A Manifesto for Taking Back the Weekend

Katrina Onstad’s new book is for the overworked masses trying to reclaim their 48 hours of free time.
Illustration by Alexis Jang

At the beginning of Katrina Onstad’s The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork, the author’s 12-year-old son asks on a Sunday night, “Was that the weekend?” “Yes, it was,” she replies. “But,” he says, “it didn’t feel like a weekend.” Onstad, gripped with the anxiety any mom would have if her child were unaware that he’d just lived through two days off, does an audit of her family’s last 48 hours. What she finds is a mix of work email, homework help, laundry, hockey practice, dog wrangling, grocery shopping, and more. The postmortem concludes: “To keep Sunday distinguishable from Saturday, I might top off the above with some light toilet cleaning.”

The Weekend Effect (HarperOne, $25.99) is Onstad’s chronicle of trying to rescue herself, her husband, and their two kids from the tyranny of overscheduling. It will read as familiar to many working parents, minus perhaps all the references to hockey (the author lives in Toronto). A journalist, Onstad takes a reportorial approach to solving the Mystery of the Disappearing Weekend, plunging herself into—and extricating herself from—various activities to provide a front-line account of how she tried, mostly successfully, to use her freedom more wisely. She attends an “ecstatic dance” party at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday, gift-wraps Christmas presents for low-income families, joins a running club, and doesn’t eat brunch, which she spends four-plus pages denouncing as “digestively as well as acoustically abrasive.”

When Onstad isn’t personally fleeing the cult of overwork, she’s reporting on others who’ve escaped. These are people who have “hobbies,” which is apparently something one can find time for. Her in-laws are bird-watchers. Her friend Dale is a ceramicist. Another friend, Liz, enjoys cooking, as long as it’s not a production. Pro tip: If you make a boring pot of chili, guests will think it’s exciting if you also serve cherry margaritas.

Finding the hours—and the will—to engage in our passions isn’t a new challenge. After World War I, British philosopher Bertrand Russell lamented the loss of these pursuits, writing: “The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.” Change “cinemas” to “Netflix,” Onstad points out, and Russell could have written this last week.

Not only are we not playing amateur ornithologist or throwing pots, we’re using the weekend as a makeup session for a life unlived Monday to Friday. Which is also why the Sunday night anxiety we have about returning to our jobs isn’t only about impending deadlines but guilt about unfulfilled expectations. Onstad’s advice: Do less, but make the activities count. Try to lock into what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow” state, an immersion in an activity deep enough to conjure a feeling of being “out of self, and out of time,” as Onstad summarizes it. Have sex. Explore nature. “Of course, ‘nature = good’ is hardly an ‘Extra! Extra!’ revelation,” she acknowledges.

Ultimately, that’s the biggest problem with The Weekend Effect. There aren’t enough “Extra! Extra!” revelations or solutions. I know walking dogs at the no-kill shelter, as I’ve been planning to do for two years, is a more substantive use of my time than watching college football. But I watch because it’s fun! Also, when else but on Sunday am I going to do grocery shopping? Still, books such as this are valuable because they force readers to think about the agency they’re exerting over their free time, and that alone can lead to deriving more of the pleasures Russell wanted us to experience. I thought a lot about this as I was reading The Weekend Effect on a recent Saturday and Sunday, having stupidly assigned myself a review for the section of the magazine I edit. At dinner with my parents on Sunday night, I considered asking my mom, “Was that the weekend?”

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