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Laura Vanderkam is intrigued by the paradox of weekends. Although weekends are supposed to be a time to relax, the reality is that, to enjoy fulfilling weekends, you must plan them. As she puts it: "You have to set an appointment to go off 'the grid' as surely as to go on it."

The grid here, of course, is the electricity of work. Ms. Vanderkam, a journalist based just outside Philadelphia, is fascinated by time management, and loves to write about how successful people organize themselves.

She also enjoys puncturing myths about time management, notably that we are all terribly busy. She believes we're not nearly as busy as we think we are – it's the rare person who doesn't have down time for personal priorities. The problem is that we don't know where our time is going and thus don't make the most of what is available.

"Because our time is precious, we have to be careful how we spend it. We have more free time than we think, but it is not unlimited. We need to plan it so we can rejuvenate," she said in an interview.

Weekends represent for many people 60 hours of time that can be put to good use, and in her recent books –  What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast and What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend  – and an interview, she offered some helpful suggestions. Even if you're very busy and don't have 60 hours of free time, it's vital you plan your weekends. Indeed, her original thoughts on the paradox of weekends came from interviewing former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, who is limited to a one-day weekend but sees that day as vital for making the other six effective. "Even if it's only an extremely small [amount of] time off," she said, "we should maximize it. We need to hit the reset button."

She finds people resistant, however, to the notion of planning weekends. Planning conjures up the notion of some calendar-like spreadsheet with every hour itemized. That's not what she is campaigning for. She is just advising you to put in some anchor events, perhaps three to five, which can help you to rejuvenate. "Three things is not that much – three things that make the weekend enjoyable. It's a good balance for making the weekend enjoyable but leaving space for downtime," she said.

You may already have anchor events in the guise of obligations. But you need to think beyond the obligations, unless they fall into the category of rejuvenation and fun. If taking your daughter to her afternoon hockey game feels more like an obligation than fun, counterbalance it with some time for a walk or your own hockey game with friends.

Ms. Vanderkam, a marathoner, believes it's helpful to adopt the notion of cross-training to our weekends. To avoid shin splints or wrecked knees, runners will try other athletic endeavours that don't strain the same muscles but build their overall performance. She believes we can apply the same notion to our weekends, picking activities that fulfill us and help us at work. So if you're in a creative field, perhaps gardening offers a respite and allows you to still be creative. If you're a leader, you might want to coach a sports team, grappling with workday issues, like motivating others, in a different context.

It's popular today to have bucket lists of things we would like to do before we die. Ms. Vanderkam suggests you adopt that notion for weekend planning with a list of 100 dreams. Develop a bucket list of activities that appeal to you within a two-hour radius of where you live, and then reach into this list for anchor events.

If you have a standard weekend off, she urges you to break it down into five parts: Friday night, Saturday day, Saturday night, Sunday day, and Sunday night. Slot your anchors into those times but pay particular attention, she advises, to Sunday night. For most of us, the weekend seems to end on Sunday afternoon, and Sunday evening is frittered away. It slides away without much thought, and if what awaits you at work on Monday is not that pleasant, the last weekend hours may be a downer.

Instead, plan something to look forward to on Sunday night, like get-togethers with your friends. They are probably free too, because that time tends not to be planned. She scheduled her children's birthday parties for late Saturday afternoon as people were more available and it spiced up that time period.

Similarly, mornings can be wasted, so she recommends using it for personal pursuits. Long-distance runners know that long runs can be inserted into weekend mornings with minimal disruption to the family.

She loves spontaneity and stresses that planning weekends does not eliminate the freedom to be impulsive. If you decide to go to a county fair with the kids on Saturday afternoon, there will still be lots of room for spontaneity when you are there.

"Weekends deserve to be thought through. If you're busy, all the more reason to plan it. It can be tempting to want to do nothing. But nothing is unconsciously choosing something. So think through what you want to do on weekends," she says.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter