The Weekend Experiment That Will Change Your Life

You probably have more leisure time than you think. Here’s how to maximize it.

Illustration: Dora Godfrey/ Medium

The time between the moment you close your laptop on Friday and the moment your alarm goes off on Monday morning can feel shockingly short. But it isn’t. Assuming eight hours of sleep a night, there are 37 waking hours between 5 p.m. Friday and 10 p.m. Sunday. That’s nearly the equivalent of a full work week — which seldom feels like it disappears into nothingness, even for people who like their jobs.

But a key difference between weekdays and weekends is that work hours have built-in accountability. We think through how we’re going to spend our working hours with certain outcomes in mind. Weekends? Not so much.

I’m not saying you need to plan every minute of your weekends. But having a good sense of where your weekend hours go can help you see their abundance. That, in turn, can help you spend them in a way that makes life feel more fun.

Yes, I’m talking about time-tracking, at least for a week or two. My perception of my own weekends totally changed when I began tracking my time on weekly spreadsheets about six years ago.

My spreadsheets have the days of the week across the top, Monday to Sunday, and half-hour blocks down the left side from 5 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. This means that my weeks begin on Mondays at 5 a.m. After a few weeks of tracking, I noticed something curious: As I neared what felt like the end of my workweeks, there was always a lot of spreadsheet left.

Indeed, I soon saw that if the week starts Monday at 5 a.m., the exact midpoint of the week is 5 p.m. Thursday. Since I was accustomed to thinking that 5 p.m. Thursday sounded like the end of the week, this was eye-opening. There was an entire second half of the week that I was mentally discounting.

I have five kids, so it’s not like my weekends are wide open. Still, the vastness of this time inspired me to ask myself lots of questions: Within the time I was caring for children, were we doing fun family activities or was I just refereeing fights? During nap time, was I doing anything particularly enjoyable or was I pointlessly puttering around?

As I tracked my weekend time on those spreadsheets, I’d see that I might have two to three hours to spare after my kids went to bed each night. Knowing that encouraged me to think about how I might use this time — and make sure I always had a good book or a puzzle going so those hours wouldn’t disappear into random email checks or tidying toys that would only come out again the next morning.

I know time-tracking doesn’t sound like fun, but it’s really not that bad. Time-tracking apps are abundant and pretty easy to use, but writing down your schedule in a little notebook works too. I check in with my spreadsheets three times a day, noting what I’ve done since the last check-in. Each check-in takes about a minute. This means my tracking is the time equivalent of brushing my teeth — an activity I hardly notice taking any time at all.

Besides, you don’t need to do this for the rest of your life or even six years like I do. Tracking your time for two or three weekends will give a good sense of time’s rhythms. When you know what the landscape of your time usually looks like, you can create a template that will help shape your time going forward. You might decide that early mornings are good for exercise. You might only want to commit to kid activities that happen in the mornings, leaving afternoons open for family adventures. You might decide on social time every Sunday night with a rotating group of friends and relatives, or you might realize you need to put alone time on the calendar.

Knowing what your time looks like and being intentional about how you’d like to spend it, dramatically increases the chances that you’ll be able to have a weekend that feels fun, relaxing, and memorable — or at least like it didn’t slip away without you noticing.

And that’s a good thing. While leisure time isn’t as rare as we make it out to be, it is still precious and much too important to treat mindlessly.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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