How To Avoid Living The "Groundhog Week"

I just helped a fellow blogger with a significant project of his. I learned about it on Friday and, based on the tight timeline, I knew that it was this weekend or that it wouldn't get done. So, rather unexpectedly, this past long weekend (Victoria Day weekend in Canada) went from spending time in the garden to spending time at the computer reading and commenting on his significant project.

And it was worth it, because 1. I wanted to do it, knowing I'd find it rewarding and 2. I don't find weekends much different from weekdays (which I realize isn't the norm).

The weekly grind for most goes something like this:

We ‘design’ human nature by designing the institutions within which people live.

Ideology bears a large measure of the responsibility for the nature of our work.

Take discretion, engagement, and meaning out of work and people feel less ‘called’ to it and get less satisfaction from doing it.
— Barry Schwartz, Why We Work (2015), p. 10, 68 & 17.
  • Monday - Ugh, it’s Monday…don’t talk to me until I get my coffee.
  • Tuesday - Ok, let’s forge ahead.
  • Wednesday - Hump day! It’s almost 1/2-way over…
  • Thursday - Tomorrow’s Friday, only one more sleep to go!
  • Friday - TGIF! Oh, the possibilities. Can’t wait!
  • Saturday - I should be getting more out of my weekend. It’s half gone already.
  • Sunday - I can’t believe it’s already Sunday. Tomorrow’s Monday. Ugh…

For so many of us, this cycle is on repeat…sometimes for decades.

A quick search for Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday pictures makes it quite clear that the cycle is well known to many of us. Here’s a small sample:

hump day.jpg

There’s no shortage of them. Luckily, there are also positive messages about Mondays and about the week in general, but let’s just say the ratio is rather skewed toward, well, dread.

Welcome to "Groundhog Week"

Similar to the idea behind the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, only the weekly version.

This repetitive, undifferentiated weekly cycle isn’t that different from another cycle we're all familiar with: the hangover cycle.

It looks something like this:

  • Look forward to a get together with friends.
  • Drink/eat too much (or do too much of whatever other personal vice(s) we have).
  • Wake up feeling crappy and vow never to do it again.
  • Repeat at the next opportunity.

Not good, right? So why do we fall into this cycle time and again?

Here are the five contributors to the damaging nature of groundhog week:

  1. It can make life feel like a constant rerun.
  2. It can lead us to procrastinate or forego opportunities because we compartmentalize activities to certain days of the week.
  3. It keeps us in a routine that we start believing is unchangeable.
  4. It creates more negative than positive.
  5. It’s bad for our health and productivity.

1. Life as a Rerun

There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a schedule. It’s part of how the world works. It only becomes a problem when one day/week blends into the next and we swap living for merely existing. When days blend together and weekdays become interchangeable with both each other and with the previous or following week's equivalent, we’ve lost our way. We’ve lost the spark that makes life interesting, rewarding. 

…13% of workers feel engaged…The vast majority of us, some 63%, are not engaged. We are checked out, sleepwalking through our days, putting little energy into our work. And the rest of us are actively disengaged, actually hating our jobs.
— Barry Schwartz, Why We Work (2015), p. 3.

There’s nothing more depressing than hearing someone just trying to “get through the week”. We need to make a point of having special events—big and small—to punctuate our lives, day to day and week to week. And if that’s not doing it for us, we need to take a look at whether the cycle we’re living is slowly killing our spirit and why.

2. Procrastination and Foregone Opportunities

I find it fascinating that certain personal activities can only happen on certain days. Whether they’re pleasurable or feel obligatory, we seem to cram some activities on certain days of the week and, if we run out of time, pencil them in for the following week. Some of these even get deferred indefinitely because of this cycle. 

There are many reasons for the deferrals: no energy, motivation, lack of time, short window of opportunity, weather, cancellations, etc. Some of these are within and some out of our control but, regardless, they feel real and they feel like a problem that can only be solved by putting it off…which contributes to point #1.

3. An Unchangeable Routine

One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.
— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (2012), p. xvi.

The regularity of the work week can make it feel obligatory. We have a schedule and we have to stick to it. It becomes a pattern of habits. In a sense, we make a habit of our habits. The trouble with habits is that they enable us to go on autopilot. We do things without giving thought to them, allowing us to save our mental energy for more meaningful activities and pursuits (at least that's the idea).

This is a great feature of the human mind, when it works for us. When it works against us, our habits make it difficult to critically evaluate, and even harder to change, the status quo. The more entrenched we become in our weekly rituals, the less likely we are to make changes. Now this is not a problem when our rituals are positive and constructive. The same can’t be said for the destructive ones. And our lives are filled with both.

4. More Negative Than Positive

Our work week is based on the principle of separating work and play. Initially, it was based on the need for a day of rest and contemplation (thanks to many religions). This day of rest was an opportunity to purposefully recharge and to slow down and make room for thought and contemplation. It wasn’t necessarily the denial-laden escape it’s turned into these days. 

