(Photo: Adreanna Moya Photography)
The day and the year are regular astronomical events that provide a natural rhythm to life. The month is of lunar origin. But the week is different. It is not tied to any natural phenomenon. And Ben Schreckinger of Slate argues that it’s also counterproductive for modern life. He says that we should abolish it or experiment with alternative cycles.
Scheckinger traces the history of the week, which is of Jewish and Christian origin. It and the weekend were reinforced by the Industrial Revolution and the need to standardize scheduling for large numbers of workers:
In 1926, Henry Ford began shutting his factories on Saturdays in a bid to crystallize an American convention of a two-day weekend full of recreation (that he hoped would involve driving). It worked.
Fast forward to 2014, and most of us in Western societies are still working or attending class five days a week, then taking a two-day break, then going at it for another five days, and so on. We’re as loath to spend Saturday at the office as we are unlikely to spend Tuesday at the beach. We go on living our lives in weeks, though the economic and spiritual logic for dividing time this way has grown outdated.
This is eroding, especially for knowledge workers as telecommunications let people work from home:
A software engineer in London can upload new code for, say, the operating system of a self-driving car at 4 a.m. on a Saturday. It will instantaneously be available to her colleagues in Boston and California whenever they need it, and their small team can easily arrange teleconferences on the fly as needed. Such activities benefit little from being organized on the weekly system.
Some may feel that the weekend is our one remaining buffer against work creep. But it isn’t! People already routinely work from home on Saturdays. Rather than a sacred refuge, Sundays are now both killing us and dying.
Some companies offer employees unlimited paid vacation. One of the common critiques to this practice is that employees never truly earn their time off. Officially, you earn your weekend off. Unofficially, you’d better have that report ready by Monday morning.
What weeks do offer people is what Scheckinger calls the network effect:
The chief value of the seven-day week comes from the network effect: If you want to coordinate with other people, it’s useful to be on the same schedule as everyone else. Parents are unlikely to go off a five-two cycle as long as their children’s schools remain on it, and schools are unlikely to go off the cycle as long as parents remain on it.
Breaking out of that network effect is very hard. Years ago, when I worked in public libraries, I had to work alternating Fridays or Saturdays. It was an infuriating scheduling practice because it meant that I could never schedule a weekly activity on either Fridays or Saturdays. The modern Western world operates mostly on a weekly system. Scheckinger writes that breaking out of this norm is hard, but not impossible:
There are Silicon Valley startups run by young people with few outside commitments and an obsessive focus on their venture. Lifehacking has already taken aim at daily sleep-and-wake cycles. Why not hack the calendar and find out whether there’s a most-efficient cycle of work and play? Of course, maximum efficiency isn’t life’s aim. Artist communities could also experiment with transcending the week. The year is like a blank slate, and each day a tile that can be arranged into a mosaic — whether in a regular pattern or some other way.