Your social calendar might be sucking the joy out of activities that are supposed to be fun or relaxing, according to an upcoming paper co-written by a professor who studies time management.
The paper argues that when a leisure activity is planned rather than spontaneous, we enjoy it less. That’s because we tend to mentally lump all our scheduled activities in the same bucket — whether it’s a dentist appointment or grabbing coffee with a friend. And that makes the pleasurable activities more of a chore.
“It becomes a part of our to-do list,” wrote Selin A. Malkoc, one of the study’s authors, in an email. “As an outcome, they become less enjoyable.”
The paper, to be published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology in April, is written by Malkoc, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University, and Gabriela Tonietto, an assistant professor at Rutgers Business School. It notes that there are many things grabbing at our free time.
We schedule activities back-to-back for fear of not accomplishing them all. Malkoc — who has an expertise in how people perceive and consume their time — links the over-scheduling of free time to the value that we place on achievement over contentment. “The focus on productivity is so widespread that people even strive to make leisure productive and brag about being busy,” reads the paper.
So we do more and enjoy less.
“When scheduled, leisure tasks feel less free-flowing and more forced — which is what robs them of their utility,” Malkoc explains.
The paper draws in part on research they described in a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Marketing Research, in which Malkoc and Tonietto wrote about 13 studies they conducted that analysed the enjoyment of leisure activities. They concluded that scheduling the activities — which included things such as a carwash, test-driving a car and watching a fun video — had a “unique dampening effect.”
In one study, 163 college students were given a hypothetical calendar of classes and activities. Some of the students were asked to schedule a frozen yogurt outing with a friend two days in advance, and add it to their calendar. The rest were told they bumped into a friend and ended up going on a spontaneous yogurt run. Then they were asked how they felt about it.
“Those who scheduled getting frozen yogurt construed it more like work,” according to the paper. So if we’re not supposed to schedule our free time, how are we expected to get anything done? Or see our friends?
The answer, according to Malkoc, is “rough scheduling,” meaning meeting for lunch or an after-work drink but not assigning it a time.
“As trivial as the change might seem, it has an important effect on human psychology: It reintroduces the flexibility to the leisure tasks,” she says.
And if making a loose plan results in the meetup not happening, it might be a better outcome in some instances, she said.
“If things don’t work out, in all likelihood at least one of the parties was forcing themselves to make it happen — and thus would enjoy it less. So, maybe things worked out for the best, right?” she wrote in her email.
In her own social life, when her friends try to pin her down to a specific time, she said she cites her research and finds “they are willing to play along.”
One of the studies she and Tonietto wrote about supports the idea of successful rough scheduling. In the study, they recruited 148 college students during finals time who agreed to take a break for free coffee and cookies. Half of them were assigned a specific time for the snack and half were given a two-hour window. The students who were given a specific time reported less enjoyment in the coffee break than those who were given a window, according to the study.
In addition to rough scheduling, another piece of advice Malkoc offered is to stop trying to fit so much into our lives.
A start is measuring our enjoyment of activities rather than the quantity of them, she suggests. “Be more selective in what we choose to do ... take the liberty to let things go,” she wrote. “This is not to say we should never make plans. But we can prioritise better and let go of our fear of missing out.”