[I]n addition to the dollar costs of labor and materials, we must add the psychic costs experienced by workers doing jobs they hate. If we redesigned workplaces so that workers liked their work, these psychic costs would become psychic benefits.
— Barry Schwartz, Why We Work (2015), p. 86.

Now, we view our weeks as, at most, about 30% leisure (Saturday and Sunday) and as, at least, 70% work (Monday to Friday). We’ve drawn distinct lines between when we’re supposed to work and when we’re supposed to play. That means our head space is on obligation for most of our days and on freedom for much less time. Branding days this way is destructive because we’ve painted our days with a broad positive or negative brush: we need to get through the work week so that we can enjoy "living" on the weekend.

5. Health and Productivity Suffers

Our bodies aren’t programmed this way. We cram our stress into five days and then cram de-stressing into two. That doesn’t fit our natural rhythm. We’re day-to-day creatures. We can’t program our bodies to bottle up restoration 1-2 days a week. We need to rejuvenate every day

The result of force-fitting our daily cycle into a weekly format of work vs play speaks for itself:

  • Health:
    • There are more heart attacks on Mondays (21%), with the period from 6 to 10am being the most dangerous.
    • We try to catch up on sleep on days off. However, the belief that we can catch up and undo the harm of accumulated sleep deprivation doesn’t hold up
    • The weekly cycle promotes ignoring healthy behaviours on the weekend with the belief that we’ll clean up our act come Monday. Skeptical? What day of the week do you start a new diet?
In school or at work, we fail to recognize and realize opportunities for happiness; outside of school and work, we squander our ‘free’ time by freeing it of effort, challenge, and hence, of much meaning. We are then left with a feeling that happiness is hopelessly elusive.
— Tal Ben-Shaham, Happier (2008), p. 93.
  • Productivity:
    • Lack of sleep affects our memory, ability to pay attention and capacity to reason, all of which restrict our potential. (See sleep deprivation above.)
    • It’s difficult to schedule creativity and productivity in a knowledge economy. This can lead to frustration because, though we might be at the office during designated times, most of our creative ideas come when we’re not at work.
    • Moving from one activity to another is energizing. Long hours without breaks or marked changes in the nature of the activity is draining and affects our productivity. We can often produce more when there's more play inserted between blocks of work.

The Antidote - Three Progressive Doses

We can give ourselves more progressive doses of the antidote to the weekly grind: 

Dose #1: Waking up from the stupor of the 7-day view.

We learn to focus on the next goal rather than on our present experience and chase the ever-elusive future our entire lives.
— Tal Ben-Shaham, Happier (2008), p. 19.

We need to make each of the seven days a week meaningful and memorable. It doesn’t have to be big things; anything that keeps us in the present moment will do. Though anticipation can be a good thing, the more time we spend in the moment, as opposed to wishing for some future time period, the more benefit we draw from our day-to-day lives. Even doing one thing out of the ordinary will punctuate the day and differentiate it from other days of the week, especially work days.

Dose #2: Increasing feelings of choice rather than obligation. 

We experience freedom when we choose a path that provides us both meaning and pleasure. Whether or not our subjective experience of work is freedom depends on whether we choose to be slaves to material wealth or to emotional prosperity, slaves to others expectations or to our passions.
— Tal Ben-Shaham, Happier (2008), p. 98.

No one is happier than one who feels free to choose. Feeling free from obligation means you’re doing something because you want to, not because you have to. This is both determined by mindset and by a current physical or fiscal reality. There’s no better way to achieve this state of feeling free than by reducing the number of individuals we have to answer to. That means reducing our financial obligations by eliminating debt and downsizing our lifestyle, eliminating standing commitments that don’t feel rewarding, severing relationships that drain us and questioning our use of the word “have to” every time we use it.

Dose #3: Liking what we "do", most of the time. 

When you ask people who are fulfilled by their work why they do the work they do, money almost never comes up.
— Barry Schwartz, Why We Work (2015), p. 1.
You don’t need to be working for an organization that saves lives to find meaning and purpose in what you do. You just need to be doing work that makes people’s lives better.
— Barry Schwartz, Why We Work (2015), p. 22.

A more significant step toward making the week feel less like the proverbial hamster wheel is to ensure we genuinely like what we do with the majority of our waking hours. When we like what we’re doing the majority of the time (both at work and at play), we spend less time thinking about what we’d rather be doing. As the saying goes, life’s too short to be doing something we don’t like.

This doesn’t mean we should eschew all work and commitments. It just means that when we need to—or choose to—do work for ourselves and others that we find it both meaningful and rewarding. This aspect of work trumps most other benefits associated with work.

This progressive antidote has had a significant impact on my life over the last number of years. And, though I don't always apply it perfectly, I'm thankful that my ratio of days I look forward to vs don't doesn't mimic the typical work week.

How does the weekly cycle of work week/weekend affect you? How do you manage it?

Thumbnail image credits/copyright:  chrisroll /

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