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Designing A Weekend Worth Talking About

You walk into the office on Monday, breakfast in hand. Then your coworker leans over and asks how your weekend was, and your mind goes blank.

What did you do this weekend? We’ve all been there. Your weekends often fill up with late nights, late mornings, chores, TV, and trips to the grocery store. But there’s more at stake in weekend planning than reporting adventures to friends and coworkers.

Sleeping through weekends—literally or figuratively—can cost you health improvement, mental rejuvenation, and the chance to explore and define who you are outside of your office persona.

Three children stand with binoculars to their eyes
Photo by BYU

Want to be better at using your weekend? Experience design is your answer. Widely successful organizations—including Amazon, Apple, and Costco—recognize that positive customer experiences have become indispensable in virtually every industry. And experiences are just as vital in personal lives as they are in professional settings. To improve how we approach our days off work, we must act as our own experience designers. When we utilize research-proven strategies to build better weekends, we exercise self-discovery, unify our families and communities, and learn to thrive not just on Saturdays and Sundays but on every day of the week.

Identity and Intentionality

You’ve probably heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but you may not realize that you are also what you do. “We all have a variety of different identities,” says Mat Duerden, associate professor of experience design and management at BYU Marriott. “When we go to explain one of those identities, we tell a story drawing upon experiences we’ve had.”

Consider Michelangelo, who is regarded as one of the best artists the world has ever seen. Before sculpting David and achieving global fame, he spent years with a hammer and chisel in his hands, experiencing and learning his craft. Similarly, Beyoncé didn’t become a star overnight—she spent much of her childhood performing and honing her musical skills. These are famous examples, but no matter who you are, your experiences have shaped who you’ve become.

If asked about your identity, consider the ones you would mention—perhaps athlete, writer, or sports car driver? Maybe movie buff, board-game strategist, musician, chef, or makeup artist? When thinking of your identities, ask yourself how you became that person. Your mind likely jumps to the experiences that shaped that identity.

A little boy boxes with toilet paper rolls attached to his hands while his dad holds the punching bag and reads a book about boxing. They are standing in a garage.

“Identity development is contingent upon experiences where we can try on different likes, dislikes, roles, beliefs, and attitudes,” says Duerden. “The importance of designing personal experiences is that these experiences are how we decide who we are, how we develop our sense of self.”

An avid outdoorsman, Duerden recalls considering his family’s identity when making a career choice. Though he loved his time as an assistant professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, Duerden and his family missed the mountains. “We would often say, ‘We love Texas, but there’s part of being here that just doesn’t quite fulfill our family identity,’” he says. In part, that’s what influenced Duerden’s decision to accept a faculty position at BYU Marriott in 2013 and move to Utah, where the Duerdens enjoy living near several mountain ranges.

If you’re uncertain which recreational activities are your cup of tea, don’t worry: developing passions takes time, notes Duerden. “Many people don’t know what their passions are because they haven’t spent enough time to become competent in a particular skill,” he explains. “You’re not passionate about the piano the first time you sit down and try to play.”

One of the best opportunities to pursue your passions is on weekends, where those elusive swaths of free time live, ripe for exploring smart leisure experiences.

Stimulation > Sedation

Comic artist Nathan W. Pyle—whose Instagram-based series Strange Planet has enjoyed massive success after launching in 2019—portrays human scenarios as they might appear on an alien planet. In March 2019, Pyle released a comic depicting a discussion between two hikers. “I desire medium danger,” one says as the pair approach a mountain. “This is moderately hazardous,” his companion replies. “I am delighted,” replies the first.¹ In his pursuit of humor, Pyle lands on a fundamental truth about recreation: it often brings us into proximity with things or situations that cause discomfort or even fear but usually on levels that we can tolerate. Psychologist Peter Gray explains that this exposure to fear is especially necessary for young people. “[Children] learn how to manage fear, how to prevent it from incapacitating them,” he wrote in 2012. “They learn that fear is normal and healthy, something they can control and overcome through their own efforts. It is practice such as this that allows them to grow up able to manage fear rather than succumb to it.”²

Such emotional development is only one of the many ways recreation helps us grow in both childhood and adulthood. To be well-rounded individuals, we need exposure to more than our weekday pursuits, as enriching as they are. We crave the new, the exciting, even the slightly dangerous.

