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When the lockdowns began, families realized they could do without some of the extracurriculars and work activities that had once kept them too busy to talk to one another. This fall, as schools reopen and parents go back to work, they’re trying to focus on the essentials

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Catherine Harris, second from right, sits with son Griffin, far right, husband Aron, second left, and daughter Morgan, far left, in their Toronto backyard. Ms. Harris spoke with The Globe and Mail about the things from the family's hectic pre-pandemic lifestyle that they won't be returning to this year.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Catherine Harris looks back on her family’s communal Google Calendar during the harried months before pandemic lockdowns brought much of Canada to a halt, she still sounds winded.

Her hours as a manager in the cultural sector chronically bled into evenings and weekends. In her off time, Ms. Harris, 49, functioned as her mother’s “Uber driver,” ferrying her on grocery trips, errands and to medical appointments.

Her husband, Aron Harris, 50, hustled between his graphic production job, a freelance photography business and more hours as a music editor for a culture website. Their children Morgan, 12, and Griffin, 15, raced to swim lessons, ballet classes, Girl Guides and robotics club. Teachers’ meetings, museum board obligations, band rehearsals, dental checkups and social engagements filled every square on the calendar.

Pandemic restrictions brought their hectic life to a standstill. As the four retreated into their home to learn and work remotely, the tempo of days shifted abruptly. Shared meals, walks and new hobbies replaced the runaround.

This fall, the family is bracing for re-entry. With the kids back at school and Ms. Harris taking on more office hours, they fear the busy churn will hijack their calendar again – and so they’re pushing back.

“We will choose our top priority things and not try to do everything,” Ms. Harris said. “I hope we’re not alone in that.”

As schools reopen, extracurricular events ramp up and employees face a return to the office after 18 months of deep disruption, Canadians are thinking carefully about what happens next, with many reappraising the oversubscribed lives they led before the global crisis took hold.

Those who managed to gain more control over their time during the pandemic are setting firmer boundaries, saying no more often and hoping to build a healthier new normal.

Even as lockdowns narrowed the days into thin slivers of experience, these months left many questioning why they’d overscheduled themselves so badly in the Before Times.

What was it about an empty agenda that felt inadequate, compared with a chaotic tangle of obligations? Why did leisure time often feel like a foreign concept? And what did it mean for our relationships when nearly everything got cancelled – when we walked, talked and ate with our closest people, connecting in moments devoid of the usual hurry?

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The Harrises want to keep their lives at a reasonable pace when school and work activities pick up in the fall.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The past 18 months taught the Harrises to make more time for themselves, reject a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality and try to let go of the word “should,” Ms. Harris said. When life stopped rocketing forward in lockdown, she started long-distance walking in the early mornings, while her husband took up pizza making. They planted a pandemic victory garden.

“When you have the flexibility to pursue things that are more in your dream world than in your grind, it’s a powerful experience,” Ms. Harris said, acknowledging that her family was lucky to have more personal time while working from home with steady incomes.

Observing his friends during the crisis, Mr. Harris noticed nobody was bragging about how busy or in-demand they were any more: “That, to me, almost feels dead now,” he reflected this summer. “Right now, anyone who said that, I would feel bad for.”

Experts who study time pressure view the current moment as an inflection point. Will the pandemic serve as a force-quit on our culture of busyness and overwork? Or will we rapidly revert to the old ways – the punishing office hours, stressful commutes and overloaded time off that left so many profoundly unhappy?

“We’re seeing this recalibration of what matters in people’s lives,” said Phyllis Moen, who co-wrote the 2020 book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. “People have seen that life is short. There are parts of our life that we can’t put off for later. What we have is now.”

As a University of Minnesota sociology professor who researches work and health, Prof. Moen is examining how people are reimagining their connection to paid work. She views the re-entry after lockdowns as a pivotal moment. “Right now, workers are saying, ‘I don’t want to invest all my time and interests in getting ahead at work. I want to have a life,’” Prof. Moen said. “It’s not just those with family responsibilities. It’s those who have interests, hobbies, relationships they want to nurture. It’s a real sea change that will push the redesign of how work is accomplished.”

