Bullish Life: What Successful People Do On The Weekends, An Interview With Laura Vanderkam

I’m ambivalent about weekends.

I’m sure if I had a regular 9-to-5 job, I’d have stronger opinions about them. If you work for a boss all week, on the weekend you would very likely want to do the exact opposite, such as climbing mountains where there is no cell service. (I went to college in New Hampshire, where this was a totally normal thing to do on a weekend when you didn’t have too much studying to do.)

In fact, even if you don’t like rock climbing, pretending that you’re really into it might be a good way to dissuade your boss from sending you those “Could you just take care of this one thing before Monday?” sorts of emails. SORRY BOSS, I DIDN’T SEE YOUR EMAIL BECAUSE I WAS ON THE SIDE OF MOUNT RAINIER. IN THE RAIN. EATING TUNA FROM A CAN. LOOK AT MY BRUISES. BUT WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU RIGHT NOW?

But I’m also on the record for suggesting less work-life balance in your young years (see Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE), and for advocating that we all develop multiple income streams (see here and here). Entrepreneurship is now for everyone.

It’s hard to do that if you don’t work weekends.

Of course, if you run a skydiving center or give horseback riding lessons or own a bar, your business mostly takes place on the weekends. I teach a lot of GMAT and GRE classes on the weekends, since my students mostly have 9-to-5 jobs. However, that doesn’t keep you from declaring Monday-Tuesday, for instance, as your weekend. (Personally, I have discovered that even the most motivated adult students simply refuse to learn anything on Fridays. They’ll suggest meeting me on Saturday at 9am, but after work on Friday, I cannot get a Wall Street banker to perform simple arithmetic. They’re DONE.)

So, how should you manage your weekends?

Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and All the Money in the World has done some research. (You may remember Laura’s previous appearances in Bullish, here and here.)

Laura is also going to be speaking (live and in person!) at the Bullish Conference this November, so I am super-excited to meet her in person.

Laura has published a series of three ebooks that have just been re-issued as a paperback collection. One of these ebooks is about exactly this — what successful people do on the weekends — so I got in touch to find out the secrets.

Bullish: Hi Laura! First off, I’d like to congratulate you on the publication last week of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast – And Two Other Short Guides to Achieving More at Work and at Home. We talked in 2012 about what successful people do before breakfast. (The answer had to do with getting up a lot earlier than I wanted to, but I can’t argue with your research).

Since then, you’ve published What the Most Successful People Do On the Weekend, which is now part of the paperback compilation that was just released. I’m really hopeful that whatever successful people are doing on the weekend is more palatable than what they’re doing at the crack of dawn! So, what’s the secret?

Laura Vanderkam: Successful people do all sorts of different things on weekends, but the key thing I found is that they understand that you need time off to rejuvenate. If you’re running from one thing to the next all week, a day or two of rest is what stands between you and a smoldering burnout. On the other hand, they also understood that “rest” doesn’t mean “do nothing.” It means activities that add to your energy levels rather than deplete them. For many people, that means making sure weekends include activities like exercise, connecting with friends and family, and doing spiritually satisfying things (religious services, meditating, volunteering, etc.).

Bullish: Well, that doesn’t sound terrible, obviously! If you have a toddler or enjoy hiking in the nearby canyons or whatnot, this is easy. But what if you really don’t have anything like that? A lot of young people are single, not near their families, not religious, etc. Are you saying our work during the week will benefit from developing some community-oriented extra-curricular activities? How can an overworked young person make sure that adding new things to her weekend isn’t just creating more work?

Laura Vanderkam: You don’t want to add things to your weekend that you don’t want to do. That’s why it’s important to spend time figuring out what you would look forward to. Figuring out what you like is a good investment in a great life! If you enjoy a particular kind of exercise, start by plugging into a community around that: a running group, cycling club, etc. If there’s a hobby you’re interested in, start with a low-commitment introduction: a one-day wine-tasting class at a wine shop; a foraging lesson at a local botanical garden. And you don’t have to fill every minute, either. It’s about having a few anchor events to make a weekend feel good, rather than wasted in front of the television.

Bullish: I like the idea of “anchor events.” So, how did you discover what successful people do on the weekend? What was your preconception before you started researching? Also, what do you do on your own weekends?

