlooked. . . . My main background is as a statistician. I was interested in the intersection of mathematics, statistics and behavior."
And in what time use says about us as a culture. As Mr. Robinson observes, there's always been plenty of information on how we spend money, not so much on how we spend time, an even more limited resource.
Diane Crispell, executive editor of American Demographics, says Robinson is still the only source of information on how Americans use their time 24 hours a day. A group affiliated with Gallup surveys leisure time, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks work time.
"The value of it," says Ms. Crispell, "is the trend, how people are distributing their days. You can find out what's important to people."
Television, by that measure, is very important. More important than anything Americans do for which they are not paid.
"The question that people were asking in the 1960s was, 'What would people do if we had more free time?' " says Mr. Robinson. "It happened. They spent more time watching television."
In the 1965 time survey, 1,200 Americans reported an average of 34.5 hours a week of free time and watching television 10.5 hours a week. The 1975 survey of 2,500 people found about four more hours of free time and almost five more hours of television watching. In the most recent study of 5,000 people in 1985, free time was up to 40 hours, but television time was about the same: 15.1 hours a week.
A new survey
The new survey of 10,000 Americans -- expected to be released next year -- is being conducted now at the University of Maryland with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is interested in the amount of time people spend indoors and the implications for indoor air quality.
Some 30 interviewers working in shifts are sitting at computer terminals calling people at random around the country to compile a daily diary for each subject. The interviewers ask about the subject's previous day hour by hour: waking, dressing, showering, working, caring for children, reading, playing sports, eating, going out, sleeping, and, of course, watching television.
And what about sex?
"Try another survey," says Mr. Robinson.
The interviewers don't press this subject, although occasionally
people volunteer information.
"In the 1975 survey, at midnight, somebody was at an orgy," says Mr. Robinson. Another subject reported time spent
"sleeping with a friend."
If the recent University of Chicago sex survey is right, Mr. Robinson notes, "we didn't miss much" by not gathering more information about American sexual behavior. The Chicago study, which portrayed a nation of sexual conservatives, seems to belie the results of an attitude survey done in connection with the 1985 time study, in which subjects were asked to rank their favorite activities on a scale of 1 to 10.
One minute for sex
Sex topped the list at 9.3, although subjects reported spending an average of one minute, that's right, 60 seconds, per day participating in it. Sex topped "play sports" at 9.2, and fishing, 9.1. "Hugging and kissing" fell below all these at 8.8.
In the same scale, subjects rated television 7.8, the same as reading the newspaper, although the amounts of time devoted to each of these were hardly comparable. Subjects reported spending an average of 2 hours, 17 minutes watching television and 11 minutes reading the newspaper.
Eleven minutes. About a third of an episode of Mad About You. In reader surveys done by newspapers, people usually say they don't have much time for the newspaper. Too busy, too stressed.
Mr. Robinson wonders. With all this leisure time, why do people JTC feel more rushed?
"I'm interested in doing observation of people who say they're stressed," says Mr. Robinson. "I'm interested in the pace of life, how much is on their plate, to see if I could get observational corroboration for what I'm picking up in the diaries."
He says he's been "planning this for 30 years." If only he could find the time.