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Montrealers ride a nearly empty subway in April, 2020, a month into the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadian workers who no longer had to commute every day soon found they could do other things with the time.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Keeping time

A sizable body of time-use research conducted throughout the pandemic suggests the crisis left Canadians reassessing how they want to spend their hours and days.

While many families – mothers in particular – struggled to find any semblance of work-life balance while juggling full-time work, child care, virtual learning and chores while locked down at home, there were clear silver linings some hope to maintain postpandemic.

Some 40 per cent of Canadians found they were spending more quality time with immediate family, with 37 per cent reporting more free hours and less commuting time, according to a January poll from the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS), a non-profit research organization, and Leger, a market research firm.

Among the 38 per cent of employed Canadians who stopped commuting during the pandemic, people used the extra hours to cook, clean, read, pursue hobbies, exercise, meditate, spend time with close ones and catch up on sleep, according to February data from the Vanier Institute of the Family and Environics Research.

Six in 10 parents found they were talking more frequently to their children in lockdown than before, according to another report jointly conducted by Vanier, ACS and Leger in the summer of 2020. Two-thirds of young people reported having more meaningful conversations with family in the pandemic than prior to it, while seven in 10 said they were relaxing more now than before, a May, 2020, COVID-19 Social Impacts Youth Survey found.

Some youth found pandemic restrictions gave them more time to reflect on the past, consider future goals and reconnect with family at home, as well as relatives and friends – all of which they felt too busy for before, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which surveyed young people in the first wave.

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Evren, 9, spends time in Toronto's Ramsden Park with mother Shayma Saadat and father Zain Ahmed.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Shayma Saadat said the lockdowns helped serve as a reset button, shifting her and her family away from a strenuous pace she’d long found “mentally exhausting.”

Before the pandemic, Ms. Saadat, a food writer, stylist and photographer, was attending non-stop networking events in downtown Toronto. Her husband, Zain Ahmed, a Bay Street banker, worked long hours, travelling frequently. Their nine-year-old son Evren was enrolled in after-school French courses and played soccer and hockey, time-intensive activities scattered across the city.

“When the pandemic hit, all of this came to a standstill,” Ms. Saadat said. “If you ask me how I feel about it now, I actually feel relieved.”

During lockdowns, she built her brand online instead of running to various events and meet-and-greets. With the time saved, she was able to spend several hours nightly connecting with her son over home-cooked dinners and bedtime reading.

Ms. Saadat and her husband decided not to overbook their son this fall, choosing soccer over hockey. She has limited her own social engagements to one a week, growing more discerning about the invitations that are flooding in again.

“I don’t want to go back to that superficial socializing and networking. I do not want to ‘grab a coffee,’” Ms. Saadat said.

“I’ve become very possessive of my time now. Before I would say ‘yes’ to be polite. What I’m doing right now is just saying to people, ‘I’m taking re-entry very slowly.’”

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Evren and his parents take a walk in the park. Ms. Saadat says she found more time to spend with Evren during the pandemic, when the in-person networking events that took up much of her time were cleared from her schedule.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Busy bodies

Brigid Schulte delved into North Americans’ fixation on overwork and achievement in her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has the Time. She charted our tendency to brandish busyness as a badge of honour and put off leisure time as something that needs to be earned first – a lifestyle that leaves many unfulfilled.

As director of Better Life Lab, the work-family justice and gender-equity program at Washington think tank New America, Ms. Schulte has been watching the past 18 months closely, tracing families’ experiences at work and at home through the global crisis – and what happens next with our time use after this level of disruption.

“We are on a knife edge,” Ms. Schulte said. “This is the moment. We’re in this in-between zone.”

