Scheduling Your Free Time Doesn’t Work, Says A New Study, So Here's What To Do Instead

Does it ever feel like basically all you do is work? Well, same. Sometimes it feels like every moment of every day is filled with obligations, even time that is supposedly time off. Now, while it might seem like scheduling your free time to be packed with friends and activities is a good idea, a new study suggests you might want to back off on the daily planning a bit. According to the research, people need free time that is actually free of obligations. In other words, if you really want to make the most of your downtime, science says you have to get comfortable with being a little more spontaneous.

The research, which will soon be published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, describes the findings of 13 previous studies, all of which explored the concept of how people go about planning and enjoying their free time. In the newer study's abstract, the researchers explained that there are basically two main approaches people use when figuring out how they spend their free time: One of those approaches is called "activity maximization," and the other is referred to as "outcome maximization." The issue here, the researchers wrote, is that a "strategy that maximizes the number of activities might be detrimental to outcome maximization."

In other words, if you're literally setting calendar alerts for things like coffee dates or a trip to the bookstore, this research suggests you're probably not enjoying those things as much as you could be.

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Selin Malkoc, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University and a lead researcher involved in the study, told The Washington Post that many of us don't really enjoy scheduled leisure time as much as we could, simply because it can easily get lumped, in our brains at least, with all of the other penciled-in appointments on a daily to-do list, like meetings, doctor appointments, and the like. Basically, Malkoc told the news outlet, when you schedule your free time a little too closely, it can start to feel like something you have to do, as opposed to something you really want to do. She told The Washington Post,

It becomes a part of our to-do list. 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.

To prove their point, in one past study, The Washington Post reports, researchers gave 163 college students "a hypothetical calendar of classes and activities." A portion of the students were asked to schedule a fro-yo date with a friend two days ahead of time, while the rest of the students were told they casually ran into their friend and decided to go for a treat at the spur of the moment. Then, every student was asked how they felt about the fro-yo date after the fact.

According to the news outlet, those who were told to schedule the date in advance felt it was more "work" than "play."

I don't know about you, but I've definitely experienced this: You make plans with an old friend to grab coffee weeks ahead of time, but when the date finally arrives for your "fun" get-together, it feels more like an obligation than anything else, and all you really want to do is go home and eat snacks with your cat.

If you can relate, the researchers suggest that if you still want to make time for your friends in advance, then it's best to make rough plans and give an approximate time frame instead of an exact time. "As trivial as the change might seem, it has an important effect on human psychology: It reintroduces the flexibility to the leisure tasks," Malkoc told The Washington Post. Hey, it's worth a shot, right?