When can I pencil you in? / Shutterstock
Have you ever found yourself dreading a leisurely activity you had eagerly scheduled days or weeks in advance?
I first caught myself doing this a few years ago when I was traveling home to Turkey. I had excitedly made plans to meet up with some old friends. But to my surprise, as the date approached, I started to feel reluctant and unenthusiastic about these long-awaited reunions.
“I have to go get lunch with my friend,” I’d grouse to others, making it sound like a chore.
Was I an anomaly? Or do other people feel this way too? We increasingly rely on scheduling to organize our lives: phone calls, appointments, dates – and, yes, fun social activities. But can planning leisure activities also start to feel like work, too? Why might they become a source of dread?
As someone who studies consumer behavior and decision-making, I decided to explore this phenomenon with Gabbie Tonietto, a Ph.D. candidate in marketing. With Tonietto leading the investigation (the results would eventually become a part of her dissertation), we conducted a series of studies to see if filling out our calendars – even with fun activities – can have unexpected side effects.
All work, no play?
Across 13 studies, we found that the simple act of scheduling makes otherwise fun tasks feel more like work. It also decreases how much we enjoy them.
For example, in one, we asked participants to imagine grabbing a coffee with a friend. Half of the participants imagined that they planned this gathering a few days in advance and put it on their calendar, while the other half were told that they decided to grab a coffee on the fly. We found that this simple, relaxing activity was associated more with work-like qualities (“obligation,” “effortful,” “work”) when it was scheduled, compared with when it was impromptu.
In several follow-up studies, we found that simply scheduling something fun – like a movie or social outing – felt like work even if it was something you regularly did, was something new or special or when you had nothing else planned for that day.
In another study, we set up a pop-up café on a university campus during finals that served free coffee and cookies. We flagged down students studying for their finals and gave them one of two tickets. The first asked participants to choose and schedule a time for them to take a study break and enjoy the free treats. The second simply told them that the café would be open during a two-hour window.
After participants showed up and had their coffee and cookie, we gave them a short questionnaire that asked them how much they enjoyed their study break. As expected, we found that those who had scheduled the study break didn’t enjoy it as much.
The constraints of a schedule
So why can making set plans be such a drag?
We think that it has to do with how scheduling structures time. Scheduling, at its core, is about allocating time to activities. There are set beginning and end points. Such strict scheduling, however, is at odds with how people think about leisure and relaxation, which are associated with unconstrained freedom. As the saying goes: Time flies when you’re having fun.
On the flip side, structured time is associated with work activities: Meetings start and end at specific times, deadlines loom and the specter of the clock is omnipresent.
So when your weekend is structured and planned – even if the activities are fun – they start to take on some of the qualities we tend to associate with work.
In another one of the studies, we asked participants to imagine that they’d just decided to spend their afternoon at a forest preserve doing a variety of activities, like canoeing and guided hikes. We told half the participants that they’d simply do two activates with a picnic in between. The other half were told they had signed up for activities at specific times (say, 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.), with time reserved in between for a picnic. Basically all the participants were making a spontaneous trips to the park and all were going to participate in similar activities. The only difference was that some of the participants had strict schedules, while others didn’t.
We found that structuring not only made the activity feel more like work, but also decreased participants’ desire to engage in them. In other words, even an impromptu leisure event starts to feel like work once it’s structured.
A rough solution
But this doesn’t mean that scheduling will take the fun out of everything. After all, you can’t do everything on the fly. For those who do need to make plans days or weeks in advance, something called “rough scheduling” can work wonders.
Because scheduling can make weekend activities feel like work, we reasoned that relaxing the structure might alleviate some of these negative consequences. To test this idea, we asked students to either schedule a get-together at a set time or by referring to a gap in their day (“between classes”). We found that eliminating specific boundaries not only increased excitement, but also worked as well as doing something spur of the moment.
So next time you want to make plans, make them flexible. You’ll feel less constrained – and more likely to have fun, too.