While she believes it will take more than the pandemic to upend a busyness culture so deeply baked in for many North Americans, the author has witnessed hopeful pockets of change, with some people genuinely reconnecting to slower, quieter ways. Ms. Schulte sees some families making a switch and “sparking more concentric circles of change” – setting an example for others around them.

Still, the author questioned how sweeping any of these changes will be: “Will it be lasting and potentially transformative over time? Or will it be too hard to resist the old status quo for an extended period, and so we eventually snap back?”

Having slowed down during the pandemic, Toronto manager Rob Brown hopes to maintain a less frantic pace this fall and beyond.

Before lockdowns hit, the 42-year-old father often felt “there wasn’t enough time to breathe.” On weekdays, he’d wake by 6 a.m., hound his 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to get ready for school, then race to the office on public transit – a congested commute that often stretched to an hour. After work, thrice-weekly swimming and French lessons for the kids, homework assessments, dinner, bedtime routines and cleanup duties. Weekends were dominated by family visits, his parents living more than two hours away.

“My kids felt the brunt of the rush,” said Mr. Brown, who is a widower. “It’s always dad pestering, ‘Hurry up, get ready, let’s go, we gotta be here by this time.’”

With lockdowns forcing everyone into the home for remote working and learning, the family began waking later, taking lunch breaks together and planning their dinners during the afternoon dog walk. On weekends, they’d do art and Lego projects and made a goal of hiking the entire Bruce Trail in Ontario.

“COVID allowed us to sit back, reset and rethink what our real priorities are,” Mr. Brown said. “Life is flying by extremely quickly. I don’t want to lose a second of it.”

In a bid to maintain a lighter pace, he and his live-in partner will limit the number of extracurricular activities for the kids, letting them grow through their friendships after school instead. Less clear is how his job will affect their master plan: Mr. Brown said his employer expects staff back in the office at least three days a week this fall.

“I’m steadfast on achieving a more harmonious relationship between work and life,” he said, “but with a stronger focus on life.”

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Signs advertise office space for rent in downtown Montreal this spring. Here, as in cities across Canada, the shift toward working from home has reshaped expectations and demand for office space.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Reimagining work

Employees who flourished while working from home for a year and a half are questioning the return to traditional office culture this fall, taking a hard look at how work will shape their lives going forward.

Prof. Moen believes “the genie is out of the bottle” as far as where and how work is now done. Increasingly, she sees North Americans pushing for work that is “sustainable, sane and productive.”

Some 80 per cent of Canadians do not want to return to their pre-existing work schedules, according to a spring report from ACS and Leger. Among the work-from-home set, 82 per cent said it was a positive experience, according to a May analysis from the COVID-19 Social Impacts Network, a group of experts studying the social and economic effects of the pandemic in Canada. Those who’ve found they prefer remote work said it’s more convenient, boosts their productivity and makes them feel as if they are better parents.

“Not only did the pandemic change the way work is done but it precipitated rethinking about identities, goals and meanings of life and work,” Prof. Moen said. “Those who can find other jobs may well try to, simply to have greater flexibility and choice.”

Ms. Schulte stressed these conversations need to extend to employees across the socio-economic spectrum.

“Having no control over disorganized time is one of the most stressful experiences people can live in, and a lot of people in low-wage and hourly work, that is how they work,” she said. “If we can take this newfound sense of being able to breathe and control our time and our lives, maybe this is the time for us to also become civically engaged – to work for policies so everybody could have that kind of time, space and autonomy in their lives.”

The challenge facing employers this fall is whether to take a rigid stance and risk losing burned-out workers, or recognize the benefits of employees who enjoy greater work-life balance.