Three children bake together while their mother watches in the kitchen
Photo by BYU

Duerden observes that too often many of the pursuits people naturally gravitate toward during free time have little to no benefit. “Unfortunately, having too many choices actually impairs our decision-making ability,” Duerden writes in Designing Experiences, coauthored with J. Robert Rossman. “We end up watching Netflix or engaging in other activities that tend to sedate rather than stimulate our brains.”³

For example, shortly after adopting two of her sons from Ghana, BYU Marriott professor of recreation management Patti Freeman was reminded of the importance of creating space for stimulating activities. In a 2012 BYU forum address, she shared this experience: On a long car ride, Freeman and her husband decided against playing a movie for entertainment. Instead of sitting in silence, one of the Freemans’ sons, whose English was limited at the time, asked Freeman to transcribe some of his thoughts as he dictated them to her. “As his thoughts emerged,” Freeman said, “I felt immediate gratitude that we hadn’t defaulted to a movie.”⁴

A lot of the experiences we have are just ordinary. We don't need to be transformed every weekend. Transformation is something that takes place over time.

Duerden and other scholars in experience design often categorize sedating experiences as prosaic, or routine experiences that can be undertaken on autopilot and quickly forgotten. But we can do things to change these experiences. For example, if a prosaic experience is driving to work, the step up could be taking public transit, a departure from our usual habits that requires more awareness.

Other experience categories, in ascending order of mental stimulation, include memorable, which promotes emotion (as when we have a truly excellent, or terrible, customer service experience); meaningful, which causes us to both experience emotion and learn new insights about ourselves or the world around us; and transformational, which changes us in some way.

When designing experiences, we should aim for categories above prosaic while not feeling the need to make all experiences life-changing ones. “A lot of the experiences we have are just ordinary. We don’t need to be transformed every weekend,” Duerden says. “Transformation is something that takes place over time.”

Find Your Balance

Not long after her 2017 graduation, therapeutic recreation management alum Crishelle Simons joined Acqua Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Midway, Utah. Simons was delighted to find a position where she could directly apply what she’d learned at BYU Marriott. “What I was looking to do at Acqua Recovery,” she says, “was to increase my patients’ intrinsic motivation to make healthy choices, to enjoy their leisure time, and to use that leisure time to develop healthy coping skills rather than continuing to turn back to unhealthy coping skills.

“We did everything from making a collage and jewelry to rock climbing, skiing, and playing pickleball and disc golf,” Simons continues. “One of my favorites was improv workshops, which take people completely out of their element and help them learn how to play make believe as adults.”

Simons has seen leisure experiences change lives; she estimates that her patients’ intrinsic motivation increased between 30 and 80 percent during their stay at the facility. The key to her success was teaching her patients to build an arsenal of what industry experts call core leisure activities. “In order to have holistic, well-rounded leisure in your life, you need to have core, which is routine leisure, something that helps you connect with yourself, other people, and your higher power,” Simons says. Engaging in routine leisure helped her patients see themselves as more competent, autonomous, and connected with others.

Additionally, Simons instructed her patients on the importance of occasional variety leisure experiences, also called balance activities. “Balance leisure provides novelty and newness to your schedule,” she says. “These are activities that you’re looking forward to. They could be as simple as taking your kids to a different park or something as grand as traveling internationally.”

BYU Marriott professor of experience design and management Ramon Zabriskie has spent years studying this design strategy, known as the core and balance model, as it applies to families. Core activities, Zabriskie notes, should be low cost, accessible, and informal, while balance activities can, and sometimes should, be the exact opposite. Out-of-the-ordinary balance activities “expose family members to unfamiliar stimuli from the environment and new challenges within a leisure context, requiring them to learn, adapt, and progress,” Zabriskie writes.⁵

Core and balance activities will look different for every family, but one thing is clear: “People are different in terms of what we like and what we don’t like,” Duerden says. “But we’re fairly universal in just reverting to whatever is easiest when we don’t plan it intentionally.” In other words, no matter what we do, we should plan to do it.

