Taking Back the Weekend: A Review of The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad

It’s the Monday of the long weekend.  How has your weekend been so far?  Did it live up to what the ideal weekend should be, and leave you refreshed and revitalized?  Or was it full of busy-ness and obligation, leaving you feeling let down and depleted?

In her latest book, The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork, Katrina Onstad wants us all to have more of the former and less of the latter.  Her advice: use your time off to unplug from your devices, connect to friends and family, play, get outside, and seek beauty.  Do not squander the weekends that people once had to fight so hard to protect from work.  Onstad gives a history of work and how the 40-hour week and weekend were created, shows how they have since been eroded, shares the research on how we should spend our leisure time for maximum benefit, and gives tips for how to reclaim true leisure time.

The book begins with a history of the work week, of how unions fought to limit the work day to eight hours a day, the work week to 40 hours a week, and of how quickly we have lost what they fought to enshrine.  May Day, the holiday that honours worker solidarity and protest, falls on May 1, the anniversary of Chicago’s Haymarket demonstrations in 1886.  On that day 30,000 workers walked off the job for an Eight Hours demonstration, and in the days that followed, the protests became violent.  Police officers and protestors lost their lives when a bomb exploded and officers began to fire on the crowd.  Seven men were sentenced to death when they were found guilty of throwing the bomb.  Workers and officers actually died in the protests that brought us the 40-hour work week; we owe it to the activists who came before us to honour the time some of them died fighting for.  As Onstad laments, “It took a century to win the weekend.  It’s taken only a few decades to undo it.”

Onstad looks at several forces that have let work erode the weekend: the culture of overwork among the educated, precarious job security that means that people have to work several jobs over all seven days, and devices that keep us tethered to work even when we are away from it.  The greatest irony?  Study after study shows that there is no benefit to worker productivity when workers do more than 40 hours per week.

What should we be doing instead?  Looking for opportunities to connect: connect to friends, to community through volunteer activities, to family, and to our own interests outside of work.  This does not mean filling the calendar with the kids’ activities.  It does not mean spending the weekend in malls, or in line to eat brunch (Onstad has a particular hate on for brunch).  Protecting the weekend from too much consumption, too much housework, too much busy-ness and too many things on the to do list will require work and setting boundaries.  It will require saying “no” when doing so feels frightening, but, she argues, the rewards of fighting the cult of overwork, over-sheduled kids, and over-stuffed weekends will make all of the time in the week feel all that more valuable.

My favourite passage from the book highlights that quality leisure time feeds our souls: “real leisure isn’t just diversion, it’s making meaning.  A good weekend is alert to beauty.”  An entire chapter is devoted to how to find that beauty, in nature and in art and creativity.

The book is part memoir, part cultural history, and my favourite thing about the book is that Onstad herself is not able to achieve all of the relaxing and unplugging and socializing and saying no that she advocates.  She documents her and her family’s own struggles to make their weekends matter.  She is living proof of how hard it is to properly enjoy our weekends.  I admire that honesty.

If you are lamenting the loss of the weekend and looking for ways to make sure the next one is better, spend some time in the library or bookstore this long weekend and find out how you can take back the weekend.

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