First published in the Sunday Times on 9th July 2017.
A wise friend once told me that the quality of your Sunday is a barometer of how fulfilled you are in life. He was not referring to religious faith — or to the importance of Sunday newspapers such as this one. Rather, he believed that how you spend the day of rest shows whether you have work and leisure in balance.
A new book, The Weekend Effect, written by Katrina Onstad, makes the case for purposeful pursuits on Saturdays and Sundays, rather than pure idleness. She also says that work must not be allowed to colonise weekends, because recreation matters.
Her theory is that we should avoid “casual” pastimes, which tend to be transient, immediately gratifying and passive. Instead, we should put the effort into serious leisure — if that phrase is not an oxymoron — in other words, meaningful, challenging activities that are engaging and stretching.
She suggests that a good weekend should contain at least four elements: time for a hobby; time for socialising; time for altruism; and time for play. While I don’t wholly agree with her philosophy, the theory has merit. I find that weekends that are given over entirely to lazy pastimes such as eating, drinking and watching television are neither satisfying nor memorable — nor even very reviving.
To me, her list of essentials misses two crucial items: family and exercise.
For most of us who work long hours from Monday to Friday, the weekend is the time to catch up with children, spouses and perhaps parents and siblings.
The best weekends contain family meals, celebrations, games and outings. Of course, that is all socialising too — and probably play.
Exercise is vital for a healthy body and mind. I am absolutely not a fitness fanatic. However, I am convinced that the beneficial effects of exercise on well-being are beyond doubt: it is not simply that physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other chronic ailments. It also has a markedly positive effect on your mental state. Physiologically it helps lift your mood, reduce stress and lower the possibility of depression.
One common weekend habit that I have always shunned is the lie-in. Sleeping late means that the day is shorter and I find that two extra hours in bed do not actually make me feel more rested.
I like being up during the quiet, early hours on a Sunday morning, when most people are still asleep. If I can do something useful then I have started the day in a constructive fashion.
Many of us are tired by Friday and see the weekend as an opportunity to relax and unwind — fair enough, but spare a thought for all those who have to work on Saturdays and Sundays. In the restaurant, pub, hotel, retail and attraction industries, those are typically the busy days. And, of course, there are many who have to work shifts at weekends — hospital staff, police and other emergency services. Their weekends are probably our weekdays.
I worked for an obsessive entrepreneur boss when I was in my twenties. He was an Australian corporate raider who spent only two weeks a month in Britain, and worked every day while he was here without a break. This meant that the entire head office also had to show up all weekend — even if it was just to demonstrate that they were present.
After 12 days of working every day with no time off, the boredom and drudgery meant that our effectiveness diminished significantly.
Weekends are necessary to recharge the batteries, avoid burnout and provide some escape from work. If you have no free time, then you are exclusively defined by your work, and I suspect that is not a recipe for happiness.
An excellent piece of advice if you want to de-stress at the weekend is to put away your smartphone and similar devices. Log off from email, social media, news updates and suchlike for as long as you can.
Being “always on” makes us feel important and connected, but it also increases the levels of tension and distracts us from concentrating on stimulating pastimes — be it gardening, cycling, cooking or painting or something else purposeful. Your creative juices flow best when you are fully immersed in a productive undertaking. Electronic interruptions destroy one’s absorption in a task.
Unfortunately, weekends are typically the time for tedious tasks — cleaning, administration, shopping and general chores. The best thing to do is to mix these boring duties with more enjoyable ones that offer variety and stimulation.
Weekends probably require some planning so you make good use of them, but overbook and they can turn into an exhausting replica of Monday to Friday.
And they should not be just about the easy life and slumping in front of a screen. Yes, they should include fun and relaxation with friends and family, but we should also embrace worthwhile avocations such as volunteering and lifelong learning.