Are We Too Busy to Be Sustainable?

Are We Too Busy to Be Sustainable?

Dale Southerton and Jo Mylan

As preparation for the UK Government’s ‘Green Deal’ programme a series of trials were undertaken in 2012 to identify the most effective ways to encourage domestic energy savings. One trial focused on the uptake of loft insulation. The usual suspects were identified as ‘barriers to uptake’: attitudinal – to be removed through information; motivational – to be tackled by incentives; inertia – with householders to be prompted by community action groups. Curiously a ‘new’ barrier had been identified for testing: the ‘hassle factor’. The premise was that people with the right attitudes and motivations were held back from acting because of being pressed for time.

Offering a scheme where a local firm would come and clear your loft, removing the hassle for busy homeowners, was seen as the answer. Uptake was poor – and it is not hard to hypothesize why. To have someone come into your home to empty your loft requires a good deal of coordination: someone needs to be home while they do the loft-clearing; lofts would have to be check beforehand as lost family heirlooms could not be recovered later; post-clearance home cleaning would be needed to deal with the dusty aftermath of ‘foot traffic’ through the house. Thus the hassle was unlikely to be perceived to have been removed. The Green Deal has now disappeared from the policy landscape and with it the idea of addressing time pressure (although much important policy work on domestic energy efficiency continues).

What makes this story particularly interesting is not its failure, but the limitation of behavior change perspectives that focus singularly on the actions or thoughts of individuals. A perfectly sensible problem, or ‘barrier’, was identified based on sound empirical research. It was, however, the perspective through which this hypothesis was interpreted that represented the major flaw.

Returning to the main observation: research reveals that people report feeling increasingly pressed for time and harried, and that the resulting time squeeze limits opportunities for them to spend (quality) time with those they care most about (overwhelmingly their family and friends). As time diary studies consistently show, this cannot be explained by ‘lack of time’. Generally speaking, and with some important variations across social groups, the post war period is marked by a steady reduction of the hours and minutes that people spend in paid and unpaid work, with a corresponding increase of time for leisure and personal care. So why do we feel harried? And what consequences does this have for fostering more sustainable ways of life?

How our time is organized, and our efforts to manage time, are crucial to understanding our collective patterns of resource use, and understanding this creates new insights into the challenge of sustainable living.  While experienced by individuals, the constraining pressures of the “hassle factor” are far from individual in their origins. Rather, these emerge from the interconnections between people, organizations and the activities that constitute daily lives. These dynamic relationships require coordination and active management by people in order to fit everything in. The effects of this coordination for our sustainability can be observed at three levels.

The first is at the level of the individual. Research shows that the sense of harriedness relates to the challenge of coordinating personal schedules with the many different practices and people (each with their own schedules) that make-up our day-to-day lives (Southerton, 2006). The proliferation of ‘scheduling technologies’ (from the humble calendar and paper diary through to online systems) is testament to the pressing need that people feel to better manage their schedules. Studies reveal how managing personal scheduling has the effect of ratcheting up the resource intensity of our daily lives. For example, personal schedules adapted to include going to the gym after work often mean people find that two showers and two sets of clothes are needed – the morning shower in preparation for the day and the post-workout shower (Browne et al, 2013). Such scheduling inadvertently increases the amount of water, energy and other products consumed. Our research on laundry practices shows the complexity of scheduling, with many instances of impromptu ‘quick wash’ half-loads of laundry requiring rapid drying so that items are ready in time for the next scheduled practice.

The second level relates to the interactions between people. Individuals have routines but, as sociological and organizational studies have shown, routines are patterned and periodic ‘interactions’ that form into repeated and familiar actions. Individual routines are the personal actions that constitute the periodic patterning of social interactions. Workplaces, households, schools, social clubs, and neighbourhoods are all examples of ‘interactional units’ through which routines form and regulate the action of their members. In some cases routines are formalized through institutionally timed events – the start and end times of the school day create routines for all members of its community, as do set times for work breaks. Interestingly, despite most UK workplaces now having informalised times for breaks, recent research by Luke Yates and Alan Warde shows that that over 50% of snacks taken during workdays take place between 10-11am and around 3pm, and that people take snacks together. The formalised, institutional schedule of the  routinely timed  factory-floor tea break may not be representative of most workplaces anymore, but the tea break’s existence as a collective routine remains strong. Routines, then, are a good example of how both the organization and experience of time is never individual but is rather the consequence of interactions. The felt need to manage personal schedules was somewhat alleviated by the comfort of such routines for respondents in one study but, nevertheless, those respondents described how routines created sets of pressures to complete a whole range of activities in order to maintain those routines (Southerton, 2003). Whether the rush to meet with school-based routines required the use of a car instead of walking, or laundry routines demanded wash-loads to be done on particular days of the week even if that produced half-loads, such routines all contribute to the patterning of resource-intensive ways of life.

