When I was in the third grade I wrote an essay for my English class. The topic was “My Big Idea” and the notion was that us 8-year-olds could come up with some innovations to change the world.
My proposal, written in my childish scrawl, either painted me as a bone-idle preteen or a revolutionary, depending on your point of view. I called it “The Opposite Week,” arguing for two days of hard work followed by a leisurely five-day weekend.
I’m not quite sure why it didn’t catch on but it might’ve had something to do with a few little things I hadn’t considered, like basic economics, capitalism, and supply and demand.
In the ensuing years, we as a society have come no closer to my utopian dream of less work and more play. In fact, since the 1980s when I penned my plan, we have actually given up more of our free time to the work overlords, and many of us are now full-time captives to the corporate world. Even choosing to bring our work home with us, go into the office on weekends or rejecting vacation time completely. Tragically, half of all Americans don’t take their annual vacation days.
Katrina Onstad, author of The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork, has brilliantly chronicled the birth, death and revival of the weekend through the Industrial Revolution to the modern day. She discusses how the gig economy has enabled millions of underemployed people to become entrepreneurs and take charge of their futures.
That freedom doesn’t come without a cost, though. How do you take a break when the weekend is when you supplement your income driving for Uber, taking a waitressing shift or penning a blog entry? Onstad describes this as a hamster wheel: We are constantly trying to earn more crumbs but spending them as fast as we accrue them, necessitating more work. She spoke to business leaders, entrepreneurs and self-confessed workaholics from all over the world and found working long hours without respite is actually bad for productivity and health.
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“Many of us have a weird relationship to work,” Onstad says. “We venerate busyness, exhaustion and long hours even though there’s no correlation between long hours/no weekends and productivity. This live-to-work mindset becomes cultish—‘Join us!’—even though, in fact, overworked people are prone to errors and don’t do better work.”
Some of the most successful business leaders she researched and spoke with aggressively protect their free time. Shonda Rhimes, who famously receives up to 2,500 emails a day but religiously protects her free time, even has her “off hours” clearly stated in her email signature—evenings and weekends are out of bounds. Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook, claims that if he had worked less during those crazy startup days, he probably would have worked better. Onstad polled a number of people who regularly worked 70- to 80-hour weeks in high-powered fields and found that they couldn’t sustain the pace long-term.
“Burnout and exhaustion are real,” Onstad says. “There’s an existential question here, too: If you’re in a workplace where there is no ‘off,’ is that how you want to spend your life? It’s a serious question; some people are fine with it. But ask their spouses and families how they feel.”
Onstad also looked at research around the world and explored how other countries approach work and rest. She found that protecting the weekend could be the key to greater results in a range of industries. Germany, for example, has a culture of shorter work hours yet remains a world leader in productivity, a trend seen in other parts of Europe as well.
“France passed ‘right to disconnect’ legislation that applies to companies of over 50 employees,” Onstad says. “Those companies now have to negotiate ‘charters of good conduct’ that limit work’s infringement on employees’ free time, such as no emailing at night or on weekends.”
Most of us are only a touch of a button, a ding of an update or a scroll of a message away from the office at any given time. Onstad calls this “work drift” and highlights its ability to erode the margin between work and recreation. “Even when we’re off, we’re not off, because we’re digitally attached to our workplaces,” she says.
If workplaces stateside are not taking action in the way European companies are to protect workers’ free time, then it’s up to individuals. We need to reverse the tide, reclaim our weekends and kick overwork to the curb.
How? First, try taking a page from the playbook of successful entrepreneurs and choose to do less. Turn off your phone, leave the office at quitting time, don’t check back in until Monday. Give yourself permission to invest as much energy and dedication to your home life as you do your work life.
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Onstad gives a clear manifesto for the weekend, advocating a range of activities and steps you can take to get the most out of your off hours and return to work Monday re-energized and rested.
1. Set boundaries and protect your weekend.
This includes being able to say no to too many family obligations, social invitations or sporting events unless they enrich your life in some way.
2. Connect with friends and family.
Onstad says social connection is the key to unlocking true rest and rejuvenation from your downtime. But she says this needs to be “active leisure—not just decompressing, but playing, engaging.”
3. Take part in an artistic pursuit or appreciate the natural beauty around you.
“Being in nature, even briefly, measurably reduces stress,” she says. Try hiking, gardening, outdoor sports, going for a picnic or simply walking instead of taking the car.
4. Do less working, shopping and cleaning.
Onstad believes in hobbies as a key to reclaiming the weekend, not as a chance to catch up with household tasks and duties, but to improve your life, which will have career benefits as well. “People with hobbies are often more creative at work, and some research suggests less prone to dementia,” she says.
Onstad’s motto is, “Be as loyal and committed to your leisure as you are to your labor.”
We might not be any closer to my childish dream of a two-day workweek, but we sure as hell need to protect that two-day oasis.