Laura Vanderkam: I’ve been studying time logs for a long time—looking at how hundreds of people spend their schedules — and I became keenly aware how hard it is to use weekends well. There’s just a lot more accountability during the workweek. You can be up at 7:30 on a Saturday morning (it happens as you get older…) and then not figure out what you want to do until the afternoon. During that whole morning you’re not relaxed or doing something enjoyable, you’re just puttering around. I love downtime, but there’s high-quality downtime—reading a good book you enjoy—and low-quality downtime, like flipping through the mail pile, half-cleaning a room, etc.

I kind of expected highly-accomplished people to do more work on weekends. It’s not that they didn’t do work, it’s just that many really did try to keep it from bleeding into their whole time off. So they’d do an hour or two on Saturday morning, then try to unplug until later Sunday. You do need time to recharge your batteries.

My own weekends often feature day trips or excursions with the kids: to the beach, to a fair, to go on a bike ride. We haven’t put them in a whole lot of activities, partly because we want our weekends to be free for family. Lately, my husband and I have been getting better about planning date nights—usually starting after our youngest kid goes to bed so we can put her to sleep, rather than the sitter. The kids don’t really miss any time with us, but we get some time together.

Bullish: I’m glad you mentioned the difference between high-quality and low-quality downtime. I’m all about “cutting the crap,” which may be putting it less elegantly than you have (relevant: Bullish Life: Achieve Goals and Glory By Recreating Like a Total F*cking Badass and A Day in the Life of Bullish.)

To me, that means not having television service, and using the application SelfControl to block my own access to time-wasting websites. Your new book also includes “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast” and “What the Most Successful People Do at Work.” Does this idea of cutting out the “puttering” apply in other areas as well? (I love the word “puttering,” because it sounds both ineffectual and a bit elderly—both good reasons to avoid doing it!)

Laura Vanderkam: There is no part of one’s 168 hours that couldn’t benefit from less puttering. In the mornings, people can be up for 2 hours or more before starting work—and that’s not all commute time. Don’t overthink getting dressed. Don’t spend time picking up a house that will just get messy again. If you cut out the puttering, you might have time for some strategic thinking, exercise, a fun family breakfast, or another high-value activity. As for work, it’s no secret that people spend vast amounts of time weeding their inboxes inefficiently, or checking headlines every time they sit down. We can only work so many hours. It may be possible to work twice as many hours as your competition, but it isn’t possible to work ten times as many. The secret to success is making the hours you have count more. They aren’t counting for much if you’re constantly in your inbox deleting J. Crew ads.

Bullish: Thanks, Laura. Last question, and maybe it’s a bit of a silly one—I have to say, going back and forth with you about this over the weekend just clued me in that I’m puttering RIGHT NOW. It’s Saturday, 5pm. WHAT SHOULD I DO?!

Laura Vanderkam: Go on an adventure! An excursion—text a few friends and see if they want to meet you at a museum with evening hours (?) or to walk around the park together, or do some shopping in an area you don’t normally frequent. You only get so many Saturday nights in your life. About 4160 or so, if you live to be 80. You’ve already lived through a good chunk of them. So make sure you’re enjoying yourself for the rest.

Bullish: Thanks again! We look forward to having you at the Bullish Conference!

Interviewing Laura this past weekend reminded me of one of the central tenets of adulthood, which is that you now have to plan your own fun and celebrations. Did you have some moment when you were maybe off at college or living on your own for the first time when you realized that, if you didn’t plan something in advance, absolutely nothing would happen on your birthday except maybe a phone call from your mother? I remember that.

It turns out having a good work ethic is really just as important to enjoying your weekend and using it to recharge as it is to, you know, work. You have to make plans, or you’ll find yourself lying on the couch on Saturday at 3pm, vaguely contemplating whether it’s too late to go to the park and whether it would be worth going alone.

I also like that the most successful people don’t totally eschew working on weekends — they eschew puttering. You can get up at 9:30, work from 10-12, and still have an amazing Saturday that leaves you with rock-climbing bruises (or a renewed appreciation for Monet) if you plan.

The roughly 32 waking hours available in a weekend (more if you count Friday night) leaves plenty of time for an “anchor event” of fulfilling recreation, a couple of hardcore work sessions, and plenty of lying-about time besides.

What’s your weekend plan?

First published on The Gloss