“Prepandemic, work-family flexibility wasn’t really thought of as a performance tool; it was thought of as an accommodation,” said Ellen Ernst Kossek, a work-family expert at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management. “And yet, we knew for a long time with telework research, it can really get higher productivity,”

Prof. Kossek points out it’s not just workers who benefited from more control over their time outside the office: Bosses felt it too during the pandemic. “Where you’re going to see the most change is in organizations where the leaders themselves see that they enjoyed flexibility. That may be where the opportunity is: leaders who now get work-life [balance] for themselves,” said Prof. Kossek, who is a university distinguished professor of management.

Prof. Moen believes video call meetings – a corporate hallmark of the pandemic – broke down long-standing myths about the ideal worker committed solely to the job. Beaming into people’s homes, these intimate meetings revealed to employers that their staffers lead complex lives outside the office, lives they need time to nurture.

“Zoom has shown a whole person: We see cats and dogs in the background; we see kids; we see their homes. We see the reality that people are not just workers; they have these whole lives,” Prof. Moen said. “Organizations are going to have to recognize this and rethink their instant, always-on, work-at-work-only policies and expectations.”

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Rita Chand relaxes in Victoria's Saxe Point Park, one of her favourite places. She says she doesn't want to return to the hyper-busy life she led before the pandemic.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

The art of saying no

While some Canadians are reconsidering the work grind, others are thinning out their social calendars this fall.

Before the pandemic, Rita Chand used to schedule most of her evenings with dinners and parties, staying late for fear of missing out.

“What I see now in hindsight is I was filling my time,” said Ms. Chand, a strategic human resources and engagement officer in Victoria. “As someone who’s been single a long time, we tend to do that sometimes.”

The pandemic forced Ms. Chand, who lives alone, to sit with herself. The experience made her more independent and discerning about how she spends her time. Recently, she left a birthday barbecue early (and unapologetically) to do her grocery shopping. Instead of cramming her weekday afternoons with social events, she walks her local beaches. She’s instituted “self-care Sundays,” making time to give herself manicures, facials and hair treatments.

“Everyone knows: Don’t call me on Sundays,” Ms. Chand laughed.

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Ms. Chand sets aside 'self-care Sundays,' and by now her friends know not to disturb her then.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Toronto production designer Crystal Westland is also pushing back on a tendency to overbook her life. Prepandemic, she’d sometimes pack eight weekends in a row with activities, much to the chagrin of her husband, who works long hours for a startup and preferred one day a week to relax. Their weekdays were jammed, too: an endless parade of outings with friends, plus playdates, soccer, dance and swim classes for their daughters, ages 4 and 8. “It caused us a lot of grief in our marriage, how much we had going on,” Ms. Westland, 38, said. “It came up in therapy all the time.”

In the first wave of lockdowns, the hyper-busy parents felt as if they’d hit a wall. Still, it didn’t take long to grasp “the immediate gift” of an empty schedule, as winter weekends downshifted into sleeping in, board games and dog walks in wooded High Park. “Cars and restaurants and the sounds of the city, all of it just slowed down,” Ms. Westland said. “All of us had a bit more space.”

As they stare down re-entry this fall, she and her husband are pensive. Worried that the insights of the past 18 months would slip away from them, the two sat down this summer to chart out a more intentional course for their family – much the same way they did with their first baby.

“We need to plan a block of time for nothing and maintain it,” Ms. Westland said.

They’ve chosen to reserve Sundays for themselves and not book social commitments beyond two weekends in advance. When she inevitably runs into an acquaintance on Roncesvalles Avenue, the busy main street in her neighbourhood, Ms. Westland said she’s trying to exit the conversation with “So nice to see you,” instead of scheduling drinks.

She plans on being upfront about her family’s refusal of the overscheduled life and hopes this will encourage others to do the same.

“Let’s all hold each other accountable to not go back there.”

The Decibel on an unusual back-to-school season

We’re heading into the third school year of the pandemic. What does that mean for the health and well-being of children and parents? Education reporter Caroline Alphonso explains what to expect on The Globe and Mail’s news podcast with Tamara Khandaker. Subscribe for more episodes.

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