Mindset & Motivation, Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles, Truth for Teachers Collective | Nov 14, 2021
Reclaim your weeknights by balancing the “task triangle”
By Marissa Minnick
Middle School Science Teacher
The weekend holds such an allure that it’s easy to overlook the opportunities we have each afternoon to turn off our classroom lights, lock our doors, and tuck our lanyards away for use again the next morning.
I’m talking about the simplistic Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings of the workweek. These weeknight hours offer reprieve tucked between days of reading groups, lunch duty, and lesson planning. This unsuspecting time can refill our cups for another day working alongside our students, through both the bright spots as well as the toughest of days.
At some point, we started to devalue these weeknight hours and placed all of our hopes onto the promise of the weekend, pushing forward five days for the unlikely guarantee that two days off is enough to replenish our souls. Although each day holds the same 24 hours, there is something that we have come to accept as being innately different between “5:00 pm on a Friday” compared to “5:00 pm on a Wednesday.”
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While there are certainly some tasks that lend themselves more to a Friday afternoon, I’ve started to wonder if we’ve accepted the weekend as a catch-all for what we consider to be pleasurable, while only being willing to cram a sense of productivity into the grind of the workweek. When we disregard the evenings of the workweek and write them off as unworthy of consideration, we construct this idea that the weekend is the only chance we have to breathe and pursue relaxation.
Not only is it untrue that the weekend is the only time to exhale after the impact of the workweek, but this also skirts around an important truth: The way that we choose to spend a weeknight has a more immediate impact on our ability to renew ourselves the next day than a weekend sprint of self-care.
I will share a bit of caution here, though, as I advocate for us to embrace the weeknight: If we approach our Monday – Thursday afternoons with a sense of success-driven vigor to have the most “weekend” version of a weeknight, you may be missing the point.
As it is, the stakes for the perfect weekend have been raised to arguably unattainable standards, with its “positive vibes only” branded pleasure. We are not looking to repeat this distortion of reality by forcing narrow-minded constraints upon our Monday-Thursday evenings.
The leisurely afternoon where you press pause on everything else has its place, but the truth is that we are made whole by our commitments and responsibilities as well as our leisure pastimes. We must work with ourselves to find a way to nourish the complicated wholeness of who we are and negotiate this within the hours that we have to ourselves on a standard weeknight.
Embracing the weeknight is not about shoving all responsibilities to the side. As someone who is continuing to pursue the journey of embracing the weeknight, I can attest to the fact that scrubbing a toilet is sometimes on the agenda for the evening. When the workday ends, we all have our own versions of “work outside of work.”
The task triangle
When taking inventory of your various commitments and responsibilities, it may help to think about your tasks as belonging to a sort of task triangle. The task triangle includes space for activities that attend to your immediate self, your future self, and your sense of self.
Your immediate self is all about what you want to do — think about pleasure, leisure, and hobbies. Taking care of your future self is rooted in tasks that will benefit you in the long run, even if they don’t always bring an immediate sense of gratification or joy.
While I sometimes have the energy to vacuum the entryway without any convincing, other times I have to remind myself that my future self will feel clean and taken care of when I come downstairs the next morning without little bits of soil that I’ve tracked in from our garden getting stuck on my feet. You may find that tasks such as getting to bed early, cleaning, meal prep, and doing research for a home improvement project are what commonly fall into your future self task category.
The last category — your sense of self — is tied to your values. It’s related to both who you are as well as who you are helping yourself become. Your most pressing non-negotiable commitments and responsibilities fall into this category. Raising children, caring for an aging parent, being active in the neighborhood association, and volunteering are rewarding commitments for many adults, yet they can sometimes require a smidge more patience or energy than we feel that we have to give at the moment.
While I am often not excited to go to a local park cleanup event, it is important to my sense of self that I invest in my neighborhood and work to keep our park a clean space to be enjoyed by families with their children. If a given task is important to your sense of self, then you may be able to recognize a spark of inner passion for these tasks, even on the days when your energy dips low.
At this point, you may be starting to feel your earlier vision of meeting a friend for coffee after work slowly slip away into a flurry of housework and to-do tasks with the nominal comfort that an internet stranger told you that it will help your sense of self or your future self. If you constantly pursue tasks that fall into these two categories of the task triangle, you will undoubtedly feel unbalanced and will start to crave the weekend with the hope that its fleeting hours will bring you a slice of reprieve.
This is where the third and final side of the task triangle, your immediate self, comes into play.
This is the portion of the task triangle that people often struggle with the most because it isn’t often seen as productive or necessary.
In my personal experience, I have found that my productivity and energy actually soar the next workday when I have taken time to invest in this portion of my task triangle. While my triangle is not always balanced within the limited 24 hours of a single day, I try to balance it over the course of the week, making sure to not push off all sense of enjoyment to the weekend.
