How to Feel Less Depleted by the End of the Workweek
So you’re not living for the weekend (and too exhausted to enjoy it).
By Nikki Campo
In my previous job as a strategy consultant, I felt lucky when I managed to sleep more than four or five hours a night. During the workday, I subsisted on our office stash of espresso and Cheerios because there wasn’t time to walk to lunch and still get everything done. When Friday afternoon finally came around, I practically collapsed into the weekend, completely depleted.
Whether your work takes place inside or outside the home, with or without pay, chances are you’ve felt similarly overwhelmed at some point. “‘Time poverty’ is the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it, and it’s really common these days,” Cassie Holmes, PhD, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management who has spent the last decade studying time and happiness, tells SELF.
And while many of us feel tired at the end of the week, “there is a difference between ‘My life is full’ exhaustion and the ‘Life is passing me by’ kind,” Dr. Holmes says. When it’s the former, she explains, you’re more likely to head into the next week with a “bring it on” attitude rather than one of “ugh, here we go again.”
Some energizing news: You don’t necessarily need endless hours in the day to achieve the “bring it on” spirit. In fact, Dr. Holmes, whose book Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most came out earlier this month, says time isn’t only the problem; it’s also the solution. “The goal is to make our time more fulfilling during the week, not just full,” she says. You may still have a jam-packed schedule, but by making your time feel more meaningful, you might also feel less mentally spent (even if you’re still physically pooped).
Here, Dr. Holmes shares her top tips for making the most of your weekday hours—before, during, and after work—so they feel less stressful and draining.
Track your time and happiness.
To add more happy hours to your day, you first need to understand how you’re spending your waking hours and how each task or activity makes you feel, Dr. Holmes says. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying, “Work makes me sad and being elsewhere makes me happy.” Instead, she recommends tracking your time for a week or two—in a journal, say, or a notes app. Her method: Log your daily activities in 30-minute increments and rate them on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is not at all happy and 10 is very happy. Think of happiness in its broadest sense: “What we’re going for is overall happiness of the activity, including feeling excitedly energized or blissfully serene,” Dr. Holmes says.
To set yourself up for the analysis phase of this exercise, rather than jotting down “work” as one of your 30-minute time blocks, get specific and note things like “staff meeting,” “restocking,” or “charting on patients.” And capture the situational nuance if you can: Maybe making dinner on Wednesday night for your kids when you had to be somewhere 20 minutes later felt awful, but stirring homemade risotto on Friday night while sipping a glass of wine to a soundtrack of Jon Batiste was pure luxury.
Why go to the trouble of time tracking if you already know that work bums you out and not working doesn’t? Because, Dr. Holmes says, our predictions about what will make us happy (or not) sometimes miss the mark. For example, you might think you’re living for 9 p.m. when you finally get to binge a true-crime podcast, but while you’re listening, you might feel tired, guilty for not doing something more productive, or even anxious due to the dark subject matter. In other words, lounging with a podcast might not rank as high on your happiness scale as you thought. If you take the time to track how you truly feel in the moment, you’ll be better informed for the next step in this exercise.
Prioritize your most satisfying activities.
Once you know which activities bring you the most satisfaction—both during and outside of working hours—Dr. Holmes says you can do your best to protect and prioritize them, which ensures you’re aiming for quality over quantity in your quest for time.
If coffee with a certain colleague always leaves you energized for the long afternoon slog (and therefore ranks high on your happiness scale), make sure to schedule it. If you can’t miss your daughter’s soccer practice, block your calendar ahead of time. If doing a crossword puzzle before bed chills you out more than reading the dystopian novel you’re into, save the book for your commute or the weekend. Again, your week may still be full, but by prioritizing the most important activities during the times that make the most sense, you can make it feel more fulfilling—and less mentally and emotionally draining.
Protect your prime hours, if possible.
Let’s face it: Most of us don’t get our best work done in 15-minute increments between distractions. High-quality work requires full mental engagement without buzzing phones, email notifications, or toddlers tugging at your pant legs. Yet, Dr. Holmes says, “We often move from thing to thing, checking off the little tasks. We do this ‘productive procrastination’ without carving out time to think deeply and creatively and produce the work we love.” But if your immediate pursuit requires deep or creative thinking—whether that’s journaling your innermost thoughts or brainstorming for a big work project—getting into the zone matters.
To protect your prime time, Dr. Holmes says you need to create the space to allow for what Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first called flow, or the state in which you’re using your skills and are fully engaged. If you’re a morning person and do your best work before your coworkers have logged on for the day, for example, it might be worth moving your start time up by 30 minutes because you know you’ll get more done and feel less frazzled later on. Or if small tasks prevent you from getting into a flow state during the day, consider blocking an hour a few times a week to get the little things done all in one shot.
In your physical environment, Dr. Holmes recommends removing distractions, if possible. That might look like shutting the door if you have one, popping in earphones to signal to colleagues you’re unavailable, closing out of email, and/or putting your phone out of sight. If you use an internal messaging app like Slack, Dr. Holmes says it might even be worthwhile to tailor your status to what you’re doing (“In book-editing mode. Pausing notifications until noon,” for example) to protect the hours you’ve designated as untouchable.
Make a work bestie.
Frivolous as it might sound, “People who have a best friend at work are more engaged, better at their jobs, and more satisfied with their work and life overall,” says Dr. Holmes, citing recent Gallup polls. To ensure your pals don’t become another distraction, try to bundle your socializing with work: Take a walk with an office mate to discuss a project, plan to eat lunch with your buddy if you can, or joke with a coworker while you’re busing tables or stocking shelves. You could also make a fellow-parent pal at the playground with whom you can share your challenges and successes.
If finding a true friend at work feels impossible given your circumstances (or your current coworkers), Dr. Holmes suggests trying to engage in one social interaction each day. It can be as simple as choosing a phone call with a friend over a social media doom scroll, or as complicated as striking up a conversation with a stranger at the park or coffee shop.
Curate your commute.
Research suggests that a daily commute ranks as one of the least enjoyable times for workers, according to Dr. Holmes, which is why she suggests forgoing mindless flipping through the radio or your phone, which sucks up time and attention without feeling meaningful. Instead, be intentional about it: Maybe you only listen to an audiobook or podcast you love while in the car, or you use that time to brush up on your language skills (try searching “Spanish lessons” in Spotify, for example).
If you’re using public transit, you can reach for a book rather than watching TikTok videos or scrolling through Instagram. Walking to work? Lucky you. Soak up the sun (or the sounds of rain), call a friend, or do a soothing walking meditation and take in your surroundings without an agenda.
I’m not a strategy consultant anymore, but between freelancing, raising kids, and running a household, my workweeks are just as hectic. Recently, though, thanks to Dr. Holmes’s strategies, I’ve started saying no to uses of my time that score lower on my happiness scale, as well as looking for more opportunities to make the workweek more fulfilling.
For example, I’ve left my role as a volunteer editor of our community newspaper (it was starting to feel like a chore and causing stress) and accepted a gig as my preschooler’s class coordinator (with the intention of spending more time with other parents I wouldn’t have otherwise socialized with). They’re small shifts, but they’ve made life more pleasant, and when I do pivot to work mode, I’m more relaxed and ready to dive in.