With his quilt chin-high on a Sunday night, by the light of his bedside lamp, my young son asks, “Was that the weekend?”
“Yes, it was,” I reply.
“But it didn’t feel like a weekend,” he says, employing his ‘rip-off ’ voice; the one reserved for bad trades in baseball and empty cereal boxes.
Aged 12, he poses this question many Sundays, thereby prompting a review of my own weekend which frequently looks something like this: hockey, work email, groceries, an ensuing onslaught of emails about the first email, homework help, hockey, dog-wrangling, family dinner, clean-up, laundry, work reading.
To keep Sunday distinguishable from Saturday, I might top off the above with some light toilet cleaning. We do change it up in summer, however: the kids play soccer instead of hockey.
How work is taking over our weekends
For many of today’s (gratefully) employed, the work week has no clear beginning or end. The digital age imagined by science fiction is upon us, yet we’re lacking robot butlers and the three-day work week that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1928.
Working more than we did a decade ago is the norm for most employees, and those devices designed to liberate our time merely snatch it back. The weekend has become an extension of the work week, which means, by definition, it’s not a weekend at all.
Many Americans work longer hours today than a generation ago, and most work hundreds of hours more per year than their counterparts in European Union countries of similar economic status.
A 2014 paper from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research reports that 29 percent of Americans log hours on the weekend, compared to less than 10 percent of Spanish workers.
UK workers are the exception among the European countries, racking up almost as many hours on weekends as Americans. They call this, unflatteringly, ‘the American disease.’ I recognise this disease.
Years ago, for a brief, not-so-fun time, I was an au pair. I was shuffling through the post-college years, hiding in a small village on a windswept shore of northern France for a few months. Every Sunday, as far as I could tell, France shut down. There was no work. There was – and this shocked my North American mall-rat self – no shopping. Instead, there was The Visit and The Activity.
With three kids in tow, my single-mom boss and I visited grandparents, or brought flowers to a family friend in a nursing home. Some weekends, neighbours came to the house unannounced, and food and conversation would stretch into the night.
There was always an outing: a hike along the beach shore; a bike ride; a stroll through the streets of a nearby village, peering in the windows of closed shops. We could look, but not buy.
These weekend days felt like ritual, embedded in the culture; something sacred. Time seemed to slow itself. These were weekends of the imagination, rich with experience, a clean break from what came before and what would come next, on Monday.
Now, with my own kids and a job as a writer that leaks across the days, my Saturday often feels hardly different from a Wednesday. Sometimes, in fact, Saturday feels busier. “TGIM,” jokes a friend at Monday morning drop-off, gratefully exchanging the children’s myriad of playdates and activities for the relative calm of an office.
Too many weekends, The Activity is deferred. The Visit is deferred. Pleasure and contemplation are deferred. “Sunday night is the new Monday morning,” a headline in The Boston Globe trumpets, noting that many workers are getting a jump on Monday morning emails by spending Sunday night in their inbox.
The executive recruiter and the venture capitalist interviewed for the article sheepishly give what amounts to the same reason for ceding their Sunday night: since everyone else is doing it, I’d better do it too. For this blatant neglect of leisure, Aristotle would be mad at us.
Why leisure time is important for our health and wellbeing
In Aristotle, leisure isn’t just the time beyond paid work. It’s not mindless diversion or chores – a binge-watch weekend or a closet overhaul. Leisure is a necessity of a civilised existence. It’s a time of reflection, contemplation, and thought, away from servile obligations.
But today, leisure smells lazy; a word connoting uselessness and privilege. Somewhere along the line, the joyless ethos of “Live to work, not work to live,” became a reality, if not a mantra. I offer feeble comfort to my son. But I feel it, too: something missing; a profound absence altering body and soul.
I remember my own child self anticipating the weekend on Friday morning; the great expanse of possibility before me. My parents’ friends, and my friends, would fill the house. Bad TV was waiting to be consumed in the early-morning shadows. I remember being bored, and in that boredom picking up a pen and paper, and discovering that writing felt better than any sport I’d tried or picture I’d drawn.
Time wasn’t tight, but roomy, a space to explore. These moments of vivid weekend experience are fewer now, and not only because I’m older, and farther from wonder. My time is bleeding out, and my days and nights are consumed by work and an endless chain of domestic pursuits that leave me snappish and unfamiliar to myself.
In a 2013 survey, 81 percent of American respondents said they get the Sunday night blues. Surely this melancholy isn’t just about anticipating the work week ahead, but about grieving the missed opportunity behind – another lost weekend.
After too many Sunday nights turning off the light in my kids’ rooms with an apology for the lameness of the previous two days, I decided to dig deep into the weekend problem: how we lost it, and what it means to live without it.
When I started investigating, two things became clear: I’m not alone with my Sunday night letdown, and smarter people than I are fighting to preserve the weekend – and winning. I talked to people who fiercely protect their weekends for the things they love.
There are CEOs who are reinventing their schedule to spend time with their families and successful corporations that are beginning to offer four-day work weeks, as well as companies that now ask their employees to drop their phones off on Friday night and pick them up on Monday.
Shonda Rhimes, the writer-producer-showrunner behind hit shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, no longer responds to emails at night or on weekends – and she’s a single mom with three kids, as well as being busier than the average head of state.
I’ve tried to follow the lead of these people who have committed to a new relationship to time, one in which leisure is as precious as any material good; any professional accolade. An interesting thing happens when you reclaim your weekend: you reclaim your childlike abandon and sense of possibility. You unearth the self that’s been buried beneath the work. You discover that a well-lived weekend is the gateway to a well-lived life.
6 ways to reclaim your weekend
Do this in person. An old friend; a new one; a neighbour; a neglected relative. Extend yourself.
Offer your time. Volunteer. Become an activist for a cause you believe in. Write a protest letter to someone in government. Go hand out with a group of people who care about something more than you do and let it rub off.
For every passive activity, do two active ones.
Define nature in any way you choose. Get close to it. Return to that place every few weekends until it’s sacred ground.
Expose yourself to art that takes your breath away. Make something with your hands. Stand outside a church on a Sunday morning and listen to the choir. Join the choir.
Less shopping. Less cleaning. Less de-cluttering.
Extract from The Weekend Effect: The life-changing benefits of taking two days off by Katrina Onstad (Piatkus, £14.99).