8 ways to make Mondays less painful

Experts dish on how to start your week off on the right foot.
Woman listening to headphones on train
No matter how hectic or harried your Monday gets, remember it won’t last forever. Paul Bradbury / Getty Images/Caiaimage
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By Sarah DiGiulio

Some Mondays include delightful hours of checking things off the to-do list, maybe catching a coffee with a friend, and enjoying a veggie-filled home-cooked dinner to start the week off on the right foot. Other Mondays are jam-packed with emails, unexpected requests, a growing to-do list, and an underwhelming microwave dinner (or that open-the-pantry-and-fridge-repeatedly dance you do when you’re so over it by the end of the day you don’t have any energy left to think about a meal).

According to one recent survey, 62 percent of more than 1,000 full-time employees (who started their work weeks on Mondays) ranked Monday as their most dreaded day of the week. (The survey was conducted by The Sleep Judge, a consumer website that covers sleep and sleep products.)

People’s weekends, work weeks and Mondays all look incredibly different. So there are a lot of reasons why our Mondays (or whatever day you count as the start of your week) can hit us like a ton of bricks, explains Eve Ekman, Director of Training at the University of California Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.

Sometimes our weekends are packed with a lot of leisure, fun, good food and seeing people we care about, says Ekman, who is also co-founder of Cultivating Emotional Balance, a training program on emotional literacy and wellbeing for health care, education and corporate professionals. “It’s enjoyable, but it’s an emotional over-arousal, which is fundamentally stressful.”

That’s because the over-arousal of any emotion — whether it’s fear, anxiety or joy — is by definition taxing on our bodies rather than regenerative, and so is by definition stressful, she says. In those cases, Mondays are tough because because we haven’t actually taken time to rest, refresh and reset for the week ahead, she adds.

Other times we spend the weekend getting things done (cleaning, running errands or driving the carpool to soccer). We’re being productive, but we’re doing so in a way that engages us. We are accomplishing things; we are getting things done in an uninterrupted way. Then you go back to the office on Monday (or back to your “real world” responsibilities) and there’s way less autonomy and feeling like you’re accomplishing things, Ekman says. It’s a letdown.

There are also times when in our jobs (or other commitments) that we feel underutilized, under-stimulated and disengaged, Ekman says. “It’s not burnout. It’s another level of despair, though, in that you don’t feel like what you’re doing is productive or makes a difference at all.”

How do we then make our Mondays a little less miserable? Ekman and others have a few ideas.

1. Note if it’s burnout

Burnout can happen in a few different ways, Ekman says. There’s emotional exhaustion (it’s the type of burnout where you need some time to yourself to reset, like a vacation or just a quality meal at the end of a long day with someone you care about), which is very common. There’s lack of efficacy (where you feel like you can’t finish what’s expected of you). And there’s the more severe type of burnout, which is when you become cynical about your work (or whatever it is you’re burnt out on), Ekman says. “You don’t care and you’re checked out.”

If you feel like you experience any of these types of burnout chronically and persistently, it may be time (if you’re able to and have the resources to do so) to look for a different job, says Ekman — because burnout can really affect our mental health and wellbeing.

Signs you’re burned out (at work or in another role you have) include: you bringing negative feelings home with you; when your cynicism about your job affects your interactions with your friends and family; and if you feel blah, bleak or disconnected from your normal routines. If such feelings persist for more than a couple of weeks, consider seeking counseling or professional advice, she says. “Burnout is not a one day experience, it’s a persistent experience that lasts weeks. You may have a bad Monday, but not be burned out.”

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2. Give yourself some time over the weekend (and everyday) to reset

Whether you’re emotionally spent from a joyous weekend spent seeing family and friends and doing activities you love — or you’re physically exhausted from spending the weekend doing a home renovation project — your body needs time every day (and especially on your days “off”) to rest and reset, Ekman says. For many of us, the stress of Mondays may be that we’re coming back from work not so much refreshed, but totally wiped.

It’s not just a matter of slowing down and getting off your feet, she says. Are you giving yourself time to check in with you and how you’re feeling? Are you taking time to do what you want to do in that moment? It should be time that leaves you feeling re-energized, she says.

