There’s no such thing as Saturdays anymore,” actor Tom Hanks observed during his opening monologue for Saturday Night Live on April 11, 2020. It was the first-ever remote episode of the sketch show, which cast members performed from their homes due to the then novel COVID-19 pandemic. Standing in his kitchen, Hanks lamented a kind of time-blurring many of us knew all too well during the early days of lockdown and isolation. “It’s just . . . every day is today.”
Indeed, enjoying two days at the end of the week in which to rest, play, and connect may seem like a thing of the past. Even the word “leisure” has acquired a bad rap, says Katrina Onstad, who explores the cult of overwork and the benefits of time off in her book The Weekend Effect. For many, leisure conjures an image of luxury that’s available to only the wealthy — especially in the wake of a pandemic that disproportionately endangered many low-wage, frontline workers.
“Leisure used to be something to aspire to,” says Onstad. “But now being overworked is a sign of success. We equate ‘not working’ with laziness.”
So we aim for constant productivity — to our detriment. A recent study showed that people who don’t clearly separate their work life and free time are less likely to participate in activities that encourage relaxation and recovery from work. They feel exhausted and suffer from a diminished sense of overall well-being. This became even more true during the coronavirus pandemic, when millions of Americans began working from home — or, as some began to call it, “living at work.”
We all need rest and rejuvenation. Without deep, restorative time, we power through jam-packed weekends (or aimlessly doomscroll), only to wake up on Monday mornings feeling drained and dissatisfied.
As a society, we are rapidly ceding the gains labor activists won during a centuries-long effort to expand workers’ rights. We’ve forgotten the hundreds of union organizers and protesters who lost their lives in the struggle to establish an eight-hour workday. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, and a couple of years later limited the workweek to 40 hours. The American worker earned two days devoted to rest — protected by law.
Fast-forward several decades. Widespread corporate downsizing during the 1980s and 1990s engendered a workplace culture that demanded more productivity from fewer employees. The Great Recession in the mid-2000s only heightened that pressure, which reached a fever pitch in the spring of 2020 as some 22 million Americans lost their jobs.
“These are economically precarious times, and we all feel it,” says Onstad. “This climate has created incredible pressure to perform busyness and demonstrate productivity all the time, which is a recipe for burnout.”
We’ve also seen the explosive growth of a freelance “gig” economy, with its unpredictable hours and dependence on customers who expect round-the-clock service.
“The pandemic has exacerbated a problem that’s been growing for years: work creep,” says Onstad, whose research revealed that most North Americans spend their weekends on work, chores, and screens. “Work was already bleeding into our weekends, but now those divisions between private and work life have been obliterated.”
That constant connection comes with detrimental side effects, explains Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From the Inside Out and Time to Parent. “You begin to think your value lies in your accessibility versus your talent,” she says. “But you can’t problem-solve if you don’t rest and recharge. You can’t innovate when you’re burned out.”
What Is Rest?
Everyone needs adequate sleep. Our brains require it to process information, and our nervous systems and muscles use it to rest and repair. But no single definition of “rest” suits everyone at every moment.
Passive rest — lying on the sofa daydreaming — can be restorative. It can also become a way to numb out or, worse, ruminate. “Too often,” warns Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, PhD, author of Rest, “this kind of passive activity, or simply trying to do nothing, translates into thinking about work.”
For some, the most restorative activities are what Pang calls active, or deliberate, rest. “People who learn to practice deliberate rest have longer, more fulfilling careers,” he observes.
Active rest might be a low-key hobby such as knitting or reading. Or it might be something more extreme.
“You’re not going to be worrying about office politics if you’re rock climbing and you’re 30 feet in the air,” he says. “What’s most important is to figure out what you really enjoy doing.” Then do it.
“All too often we think of rest as something we’ll do when we’re done with everything else,” he explains. “But we’re never done with everything else! If we don’t take rest seriously and devote time to it, then we never get it.” (For more on purposeful rest, see “Deliberate Rest“.)
Why Restoration Matters
Many of us feel we can justify rest if we think we’ll be more productive and effective. After all, research suggests that we not only get more done when we get enough rest, but we’re also more creative, strategic, and precise.
Yet resting on the weekend is about more than just getting lots done and improving our performance, says Onstad. “It’s about our humanity.”
She argues that it’s time to rethink the meaning of leisure. “Making sure people have time to come together to break our social isolation and build lasting bonds is a real investment in our own personal futures and in the future of society,” she says. “It is a question of what kind of world you want to live in. Hopefully, the answer is a world where we’re taking care of each other. And we can’t do that if we’re always working.”
The mindset change required to reclaim our weekends for pleasure and leisure is worth it. “Kids see how work is the axis around which our whole society and our families are organized. They get the message that they need to be productive and active — all the time,” says Onstad. And that doesn’t give them the rest and play they need.
“If we don’t have leisure, what happens on a societal level? How do we connect to one another?” she asks. “We need sacred time off work, where we can be human for at least one day a week.”
These strategies can help you transform frantic Saturdays and Sundays into the breaks your body, mind, and spirit need — and deserve.
- Rethink your week. Tackle chores during the week, says Katrina Onstad, author of The Weekend Effect. Spend a few evenings paying bills, doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom, or mowing the lawn. However much you accomplish, stop working after Friday. “This requires adjusting your standards and being OK with a little mess,” she says.
- Claim your free time. If you must deal with “domestic buildup” or a work project on a weekend, create even one rejuvenating experience, such as taking your dog on a long walk without your phone, says Onstad. “The more time you unplug, the better you’ll feel on Monday.”
- Prioritize fulfillment. Spend time on physical health, escapes, and people — what professional organizer Julie Morgenstern calls the PEP formula — and you’ll feel more satisfied on Monday. Take care of your body through sleep, exercise, healthy meals, massage; recharge through hobbies, games, or other passions; and spend time with people who nourish you.
- Use time blocks. Think of the weekend as seven units of time, suggests Morgenstern, referring to Friday evening; Saturday morning, afternoon, and evening; and Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening. “Dedicate those blocks of time to what’s important to you.” If you absolutely must work, limit the time you spend on those tasks to only one or two of those blocks.