The Swedish art of rest: Wednesdays are the new Saturdays

The Swedish art of rest
Image: @nordic_stories

A weekend will never be enough to catch up on sleep after a working week, just like two weeks of annual leave will never top up your resources, if all you do the rest of the time is work non-stop. Like wellbeing, a rested state is not a given. It does not accumulate over time but is created through weekly, if not daily, instalments of self-care.

Scientists, psychologists and mindfulness experts all agree that our quality of life, mental health and productivity stand in direct correlation with our ability to rest. According to Iris Murdoch, “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured so much the better.”

There is no one that can appreciate this more than Scandinavians, who believe that all of us could do with a day off in the middle of a working week, just because… This day – referred to in Sweden, Norway and Finland as Lillördag – is known to us simply as Wednesday.

One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured so much the better.
Iris Murdoch

We could all do with a mini Saturday

The tradition of little Saturdays on Wednesdays goes back to when Swedish maids were given this odd day off ahead of their weekend shifts. Wednesdays were typically seen as an opportune time for a night out on par with Fridays, and some pubs still operate as such to this day, offering happy hour discounts to students. Today, a Saturday on a Wednesday is no longer just an excuse to have drinks, neither is it a remit of maids. A mid-week break is essential for all of us to catch our breath in the marathon of a work routine.

Swedes believe that hitting pause halfway through the week is key to getting through the days, keeping our energy topped up and making us not feel like a wreck at the end of it. It is all very well and good to ponder over this idea, but it is much harder to implement it in reality. What can you do if your Saturdays feel more like a sixth working day in a row jampacked with housework, and all you want to do when you eventually make it to Sunday is wrap up in some comfy loungewear and binge watch TV all day?

The reason behind that end of the week fatigue is not necessarily that you are lacking in energy as such, but that you are likely spreading yourself thin and are not taking the time you need to restore. To refill your supply of inspiration and motivation you need to keep your dopamine, serotonin and other happiness neurotransmitter levels in check. Waiting for the weekend to do so might just not be the best strategy.

Two Saturdays a week

Two Saturdays a week

The Swedish way of life is all about those small joys which break up the endless rollercoaster of house chores, work commitments and to-do lists to deliver happiness and put us into that state of festive childlike wonder. Neurobiology is here to back this up. It is in fact easier to stay motivated by a number of small achievable tasks, rather than to stay afloat under the burden of a global mission. This is the principle applied in the famous deadline life-hack which recommends breaking down a task into a series of micro wins. Similarly, it is important to nip encroaching stress in the bud while it is still at a manageable size.

Lillördag is therefore a conscious choice to ground yourself and metaphorically lick your wounds before you allow yourself to burn out at the end of the week. By filling your Wednesday with something that is sure to lift your mood and inspire you can help maintain that work/life balance. What can be better than the thought of the weekend being only a couple of days away, be it on Monday or a Thursday?

Things to do on your mini Saturday

Just like the now ubiquitous Danish concept of hygge, the Swedish idea of Saturdays on Wednesdays resists being defined by one specific activity and is much more about the overall atmosphere and state of being. Consequently, for each of us it would mean something different. But we are offering some easy-to-follow suggestions to get you inspired:

  • A little Saturday is the best time to embrace your dreams and do some internal work. Allocate time for your favourite writing rituals or meditation. Ask yourself at the end of the day: what is going on for me right now? What is it that I want? Name five reasons that make you proud of yourself and remind yourself of the five things you are grateful for today.
  • Check your to-do list for any outstanding pleasurable activities which you do not usually find the time for. Finish reading that book, repot your plants or pick a hotel for your next holiday.
  • Some people cannot fathom time off without some peace and quiet. Conscious solitude is truly beneficial for our mental health. Allocate time for a date with yourself, whether it is a leisurely stroll in the park or a visit to an art gallery.
  • Wednesday is also a perfect day to cook up a feast or order a takeaway of your favourite food, so long as you are not pumping your body with sugar and fast food.

Start by devising a list of your favourite pleasurable activities in advance, focusing on those that are bound to recharge your batteries. Getting this out of the way beforehand will help not turn your little Saturday into another chore that will leave you begging for more time off. Treat this list as religiously as your usual to-do lists. Make sure to only include the things that trully relax you and help you unwind. Even if it means adding a corny Netflix series or other guilty pleasures that do not usually make it into the list of activities you associate with being a grown-up. Most importantly, do not be embarrassed by anything you put down.

A daily dose of Lillördag

A daily dose of Lillördag

No matter which country you live in, there is no doubt that turning our Wednesdays into full blown days off is not an option alongside our commitment to a 40-hour working week. Neither is it necessary to reap those benefits, though we will not deter you from doing so if you have made your minds up!

Unlike the American dream, where the idea of rest is overcast by a constant pursuit of productivity and a full-steam-ahead approach, the Scandinavian dream is anything but burning deadlines and endless attempts at reducing anxiety that these very deadlines stir up. The Nordic way is to keep things simple and remain flexible. No wonder that the Scandinavian countries are among the ten happiest in the world!

Happiness consists more in the small conveniences of pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.
Benjamin Franklin

So, if taking a full day off is not an option, do it the Swedish way and start by introducing non-negotiable 15-minute breaks throughout the day. Known to Swedes as “fika”, this type of break snacking is available to everyone who is looking to restore their work/life balance, slow down the fast past of life and prevent the feeling of burnout and being overworked. So, what sort of activities can do the trick?

  • Drink a cup of herbal tea or matcha away from your work station or desk
  • Listen to some music, an episode of your favourite podcast or watch a couple of those cute kitten videos
  • Call your loved ones and ask them how they are doing
  • Tidy up your surroundings: a tidy space makes for a tidy mind
  • Leave your office for a breath of fresh air
  • Take a self-care ritual for your body such as a gentle stretch or, if you are working from home, an invigorating shower in the middle of the day
  • Lie down fully relaxed or sit down to meditate in silence

Remember that taking a fika is not about slipping another coffee down your throat to get you all pumped up for that next meeting. The whole point of it is to switch off from work entirely and rest in the here and now.

In conclusion

The Scandinavian philosophy of little Saturdays is somewhat similar to the Japanese art of a long and happy life known as ikigai. According to this, every person should have a reason to wake up each morning. In the case of Lillördag it is also a matter of having something joyful to look forward to on your way home mid-week, letting go of what we feel we should do in favour of what we want to do. No one has summarised this better than Benjamin Franklin: “Happiness consists more in the small conveniences of pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.”

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