3. Prep for your week ahead on Friday rather than over the weekend

“Use the weekend to recharge — fully — and then be ready to face the music on Monday,” says Sarah Knight, author of the books "The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, Get Your Sh*t Together", and the rest of the "No F*cks Given Guides" series. Keep your time to yourself time for you.

Yes, hitting the ground running and organized on Monday morning (or whenever you start your work week) is one of the best ways to start your week off on the right foot. But avoid doing that planning and organizing over your weekend, Knight says. Prep for your week ahead at the end of your day on Friday or whenever you finish your “work week,” she says.

4. Frame your thinking for the week

A weekly practice that Ekman says she finds helpful is to do a retrospective and prospective meditation at the end of every weekend. It’s a practice that helps us realize and make space for what has happened and what will happen. It can strengthen our attention and focus, and actually improve our ability to notice what’s going well in the present, Ekman says.

“I ask, what’s happened since Friday night? What’s going on,” she says. “How do I feel right now?” Then, think about what’s ahead, she says. “What might happen this week? What are the challenges I might face? What might happen tomorrow — how might I feel?”

5. Follow an email strategy

Email can be a major source of stress and anxiety at work, explains Larry D. Rosen, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and co-author of "The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World". “The workday has gone from the traditional 9-to-5 to 24/7 with employees and employers alike using email primarily, and at all times of the day and night, assuming employees will answer promptly.”

Policies that come from the top — like your boss or management implementing specific hours during which emailing is allowed and certain hours when it’s not (or hours when email responses are not required, like from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) — are potentially most effective in helping. But at an individual level, implementing your own email strategy can help in some cases, too, Rosen says. Perhaps you spend a small (limited) amount of time over the weekend checking email to alleviate some of the pressure of dealing with them all on Monday morning. Perhaps it’s letting your coworkers know that you will only check emails on the hour every hour on workdays unless they’re marked as “urgent.”

Another strategy is to sort all your emails into three folders (answer now, answer later today, or file/delete at the end of the day) in the morning, Rosen says. Now the emails are prioritized and you have a road map of where and when to start dealing with them. Also allocate time at the end of the day to deal with any unanswered emails in those folders and delete the ones that are no longer relevant.

6. Take breaks

People were not made to sit and use technology for hours at a time every single day. Taking breaks (ideally ones of about 10 minutes every 60 to 90 minutes) helps, Rosen says. “Spend time in nature; talk to someone (but not about work), exercise, take a power nap or do a crossword puzzle.”

Remember, your “break” should be an activity that helps calm the brain down.

7. Make time for people and for play on Mondays, too

Again, everybody’s work is different and everybody’s time off is different, Ekman says. But for a lot of us what does differentiate work from time off in a big way is that when we’re off, we choose what we want to do and who we want to do it with. It’s that social connection that’s one of the biggest rewards we can give ourselves, Ekman says — and it’s why the weekends tend to feel so good. (Research suggests there’s actually a neural basis for why social interactions are such strong positive motivators for human behavior.)

Her advice? Rather than live in polarities where the weekends are really fun and the work week is really hard, make time for play and people you enjoy being around every single day. It might be as simple as grabbing a cup of coffee with a coworker or sharing a meal with a friend or loved one — or just talking about part of your weekend that you enjoyed with someone you care about. “It feels good,” Ekman says. And it gives us a sense of, “oh yeah, we do fun things on Mondays, too.”

(But also decide what counts as “play” for you, Knight says. Some people might find lunch dates with friends luxurious;, while others find it leaves them feeling over-scheduled.)

8. Save a little bit of weekend fun for Mondays

No matter how hectic or harried your Monday gets, remember it won’t last forever. It can help to plan something to look forward to at the end of your Monday, like dinner with a partner or friend, a yoga or spin class you love, or an episode of your favorite TV show, Knight says. Think of it as a “Monday night reward,” she says — “a balm for a tough day.” And schedule it in your calendar so you have something to look forward to.

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