So, What Did Eight Billion of Us Get Up To Today?

We all devote different amounts of time to different activities. But if we could pin down the average human day, what would that look like?


What does your daily routine look like?

There are some activities that are nearly universal — we wake up, eat breakfast, get ready for the day’s tasks — but from there a labyrinthian network of options becomes available. Do you drive, bike, or walk? Do you go to school or work? Do you work in an office, a construction site, a movie set, or a mine?

The diverse nature of our daily lives is certainly crucial for allowing all forms of human production, creativity, and activity to take place. However, what does the global human day look like? How many hours, on average, do we spend on different types of activities? That is the question that a new study by a team of researchers, including from McGill University, asks.

The study

As the researchers explain, gaining an understanding of how humans’ time use is structured globally will equip us to tackle trends and challenges such as global development and technological advancement. While some economic studies have examined employment activities and some social scientists have analyzed non-economic human activity, rarely have these two been combined — much less on a global scale.

For their study, the researchers gathered a large quantity of data that had previously been collected by government agencies, researchers, and international organizations from over 140 countries. To control for the drastic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily schedules, the researchers only included data from 2000 to 2019.

Categorizing human activity

But how were activities categorized? The researchers used the Motivating-Outcome-Oriented Generalized Activity Lexicon (MOOGAL), which consists of eight categories of activities, which are then subdivided into 24 subcategories. The eight categories are food provision, nonfood provision, technosphere modification, maintenance of surroundings, somatic maintenance, deliberate neural restructuring, experience oriented, and organization.

For example, the food provision category covered all activities that involved “providing food to humans, including agriculture and fishing, the processing of food items, cooking, serving, and cleanup.” This was then subdivided into three subcategories: food growth & collection (fishing, crop and animal production, sowing), food processing (milling, husking, beverage manufacturing), and food preparation (cooking, washing dishes, baking). Using this nuanced MOOGAL system, the researchers were able to categorize all human activity!

The results

Following analysis of all available data and categorization using MOOGAL, the team found that, averaged across all humans, sleep and rest were unsurprisingly the most time-consuming activity, taking up 9.1 hours of the “global human day”. Of the remaining waking hours, 9.4 hours are dedicated to direct human outcomes, meaning activities that are driven by the immediate effect they have on us. This included things like hygiene, childcare, health care, education, eating, and recreation.

Activities motivated by external outcomes, including food production, material extraction, and construction, took up 3.4 hours. Finally, activities motivated by organizational outcomes, such as trade, banking, finance, public administration, retail, and shipping, took up 2.1 hours.

Through an economic lens, activities that encompassed “work” took up 2.6 hours of the global human day, with the largest subcategory within this trend being agriculture. However, this was not true across the globe. Overall, time spent growing and collecting food was relatively high in low-income countries — approximately one hour — whereas in high-income countries this activity accounted for less than five minutes of daily activities. Other activities, such as food preparation and hygiene, were not impacted by GDP per capita, suggesting they could be more universal.

To demonstrate the importance of this work, the researchers conclude: “time, it has been said, is the coin of life — and in a globally connected society, it is essential to have a thorough global understanding of how that coin is spent.”

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Borna Atrchian is an MA student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Having previously completed a Behavioural Neuroscience degree, he is passionate about issues where politics and power intersect with psychology and human behaviour. He is interested in understanding the conditions that create distrust of the scientific community, as well as finding the most effective ways to rebuild this trust.