Strengthen your core. Core activities should conform to your goals and budget, as well as the types of activities that resonate with you or your family. Browse possible core activities below to try, or identify ones you are already pursuing. Family dinner, community classes and events, bird watching, hiking or rock climbing, fishing, camping, movie night, attending church or other religious activities, running, exercise classes such as yoga, kickboxing or spin, cooking or baking, language study, spending time with friends, puzzles, attending concerts or the theater, gardening, computer programming, scrapbooking, playing at the park, walking the dog, reading, tennis, golf or other sports, sewing or knitting, volunteering, woodworking or other crafts, creative writing or journaling, painting, drawing, or collage-making

Where You’re Going

One weekend, Simons and a friend took their mountain bikes for a spin in the mountains near Pleasant Grove, Utah. The sun sank toward the horizon as the two riders sped over a rocky trail with a steep drop to one side. Simons found herself becoming increasingly nervous about falling over the edge. Looking to her friend, she asked, “How do you do this?”

Her companion replied, “I focus on where I want to go rather than where I don’t want to go.”

That advice guided Simons down the rest of the trail and continues to influence her today. “That idea was so profound,” Simons says. “That has stuck with me forever.”

Focusing on where we want to go is essential to the core and balance model. All leisure should be undertaken with a goal in mind, Simons says. Currently some of her goals for her leisure time include engaging more with other people, pursuing core activities daily and balance activities weekly, and keeping costs down. One way she achieves these goals is through attending events such as Relief Society activities. “I count that as a leisure activity when I choose to do it with my free time,” Simons explains.

Religious experiences can be a core part of every weekend, Duerden observes, and it’s important to consider them as such. “Recently The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been asking us to be more intentional about how we spend our Sundays,” he says. “We’re emphasizing the types of experiences that bring us closer to the Savior Jesus Christ, such as ministering.”

Connecting with other people and choosing everyday experiences can be simple but life changing. Simons says her mountain biking excursion illustrates how the most invaluable experiences can happen anytime, anywhere. The amount of money or time required for an activity doesn’t always predict how memorable or valuable the experience will be.

A man and a woman and two girls stand with fishing equipment and fish out of a barrel

“People don’t always take advantage of the free leisure opportunities available all the time,” Simons says. “Communities have tons of free or cheap classes. Maybe you can borrow outdoor gear from a friend. Utilize the resources you already have.”

Of course, we can also plan too much. Simons says she has run into this problem many times, trying to cram so much into a weekend that carefully planned experiences have turned negative. Her husband, George, a recent grad from BYU Marriott’s MBA program, has a way of “affectionately reminding me of that,” Simons says.

To avoid the trap of overplanning, Simons recommends looking at each weekend individually. “The biggest thing in building a great weekend is to look at what you need to accomplish,” she says. “Ask, do I need an adventure this weekend? Or do I need some relaxation and recharge time? And then honor whatever answer comes.”

Ultimately, we need both consistency and variety in our weekends—routine leisure experiences and novel ones as well. So don’t be afraid to keep your tried-and-true traditions of eating foil-wrapped food on Friday nights while watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show or hiking your favorite trail almost every weekend each summer. But the next time you get the chance to take the Girl Scouts river rafting, join your neighbors for stargazing, or even just take a different hiking trail, don’t be afraid to seize those opportunities as well. You might just discover another identity.

The bottom line? “The best weekends are those that you anticipate in a positive way and you participate in in an engaged, intentional way,” says Duerden. “You’re doing things that develop your identity, make you a better person, and help people around you.”

So, what are you doing this weekend?


Article written by Clarissa McIntire
Photos by Bradley Slade


  1. Nathan W. Pyle (@nathanwpylestrangeplanet), “medium,” Instagram photo, 25 March 2019, Bvc2rvRg9Ls.
  2. Peter Gray, “Free Play Is Essential for Normal Emotional Development,” Psychology Today (blog), 21 June 2012, free-play-is-essential-normal-emotional-development.
  3. Robert Rossman and Mathew D. Duerden, Designing Experiences (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 18.
  4. Patti Freeman, “Intentional Recreation and Things that Matter Most,” BYU forum address, 17 July 2012, intentional-recreation-and-things-that-matter-most.
  5. Ramon B. Zabriskie and Tess Kay, “Positive Leisure Science: Leisure in Family Contexts,” in Positive Leisure Science, ed. Teresa Freire (New York: Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, 2013), 85,
  6. Freeman, “Intentional Recreation and Things that Matter Most.”

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