Got the Sunday Scaries? Here’s a science-backed way to cure them

By Art Markman

You know how it is. Saturday is a blissful day. You get some exercise. Do chores around the house. Spend time with family, friends, and/or pets. You go out Saturday night. And then, it’s Sunday morning. And you know that Sunday leads inevitably to Monday. And on Monday that to-do list will rear its head again. Suddenly, you want to bury your head under your pillow and hope it all goes away.

That’s the Sunday Scaries. 

To beat the Sunday Scaries, you have to start by understanding why they happen. Then, there are a few things you can do that will not only help you to enjoy your Sunday, but also hit Monday morning excited to get to work.

The first thing you have to understand is that stress is just the emotion you naturally experience when your brain engages “avoidance motivation.” Whenever there is some noxious or dangerous thing in your environment, your motivational system wants to help you avoid that bad thing. While the potential calamity still lurks in your environment, you experience fear, stress, and anxiety. 

The Sunday Scaries happen when you think of your work primarily in terms of the avoidance of bad outcomes. You might be concerned that your boss will get angry at you, that a client will leave, or that a key task will fall through the cracks. 

To manage this stress more effectively, here are three things you can do.

Write it down

Part of the reason that your brain keeps reminding you of all the things you need to do on Monday involves something called the Zeigarnik effect. When you have a goal that you haven’t yet completed, information about that goal remains easy to think about, because your brain wants to help you complete that goal. That helps you to remember what you have to do.

One way to help quiet those internal reminders of what you have to accomplish is to keep a good to-do list and to update it frequently. If you develop the habit of keeping an agenda and to consult it when it is time to decide what task to engage with next, then you learn that you don’t need to keep all of the tasks you’re juggling in mind. That frees you up to think about different things on the weekend.

Face it

A big reason why the weekend can be stressful, is because most of us have convinced ourselves that the world might fall apart if we don’t work long hours and take care of the tasks in front of us. And if you don’t make steady progress on your work, then there might very well be some significant consequences to that.

Nonetheless, working long hours during the week won’t necessarily make you more productive, and worrying about the work you haven’t done yet on weekends certainly won’t make you more productive on Monday. 

Instead, you have to face your fears. 

Start by making a pact with yourself to work when you’re at work and to not work when you’re not. Then, rather than starting by trying to get through a whole weekend without worrying about work, start just with one night during the week. Leave your phone plugged in out of sight. Stay off your computer. Discover that all of the things you had to do when you left work in the evening are still there in the morning, and the world (and your business) did not end.

Gradually expand that practice to two nights and more. Eventually, step away from your work on Sundays as well. 

After all, the Sunday Scaries are all about the sense that there is a real threat in your environment. If you learn that time away from work does not cause catastrophe, then eventually, you can have more peaceful weekends.

Find your joy

The central cause of the Sunday Scaries, of course, is the engagement of avoidance motivation. Another way to calm that down is to focus instead on approach motivation. Focus yourself on the beautiful, wonderful, desirable things you can accomplish at work. Remind yourself of important positive outcomes you have achieved. 

When you succeed in achieving some positive outcome, you experience joy, happiness, and satisfaction. And when there is some desirable thing on the horizon for you, then you experience excitement and anticipation. 

If you focus on the amazing things you can accomplish at work, the colleagues you enjoy seeing, and the benefits of success, then you engage your approach motivation. That quiets your avoidance system. It also leads to the prospect that you might actually be excited to get to work on Monday morning rather than dreading it for the entire weekend. 

Who knows, you might even get to the point where you wake up at the start of the week thinking TGIM.


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