Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Virtual Time Game

By Tim Olds

Men and women would spend their time differently if given less or more time each day.

What would you do if you had 5 minutes to live? I asked this question to the philosophy classes I taught some years ago. The answers of this group of aspiring sports scientists ranged from the mundane (say goodbye to my family and friends) to the predictable (have sex with my girlfriend) and the poignant (walk in my garden), from the aspirational (run a 2 km time trial) to the yeah-I’d-like-to-see-that (have sex with my girlfriend three times). Playing the “virtual time” game tells us a lot about our values and priorities, much in the same way as dreaming of what we would do if we won the lottery.

Surprisingly, for such an interesting question, there have been very few studies of virtual time. One UK survey of more than 11,000 adults found that given 1 hour extra each day, about 20% of adults would choose to sleep, 30% would choose to be physically active, and the remainder would mainly choose active or inactive leisure. The authors concluded that the desire for more sleep was far from universal. An earlier study found that if adults had to find an extra hour from their day for an urgent task, almost all said they would sacrifice television.

We surveyed a representative sample of Australian adults, and asked them to recall everything they did on one weekday and one weekend day. We then showed them the record of their day, and asked them how they would modify their day if their day had 1 hour extra or 1 hour less.

On average, their extra hour would be filled with 21 minutes of physical activity, 13 minutes of sleep and 8 minutes of chores. They wanted 6 minutes more social interaction and 5 minutes more reading. Men wanted another 6 minutes on the computer while women wanted no extra computer time. People only wanted 90 seconds more TV and 18 seconds of work.

What about the 23-hour day? What would go? Men would give up 29 minutes of TV but women only 19 minutes. Clearly women value their down time more, perhaps because they get less of it. Ten minutes of sleep would go, 10 minutes of computer use, and 5 minutes of social interaction. Men would give up 6 minutes of chores (maybe because that’s all they did anyway) while women seized the opportunity to relinquish 19 minutes of chores and work. Together, they would sacrifice only 90 seconds of reading and 9 seconds of physical activity.

These studies tell us that television, and to a lesser degree sleep, act as “time buffers” from which we can draw time when we need it. More sleep is not as much a priority as we are often led to believe. People also say they want to do much more physical activity and a bit more reading.

So they say. But what happens in reality? We put 111 adults into three randomised groups: a control group, a moderate exercise group (150 minutes per week) and an extensive exercise group (300 minutes per week). We wanted to know where people got their time from when they started the exercise program.

In fact our groups increased their exercise by almost 60 minutes per day – even more than we asked of them. They reduced television by 50 minutes and sleep by 35 minutes each day. They also spent 30 minutes less at chores and work, and oddly an extra 30 minutes per day on the computer, maybe making up for that lost work.

Those male sports science students who wanted to use their last 5 minutes on the planet to pleasure their girlfriends clearly felt they still had world enough, and time. Tellingly, however, none of the sports science girls suggested they might spend their last 5 minutes in passionate embrace with their boyfriends. When we offered our adults the prospect of a whole hour each day, not a single adult suggested they might fill their extra hour with sex. Priorities change as we get older.

Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia.