Perfecting the lost art of weekending
Breaking the cycle of busyness is easier than you might think, Katrina Onstad argues in her new book. Tanya Sweeney looks at the strategies
In years past, Sunday Night Dread in Ireland was so ubiquitous that it even had its own soundtrack. Most people of a certain age will recall the pinprick of low-level anxiety as the strains of Glenroe's theme tune started: proof that the weekend was drawing to a close and the 9-5 hamster wheel was just around the corner.
But things have changed. There's no 9-5, for a start; not really. Emails are checked first and last thing, while the sceptre of work hangs overhead for most of the week and weekend. With little time to draw breath from Monday to Friday, the weekend becomes the time to tackle fiddly life admin, to regroup, to pull our weight at the gym, or to run to the pub and enjoy the soporific balm of binge drinking. That we don't take two days a week to mindfully opt out and reboot is not just exhausting us: it's starting to ruin the rest of the week.
Canadian journalist Katrina Onstad was feeling similarly trapped in a breakneck cycle of work, family and free time. Recalling her time as an au pair in France, when no one worked or shopped on Sundays, she has embraced a similar outlook. And her new book, The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Effects Of Taking Two Days Off, implores others to do exactly the same.
The Weekend Effect is a fastidiously researched book detailing how we collectively lost the art of weekending well. Interviewing those who have managed to escape the ceaseless cycle of work, and making note of model cultures around the world that make their weekends work for them (like France, Germany and Sweden, the former of which has enshrined their weekend with legislation), Onstad provides plenty for the stressed and time-poor to mull over.
"It's a confluence of factors," Onstad says of the lost weekend. "Our relationship to technology has encroached on our free time, and we're on high alert even when we leave the office on Friday. And in these fragile economic times, everyone wants to look committed to work. It becomes our major identity marker. The reality is that automation is coming, and there will be a lot less work to go around. We need to change things."
Busyness, too, has become a badge of honour - according to a recent Stanford study, busier people are perceived as having higher status - and this leads many to over-schedule their weekends, too. It may make us look powerful and popular, but it's a pressure our adrenalised systems could do without. Making the most of time off is one thing, notes Onstad: quite another is forgetting to decompress.
"We're all struggling," notes Onstad. "The big questions I ask are, 'can we pull back from the grind? What strategies will help us?' We need to be really vigilant to create true leisure time, as it will help us feel rejuvenated and ready for the week ahead."
Less is certainly more… but what of quality time with our children? The enthusiastic scheduling of kids' activities at the weekends, Onstad notes, is reflective of a fear that our kids' futures are fragile.
"There's a cult of perfect parenting, or the 'Pinterest' childhood, and there's a sense that if you resist, your kid will fall behind," she notes. "It's like an imposition of the work mindset on to the lives of children, and you can't measure the success of childhood in the same way."
Clawing back a weekend, says Onstad, is easier than it looks: "Start thinking of the weekend as a state of mind," she suggests. "I honestly believe a good weekend means you have a good week, and a good life."
The Weekend Effect:
The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Two Days Off by Katrina Onstad (Piatkus, €25.99) is out now
Out and about: Guilt-free trips for recharging the batteries
Be active, not passive
A Netflix binge has its many restorative benefits, but pursing leisure "in an ideal state", says Onstad, will be more beneficial. Working out feels like another tick on the to-do list, so turn exercise into something simpler and more playful.
"Getting into nature and socialising with people gives us some little hit of something that matters. I know I'm a better person and less irritable when I get outside and make the fresh air a priority. It needn't be a big dramatic gesture, full of climbing mountains. It can be as simple as visiting a local tree."
Drink in moderation
A Friday night blowout, according to Onstad, is "part of this all or nothing mindset that's very linked to overwork or anxiety". She observes: "It's fine to have a night of excess once in a while, but if it's a constant where you're always in the pub, spending the day after collapsed in front of the TV? It would be time to examine if you're getting the most out of your weekend."
Forget being the perfect parent
Onstad spoke to parents who had resisted the cult of the 'Pinterest' childhood and found that one activity per season was more than enough. "Do soccer one season, then swimming, then ballet the next," suggests Onstad. "Be sure to allow for unstructured free time for them to play and follow their imaginations."
Take up new hobbies
Because Monday to Friday is so utilitarian, many of us make the mistake of believing the weekend needs to be the same. "Our impulse is, 'how can we monetise this hobby?'" says Onstad (above). "I had a friend who made earrings as a hobby as it was soothing, part of quite contemplative time. Next thing she is selling them on Etsy… and there goes the weekend."
Make human connections
"Be fierce about making time for people in your life, and new people. If you feel burnt out, often it's the last thing you want to do, but trust me, you will feel better after some connection."
"Those domestic chores do pile up, but do ask yourself if you need to clean your bathroom and do laundry at the same time? Maybe it can be a little imperfect," notes Onstad. Rather, she is a fan of the '90 minute rule' (even better if you can do it on a weekday): "Put a clock on it and tell yourself you're giving yourself 90 minutes for domestic tasks, and at the end of that I'm done."
Don't beat yourself up
Beating ourselves up is the quickest way to that dreaded Sunday Night comedown. "Don't feel guilty about the Netflix binge on a Saturday, but on the Sunday, counter that with something active."