The third level is societal rhythms, which we would argue are the most significant. Energy peak demand is a classic example, with energy spikes reported during the advertising breaks of Britain’s favourite television programmes as everyone puts the kettle on. These societal rhythms are the aggregate effects of routines, and include clearly observable daily events like rush hours and meal times through to seasonal or annual events (e.g. Christmas). But societal rhythms are not always so visible. The example of laundry, in which personal schedules and household routines might appear to present a diversity of laundry behaviours, also has clear societal rhythms. Data reveals that the majority of ‘loads’ happen between 7-11am with tumble dryers running later in the day (Evans & Yates, Forthcoming). The practice of laundry seems to fit around routine working hours. Millions of machines operate at similar times to service a resource-intensive activity. Similar societal rhythms can be identified for all of the other ‘major’ resource intensive daily practices – mobility rhythms have already been mentioned as has the collective patterning and rhythms of eating (and therefore cooking).

These three levels are connected – personal schedules and interactional routines represent the detail of societal rhythms; societal rhythms shape and frame those routines and schedules. One persuasive argument for why people feel increasingly harried is that societal rhythms have become more malleable (due to technological and organizational innovation) making the organization and management of personal schedules increasingly challenging. One study revealed that people who work flexible hours feel more time pressured than do those who work shifts with fixed start and end times (Southerton & Tomlinson, 2005). To consider the sustainability implications of time pressure is a matter of accounting for the resource-intensity of the ways in which daily lives are coordinated – which currently involves more driving; more food waste; energy use for food storage, clothes washing and drying, electronic coordinating devices; and so on.

The identification of the hassle factor in the Green Deal trial took a critical aspect of society (its temporal organization) and interpreted it through a narrow framework that regards human behaviour as confined to atomistic individuals. In doing so it missed a key point: human actions (or behaviours) are embedded in the temporal organization of society. Time pressure (or the hassle factor) is merely a partial observation of that organization. To change the ‘behaviours’ that result from those temporalities attention needs to focus on their societal organization and not simply re-describe the individualized observation. As the above has shown, this can amount to paying attention to personal scheduling, the form of coordination embedded in interactional routines, and to societal rhythms. Systemic, large scale shifts in the way that societies are organised, however, require attention to the relationship between each scale. Such thinking opens up an array of avenues for imagining future configurations of everyday lives – including the provisioning of services (e.g. laundry services) that reduce the need for some kinds of personal scheduling and which might help foster new routines and societal rhythms that could contribute sustainability gains (perhaps by collectivizing resource-intensive practices like laundry). In any scenario, the answer to this problem of societal organization will not be found by reducing the problem to the actions of atomized individuals.


Further Reading
Browne, A.L., Pullinger, M., Medd, W., & Anderson, B. (2014). Patterns of practice: A reflection on the development of quantitative/mixed methodologies in capturing everyday life related to water consumption in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 17 (1), 27-43.
Southerton, D. (2003) ‘Squeezing Time’: allocating practices, coordinating networks and scheduling society, Time & Society, 12(1): 5-25.
Southerton, D. & Tomlinson, M. (2005), ‘‘Pressed for Time’ – the differential impacts of a ‘time squeeze’’, Sociological Review, 53(2): 215-39.
Southerton, D. (2006), ‘Analysing the temporal organisation of daily life: social constraints, practices and their allocation’, Sociology, 40(3): 435-54.
Yates, L. and Evans, D. (Forthcoming) Dirtying Linen: understanding household laundry habits, Environmental Policy and Governance.



Dale Southerton is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute, The University of Manchester. Previously he was Director of the ESRC funded Sustainable Practices Research Group (2010-2014). His research examines processes of consumption and societal change, with particular interest in sustainability, time, and everyday practices. He is the Editor in Chief of the three volume Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture (Sage, 2011), and has published widely across the social science disciplines on matters of consumption. Josephine Mylan is a Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute and Manchester Institute of Innovation Research at the University of Manchester. Jo’s research interests lie in understanding how society can transition to more environmentally sustainable ways of consuming resources. To explore these dynamics she uses ideas from across economic sociology, evolutionary economics, and practice theory. She is particularly interested in the relationship between production arrangements and the social practices of consumers.


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