Scheduled fun isn’t as enjoyable as spontaneous fun, a new paper reports.

Calendar.

Image credits Andreas Lischka.

Your trying to have a good time might just be what’s keeping you from it, a new paper suggests. According to the research, performed by a duo of scientists from the Ohio State University (OSU) and Rutgers Business School (RBS), planning leisure activities ahead of time makes us enjoy them less compared to spontaneous or more loosely-scheduled events.

It’s all about the timing

The paper explains that we tend to subconsciously ‘lump together’ all of our scheduled activity under the same mental group. It doesn’t matter if said activity is going to the dentist, paying your taxes, or a date with a special someone — if it’s scheduled, it goes in the same group. In the end, that makes us more likely to perceive pleasurable activities as chores, the authors explain, draining them of some enjoyment.

“It becomes a part of our to-do list,” Selin A. Malkoc, study co-author and an associate professor at OSU, wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “As an outcome, they become less enjoyable.”

“When scheduled, leisure tasks feel less free-flowing and more forced — which is what robs them of their utility.”

Part of the problem, Malkoc believes, is cultural. We place such a high value on achievement, she explains, that even contentment becomes secondary. Most of us live hectic lives, juggling work, school, social events, hobbies, sports, and many other activities that require an investment of time and energy. We jam-pack our schedules, fearing that we will never do all that we want to do if we give ourselves some free time, Malkoc adds.

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Because of this over-commitment to achievement, “people even strive to make leisure productive and brag about being busy,” the paper explains. In the end, however, we do more — but we enjoy all of it less.

The paper builds on a 2016 paper published by the two researchers, in which they pooled together data from 13 studies they previously conducted on the enjoyment of leisure activities. After analyzing all the results in parallel, the team concluded that scheduling leisure activities — ranging from a carwash, test-driving a car, and watching a fun video — had a “unique dampening effect” on their enjoyment.

In one of the 13 studies, the authors gave students a hypothetical calendar consisting of classes and other activities. Some of the students were asked to schedule a frozen yogurt outing with friends, two days in advance, and add it to the calendar. The rest were asked to imagine they ran into a friend by chance and ended up going to the same frozen yogurt place — but spontaneously. Both groups were later asked to report how they felt about the situation.

The first group — the schedulers — ended up perceiving the event “more like work,” the paper concludes.

So, then, what can we do to enjoy some downtime but still get something done? Malkoc believes “rough scheduling” could be the answer. Boiled down, this approach means setting up plans to meet for lunch or an after-work drink with someone, but not assigning it a time per se. If this loose plan isn’t enough to make the meetup happen, she adds, that may be for the best.

“As trivial as the change might seem, it has an important effect on human psychology: It reintroduces the flexibility to the leisure tasks,” Malkoc wrote in her email to The Washington Post.

“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?”

Malkoc uses the approach in her own personal life, saying it goes just fine and that her friends “are willing to play along”. Rough scheduling was also the subject of one of the previous studies she and Tonietto performed.

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It included 148 college students who agreed to take a break for free coffee and cookies during finals. Half of these students were asked to come in at a specific time for their snack, while the others were given a two-hour window during which they could do so. The first group reported enjoying their break less than those who were given a window, according to the study.

Another piece of advice Malkoc would give is to simply stop trying to fit so many different activities in our schedule. A good place to start from would be to prioritize our enjoyment of activities rather than their quantity, she suggests.

“Be more selective in what we choose to do … take the liberty to let things go,” she concluded in her emails. “This is not to say we should never make plans. But we can prioritize better and let go of our fear of missing out.”

The paper “The Calendar Mindset: Scheduling Takes the Fun Out and Puts the Work In” has been published in the Journal of Market Research.

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