How to balance the task triangle
Balancing the task triangle is not always easy, but it is worthwhile. There are four foundational tips that you can use to help you embrace the weeknight and cultivate a sense of balance in your task triangle.
Tip #1: Look at the clock.
While wrapping up work for the day, look at the clock. When I do this at the end of the day, it’s usually 3:30 pm or 4:45 pm, depending on the school year and where I’m working. Then, briefly imagine how you may feel if it were 3:30 pm on a weekend afternoon instead of a weekday.
The goal here is to gently nudge yourself into a different frame of mind where you can see the next 16 hours for their full set of possibilities. Rather than slipping into the comfortable habit of going to work, coming home, cooking dinner, showering, and watching TV, you might think to stop by the garden center on the way home from work or sit on the porch and do some reading before dinner.
When I do this exercise, my mind often wanders towards a Saturday afternoon when my husband and I decide to play a board game on the porch. Nowhere in my imagined Saturday vision is a sense of needing to cook, pick out clothes for Sunday, dust the bookshelf that I’ve been putting off, and waking up Sunday morning to start a whole new to-do list. While my Saturday vision of 3:30 pm is relaxed and unhurried, left unchecked, my Tuesday instincts are to breeze through the hours between 3:30 pm and 7:30 am without so much as a thought for how I used the last 16 hours to replenish my energy.
While there is nothing innately wrong with a comfortable routine on a weeknight, they can trick us into thinking that there are no other options for the time at hand. Comparing the current weekday time to the same time on a weekend often opens up a different set of possibilities for the hours ahead.
Tip #2: Talk it out.
Talk with people you live with to see what you all have energy for after work. Discussing how to create pockets of time for pleasure on a weeknight will help everyone get on the same page and rethink what it can feel like to fully experience the possibilities of the hours in between work.
It is helpful to have both activities that you can enjoy as a family as well as some independent activities that you can make time for within the hours of a weeknight. My husband and I enjoy playing board games and card games together, but there are some games that we will not touch on a weeknight. Yhatzee, checkers, Boggle, and gin make the cut, and our more intricate board games stay on the bookshelf until the weekend rolls around.
Since we talk about our after-work energy on a semi-regular basis, I know that going for a walk is something we can enjoy together almost every day, a hike would be saved for a day when we planned a quick dinner since it’s a more time-intensive activity, and getting takeout to enjoy in Duke Gardens is a fun way to blend outdoor time with an easy dinner on a whim since it doesn’t require much planning.
If you are at a stage in life where you do not have a spouse, roommate, or kids to consider, you can still think through this tip independently. In my journal, I keep a list of activities titled “after work energy.” Your list should include items that you have the capacity to enjoy after an 8-hour workday and will be unique to your own personality and interests. My list includes activities such as reading, sitting on the porch with some tea, going to the library, visiting my mom, or spending time planning a project on Pinterest.
Add items to your list that are feasible to enjoy and practice non-judgment if your list is a little sparse. You can add more to your list over time as you try different activities to find what feels good.
Tip #3: Talk it out (again).
While it might be nice to think that “talking it out” only includes a light conversation about weeknight leisure and after-work hobbies, this is not the reality of what falls onto the shoulders of a weeknight.
While your family is together, check in with everyone about the tasks that fall into the future self and sense of self categories of the task triangle. Adults and kids alike can benefit from building a joint understanding of the work that must be done to keep the family fed, the house clean, and everything running smoothly.
You can begin this portion of the conversation by comparing everyone’s theoretical task triangles and discussing how to reassign tasks to family members so that everyone is contributing to the household in a way that the group feels is equitable. With younger children, it may help to actually illustrate their task triangle to create a visual support for the conversation. In my family, my husband and I have tried to divide up household tasks based on our levels of enjoyment for the tasks at hand, but you may find that creating a shared workload divided by the time it takes to complete a task may be a better fit.
Regardless of how you divide the workload, it is helpful to make it clear that the consensus reached today is subject to change as family members’ circumstances and schedules ebb and flow throughout the year. For this reason, it can be helpful to casually check in with everyone every so often to see if the group feels good about the way things are running.
Tip #4: Get going.
The most important tip is to simply get started. Build the muscle memory of what it feels like to venture off of the standard weeknight routine and try something new. Your brain will remember the power of trying something different with your weeknight and make it easier to justify a change in schedule the next time you have an idea about something you’d like to try after a full day of work.
You’re not committing to a standing weeknight playbook to repeat for the remaining 51 weeks of the year; you’re just seeing if the change in schedule that you tried was something that you enjoyed once and whether or not you’d like to try it again someday. The most basic way to embrace the weeknight is to simply acknowledge that it is there for you and is waiting for you to claim it.
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Love this idea! I’m making a page in my planner devoted to my task triangle. I love also that it pushes away the idea that anything I might do in afternoon is either “good” or “bad”. Bad if it’s good for me and good if it helps others. There’s no binary here, there’s just me having a happy, peaceful, fulfilling life. Thank you!