Instead of opting for a long weekend, consider skipping out on a Wednesday. Shifting back and forth from the weekend to the work week — from being in control of how we spend our time to not having much control at all — can have a very powerful effect on our health.
But when we shake that cycle up a bit and take a break in the middle of the week, we get a chance to realign with our internal clock and finish off the rest of the work week refreshed.
The key is giving yourself a beat, a day to make your own pace, and to break the tyranny of the over-scheduled work week. Our human experience of time is ordered by “pacers,” both internal (like being a “morning person” or a “night owl”) and external, like the work week or a deadline, says Dawna Ballard, a communications professor at University of Texas at Austin and a scholar of chronemics, the study of time and communication.
“Everyone has a different chronotype. Some people are slower moving, some people are faster moving,” she told me over the phone. “Our work, though, just goes and throws that out the window and says actually, this is how fast you have to work, this is when you have to work.”
One-offs, like a deadline for a big project, may temporarily restructure our lives, but cyclical pacers, like a two-day weekend followed by a five-day work week, have outsized psychological influence, partially because of repetition, and partially because they mimic the cyclical natural of our most fundamental pacer—day and night.
“The week obviously keeps repeating and so because it keeps repeating, it develops a real power,” says Ballard. “In the same way that the sun, the diurnal cycle, keeps repeating, it’s incredibly powerful because we are also cyclical organisms.”
One of the hallmarks of modern life is that our internal and external pacers are often at odds with one another—one reason Monday mornings are difficult. “You’re coming off from a weekend, where you do have your own pace,” Ballard says, explaining the Monday blues from a social science perspective. “It’s having to go from your pacer, back to this other pacer, there’s that friction.”
A Wednesday holiday interrupts the externally imposed pacer of work, and gives you a chance to rediscover your internal rhythms for a day. While a long weekend gives you a little more time on your own schedule, it doesn’t actually disrupt the week’s pacing power. A free Wednesday builds space on either side, and shifts the balance between your pace and work’s—in your favor.
There are many advantages to taking a Wednesday off: Empty beaches, parks, museums, and movie theaters, for example. But fun isn’t the only reason to take a day to re-calibrate your life so that your internal and external pacers are in better harmony. “Chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases,” write Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, the 2017 Nobel Prize winners for their work on body clocks.
This same logic explains why work-from-home-Wednesdays have been so successful for some businesses. It’s a practice that Ballard says has the potential to keep our inner and outer clocks in sync. “You start the week knowing, I only have two days on this rhythm and then I get back to mine, ” Ballard says, describing the shift in perspective that comes from a Wednesday off. “There’s a greater sense of calm and control.”