he thing you need to know is that, at some point in the not-so-distant past, I became a person who works on the weekends. This is bad. I know this. It happened by virtue of circumstance and then unspooled into habit until, a few months in, working became as much a Sunday ritual of mine as making polite small talk about the weather at the corner store while I buy the newspapers before heading back to my flat and plunging the cafetiere down with a satisfying ploooosh.
In part, the working is by necessity: I have too much of it. But it’s also a way of minimizing the stress of a Monday morning. By spending a few hours sifting through small tasks on Sunday, I can stay on top of everything. But recently, I’ve noticed myself avoiding making plans on Sunday because I think that I have to — or is that should? — work. Not good.
So when I stumbled upon this article in Well+Good advising stressed-out people to rebrand weekends as vacations, it felt like that oft-told story of a person in dire straits begging God for a sign. According to the cited research, those who spent their weekends as if they were on holiday returned to their desks on Monday rejuvenated and refreshed, while those who went about it in their usual manner were decidedly less so, and probably suffered Sunday scaries as well.
This was a sign! It was time to reclaim my weekend and treat it like the routine-break it ought to be, mostly because I thought it would do me some good. I just didn’t realize it would be so hard.
“You’re not working?” my flatmate said, suspiciously, as she walked into the kitchen on Sunday morning.
“No,” I replied serenely.
“So what are you doing then?” she asked.
It was a good question. Usually by about this time on a Sunday I would be ensconced at the table with my coffee, my computer, and all of my weary despair. But because I was ostensibly on vacation, I had banished my laptop to a drawer, in the hope that it being out of sight might drive it out also of my mind. It wasn’t working. I had retreated to the kitchen where I was watching the kettle boil in an attempt to take my mind off my inbox.
I want the record to reflect that I am a good vacationer. I could vacation for the Olympics, if only they’d make it a sport. I am the girl who plans for forthcoming trips with Google maps so strewn with stars for tucked-away gelato spots and kitschy wine bars that the app starts to resemble a George Seurat painting.
I used to treat my weekends with the same curiosity and sense of adventure as I do my holidays. But when I started working for myself, one of the unexpected side effects was an acute understanding of the monetary value of my time. (Thank you, capitalism.) When you’re in a foreign place on holiday, it’s easy to unlearn all the bad habits of your beige Monday-Friday. Everything feels fizzy and fresh again. But when you’re in your own city and you have deadlines creeping up on you like a jump scare in a Jordan Peele movie, it can all seem impossible. And that’s when my weekends stopped feeling like opportunities and started feeling like lost time.
“Holidays provide us with an opportunity to switch off and give us permission to relax,” counselling psychologist Dr. Sarah Davies explains. “The change of routine and scenery can play a part, but it’s vital that we give ourselves permission to switch off and relax on a regular basis like this at home too. Without proper rest we never give ourselves time to process our day-to-day experiences fully or recover from stress.”
To that end, I went on a monster of a walk, all the way down to a part of London that I had never spent any time in, full of hidden gelato spots and kitschy wine bars and cafes serving oat milk flat whites by the carton. It was the sort of day a friend of mine would call a “passport shredder,” so drenched in sunshine and good humor you couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Usually, at this point in a vacation, I would head to some corner of a park, belly full of local delicacies, to read. But I had, er, read that the only way to truly disengage from work and get into a vacation mindset is to give the skills that you utilize in your day job a rest while on “holiday.” For me, that meant no writing and, unfortunately, no reading.
I decided to visit an art gallery instead, something that I love to do on vacation but rarely do on my weekends, and began the slow cross country march to my destination in another part of town. By the time I reached the gallery, it had sold out its daily allocation of tickets. Feet aching and pavement baking, I retreated to a pub and ordered a beer. I could feel an anxious, nervous itch on my skin knowing that I had wasted a day doing nothing more or less than walking from one end of the city to the other.
As I sat and sipped, Dr. Davies’ voice was in my ear: “Give yourself permission to rest and relax.” Why did I feel the need to monetize every moment of my life? Why couldn’t I spend a weekend doing nothing but exploring? Why did I think that the only productive use of my time was at a desk in front of a computer?
In fairness, Dr. Davies had warned me. She told me that technology and the changing way that most people work makes it hard to switch off. “There’s constant distractions,” she counselled, “and constant regular engagement or stimulation that never allows our brains to rest.” And from there, the only way out is burnout. That’s why it’s so important to slip into a vacation mindset every now and then. It is a chance for us to untangle ourselves from an obsession with work and to reset our priorities.
Crucially, we shouldn’t wait until we’re on actual vacation to do so. By treating our weekends as if they are mini holidays, we can achieve the same results. It just takes time to unlearn our emotional and logistical dependence on productivity. If I wanted to see real results, I’d have to try another weekend and another, and another, until, maybe, all my weekends could be spent that way, without me having to think too seriously about it at all.
As I sat in the sun, I ignored my anxious itch by drinking a second beer, watching London walk by at a pace Miranda Priestly would have a problem with. And then I picked up my bag and went home. A low breeze had kicked in and flowers from the blossom trees were drifting lazily through the air. At home, when I took off my jacket, I noticed that little millennial pink petals had settled all over the collar and cuffs.
I swept them onto the floor and climbed into bed. And I have never slept so well in my life.
Illustrations by Pauline de Roussy de Sales.