Build a Better Weekend

No surprise to anyone who's ever TGIF'ed: Saturdays and Sundays really are key to your mental balance. Maximize them for better health and way more joy.

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If you're like me, around Thursday you start looking forward to the weekend with sweet anticipation. All that free, unstructured time—60 glorious hours of it! I fantasize about lounging in bed with a mega-mug of coffee. An afternoon cheering at my son's track meet. Errand time spent slicing through my to-do list like a suburban ninja. Date night!

Some of that happens, but often, almost before I know it, it's Sunday evening and I'm nursing a few coulda, shoulda, woulda's. I loved my Saturday but wish I could get a Sunday do-over (or vice versa). I never got around to needed chores, or did so many that, while my house is clean, my spirit is spent.

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There are ways to increase the chances of sailing into Monday refreshed and smiling, say psychologists and other researchers. Every weekend will be different, but the best ones are built on these basic principles. Follow us to Saturday/Sunday satisfaction.

Ditch the Guilt

It probably won't surprise you to hear that women struggle with the idea of a laid-back weekend. International studies show that we feel we have to earn our leisure—by, for example, finishing all our chores first. (Yeah, good luck with that.) We also feel guilty taking "me" time, so ingrained is the idea that everyone else's needs ought to take precedence over ours.

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Changing centuries of cultural conditioning is tough. But time of is a necessity, not a luxury. "Having no downtime is a recipe for anxiety and stress," says sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. "Not getting it on the weekend makes things even worse, because the expectation is that you will."

So begin with this: As the weekend draws near, take a moment to check in with yourself about what kind of days you're in the mood for. Perhaps you're exhausted, and a lazy weekend is long overdue. Or maybe you're itching to bring some control to your home, and your cluttered basement is in your sights. Either way, book one meaningful activity that meets your need, and make it the tentpole to your days of. Come Monday, you'll have done what you most craved doing—and that's an automatic win.

Fend off "Social Jet Lag"

Weekends are typically our opportunity to stay up late, party a little bit, sleep in, or otherwise defy our 9-to-5 clocks.

Yet getting a good night's sleep is Carter's top great-weekend strategy. "Staying up that extra hour or two essentially brings on jet lag, just like when we travel to a different time zone," she says. "It tends to change the time of day we eat, too, which unbalances our blood sugar levels." When people report feeling irritable or moody during the weekend, she says, this "social jet lag" is often the reason.

That doesn't mean you're still tied to your 6:30 a.m. alarm. Carter loves to read in bed on Sunday mornings but has learned to pause and eat something at her usual time to keep her blood sugar levels steady. "The more you can stick to a routine— particularly related to food, sleep, and exercise—the better," she says. "Otherwise, experiment. Pay attention to when you feel really good and when you don't. Find a routine that works for you."

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Chore Smarter

As much as weekends are our time to relax, we've also got to keep the home fires burning. The dog can't take himself to the vet, after all.

When Washington, D.C.–area performance and productivity consultant Terry Monaghan asked me exactly what chores I planned to get done, I began rattling of a list from here to eternity—and she laughed. Yes, there are 60 hours in a weekend, she said, but only 60. Try to cram in everything, and you'll end up feeling just as harried as you do on a regular weekday.

So instead, manage your expectations. As the weekend starts, pick only a few chores to tackle—or just one big one. Simply making that choice will make you happier, since a key element of enjoyment is feeling that you've freely chosen what you're doing and how you do it. (That's why deciding to clean out the garage can be so satisfying, but getting nagged into it rarely is.) The rest of your list? Delegate, hire out, or let it wait. Chances are, it's all less urgent than you think.

Prioritize People

To Americans, nothing says relaxation like plopping down on the couch. TV watching is our number one leisure activity. Not far behind: losing ourselves down the rabbit hole of the Web. (Marketing surveys show that social media use spikes on weekends.)

No one's going to deny the sugary pleasure of Netfix or Pinterest. But according to a recent study out of Stanford University, the reason we're 15% happier on the weekend than during the week isn't just that we have free time but that we get to spend it with one another. "Social contact is central to our sense of well-being," says sociologist and study coauthor Cristobal Young, Ph.D. "People who spend weekends alone get very little of that boost."

So save your screen time for after-hours (sorry, Olivia Pope), and plot in stretches with those you love. Maybe you tag along when your husband hits Home Depot, even if it's more efficient to split up. And don't discount small talk with the strangers waiting in line with you, either. Being open to these moments of connection—instead of rushing through them so you can get more done—is one of the hallmarks of time of.

Leave Room to Veg

One of the most valuable pieces of advice Christine Carter gives to her stressed-out coaching clients is this: Take 20 minutes to do nothing. "So many people feel uncomfortable with that!" she says. "There's this myth that even on the week­end, you'd be more successful and a better person if you never stopped doing, doing, doing. But downtime's not a time waster."

In fact, daydreaming, doodling, and generally spacing out are what she calls "strategic slacking." Neuroscience has shown that these idle moments open up different path­ ways of the brain from those you use when you're focused on a task, linking brain regions that don't typically communicate. The result: fresh connections and surprising ideas. "Idle time is where insights come from," Carter says. "We can't do our best work without it."

Ditch Your Job Persona

When a 2013 study looked at how our Sundays had changed since 1981, one stark finding was this: We now put in about 106 minutes of paid work, a 67% jump.

"Having" to work on your days of will never be a recipe for happiness. But sometimes we decide we'll feel better finishing a project or catching up on emails. Or we really like what we do. Then, what you want to avoid is the mental zigzag that social scientists call "role boundary permeability." That's when you're supposed to be Mom or Wife or Tennis Partner but keep breaking character to, say, thumb out some emails.

"People think, 'If I just quickly check, what's the big deal?'" says Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. "But our research suggests that even logging in briefly messes with you, shifting you back to a work mind­set." Instead, try to contain your weekend work. Preset a time to shut yourself away and work—an hour on Sunday morning, say—and let the office know that's when they'll have you. Once that time is over, open the door, rejoin your weekend, and don't look back.

This story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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