Sometimes it can feel as if there’s no time for downtime. Our hectic weeks are bookended by more-hectic weekends spent managing household chores and squeezing in as many scheduled activities as possible, all the while tethered to our smartphones and monitoring our work email. As a result, having two days of open time 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 explored 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. Or, paradoxically, it connotes sloth.
“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 to be constantly productive — 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.
We all need rest and rejuvenation. Without deep, restorative time, we power through jam-packed weekends (or aimlessly surf the net), only to wake up on Monday mornings feeling tired 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.
People today feel the need to be “on” all the time to protect their jobs, says Onstad. Indeed, many companies expect employees to be available on evenings and weekends.
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.
“We’re under constant pressure to perform,” says Onstad, whose research revealed that most North Americans spend their weekends on work, chores, and screens. “Work can bleed into every pocket of time you have.”
In 2012, the Center for Creative Leadership found that smartphone-using professionals spent about five hours on work email each weekend. This is on top of 13.5 hours of work-related interactions each weekday — bringing their job-related contact to a whopping 72 hours per week.
“Being connected 24/7 can trick you into losing sight of your true contribution. You begin to think your value lies in your accessibility versus your talent,” says Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From the Inside Out and the forthcoming Time to Parent. “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 everybody, all the time.
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 mean full engagement in 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.” (Learn more about Pang’s concepts at “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.
But 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.”