Should you plan your leisure time, or does that take the fun out of it?

IMG_0519In the common narrative, we are all scheduled to the hilt. Our work lives are dictated by 15-minute slots on Outlook. So should you treat your leisure time the same way, scheduling in that workout and drinks with a friend?

No! Say researchers at Washington University. According to a series of studies (written up in Time — originally in Health — see link here), people who schedule their leisure time enjoy it less. It feels too much like work.

Longtime readers know I am quite a planner, and so I have to admit, I have been puzzling over this contribution to the marketplace of ideas since alert reader ARC sent me that link. I feel this conclusion is lacking some nuance, much like people used to think that fat makes you fat, and now we know it is not so simple. Other research has found that anticipation accounts for a major chunk of human happiness. It is hard to anticipate something you haven’t planned.

There are likely some other things going on too. Some people hate to plan and some people love to plan. If a study (and maybe the population at large) had more “Ps” than “Js” in the old Myers-Briggs taxonomy, you might decide that planning was problematic, when in reality it is problematic for some people and not for others. I also think it is quite possible that the researchers hit upon the phenomenon that we never feel perfect bliss in the moment. You can be unhappy at a party you have looked forward to for months because your feet hurt. (I would point out — if you planned to go, and enjoyed the anticipation, however, you still reaped real enjoyment! Just not during. But does it have to be during to count?).

But anyway, let us say this conclusion is true: planning our leisure means we enjoy it less. So what? The problem with accepting the logical conclusion — stop planning your leisure time! — is that in order to enjoy leisure time at all it has to happen. And if you have a busy life with moving parts — for instance, if you are a working parent of small children — you have to plan or there will be no leisure in your life beyond watching TV. That is the easiest thing to do, and it does not require any planning to do during the downtime that presents itself after the kids go to bed or are occupied with other things.

Now I grant that watching TV with a glass of wine can certainly be fun. I will even grant that if you have a dinner reservation at a hot restaurant with your two best friends — which required coordinating with their schedules, and calling the restaurant, and booking a sitter if you are the sole adult in charge — you may, while sitting on the couch watching TV, feel like it is a bit of trouble to roust yourself, get dressed, give the sitter instructions, and so forth. If a researcher talked with you at that moment, you might express your displeasure. However, in the grand scheme of things, you will probably still be happy you went. The evening will be a source of more happy memories than sitting on the couch with the wine would be.

I think this gets at the distinction between effortless fun, and effortful fun. Because effortful fun involves, well, effort, and effort can be unpleasant, it is always easier to under-invest in this side of life. But if we refuse to engage in effortful fun because of that unpleasantness, this would basically mean a life of no parties, no performances that could not be decided on as you were walking past the venue at the last possible second, no getting together with friends who have busy schedules, no book clubs, no volunteer gigs, etc. I find it hard to believe that such a life would be more enjoyable than one that was better planned.

In other news: The New York Times ran a very nice profile of my brother-in-law and his work in health care.

In other, other news: I am writing a piece about how to become an “intellectual middleman/woman.” A lot of innovation is about combining ideas from disparate fields. So how do you expose yourself to different ideas? Some suggestions so far: following different thought leaders on Twitter, buying new magazines to fill the white space of airport wait time, etc.

Photo: My daughter and I went shoe shopping, and this is what we came home with.


28 thoughts on “Should you plan your leisure time, or does that take the fun out of it?

  1. I previously somewhat resisted planning my leisure time even though I am a person who enjoys planning. However, I’ve come to realize that inertia usually wins and I’ve been inspired by your posts to be more intentional about planning fun for our weekends. I do much better when I plan an outing and I’ve been working to schedule date nights with my husband every six weeks this year and that takes effort with getting a sitter figuring out what to do, etc. Plus we have museum passes but unless I plan to go we don’t just spontaneously decide to take a trip. And I enjoy it more when I’ve planned something and we do fun things and I feel satisfied we’ve used our weekend well and spent time together as a family. I don’t think it takes away from enjoyment at all.

    1. @Alissa – yes, date night! Another thing that will not happen without planning if you have small kids. I agree that planning can feel like work, but it is key to making fun stuff happen if you have a lot going on.

  2. There is planning and there is planning. Having my weekend all planned-out in 15-minute slots of fun activities would be crazy. Having a general idea of a few things I would like to do over the weekend and making plans for 1-2 activities is much better than having no plan at all. Doing too much is bad and doing too little is bad: finding the right balance requires some strategic thinking (and planning).

    Everything in moderation 🙂

    1. @Natasha- I’m with you on this. I don’t plan my life in 15 minute slots either. I like open space. But I also like to have fun “anchor” activities to look forward to. “Plan nothing” vs “plan every second” is a false choice.

  3. its amusing that many people have the same problem ( i.e. un-leisurely leisure time) but that the solutions are generally not ones size fits all. I definitely believe that the answers to lifestyle type questions depend on the individual. Gretchen Rubin spends a good bit of time in her Better Than Before talking about knowing yourself, and the different variations in personalities that affect how people can properly solve these universal issues.

    1. @Angela- I am a definite “upholder” in her rubric. I do know that there are planning sorts and spontaneous sorts. There are ways that spontaneous sorts can loosely plan in order to get the benefits of planning without the feeling of being trapped. So getting a sitter for Friday night (planning) and then deciding on Friday evening what you feel like doing — maybe parking in a cool neighborhood and walking around and seeing what strikes you. But if you can’t bring yourself to do the planning part of hiring a sitter, well, then you’re screwed.

  4. I found that article completely ridiculous. Plan to meet for coffee “in the afternoon” instead of 3pm? How the heck do you coordinate that? Don’t schedule happy hour? Just show up the day you feel like it at the bar and hope your friends are there too?
    Doing anything with other people who do not live with you inherently involves scheduling. Doing anything that involves tickets, or transportation, or reservations does too.
    I LOVE planning, my husband buys into the “planning makes it less fun” mentality for some reason. I just try to plan family outings in secret and spring it on him as if it was a spontaneous idea and I didn’t have bus time tables and ticket prices and menu options already planned out…

    1. @Ana – yep. I am willing to believe that perhaps I enjoy my leisure time less than other people, but I also *have* lots of varied leisure as a working mom of 4, because I plan it, and so that is a trade-off I am willing to make.

  5. I like to plan my leisure time too and think it makes things much easier. As other commenters have pointed out, there’s a difference between scheduling every fifteen minutes of the day and having a general plan with a start time. I don’t think planning takes that much time for most leisure activities, but I also don’t have kids. People also tend to focus on the most negative aspect of anything, which if it something that is otherwise pretty awesome, is going to be the planning.

    As far as being an “intellectual middlewoman,” this is something I’m very interested in. I’m a librarian and so much of my work is connecting the dots and helping people find information, sometimes in odd places. I am also just a very curious person, but have to rein myself in at times to avoid overwhelm. I would also suggest taking yourself to the library and going to a section you normally wouldn’t go to and browsing, follow one or two bloggers who post weekly link round ups that you enjoy (my personal favorites are Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens and Austin Kleon), and just generally exposing yourself to new people, places, and things. It amazes me how often something I read about in passing comes up later on in some way–it often turns out to be something that I can share with a friend or colleague. Another thought is to seek out people and writing that you know you most likely won’t agree with–it gives you a lot to think about and widens your perspective. The internet is constantly getting better at putting you in your own little filter bubble, where it feeds you what it thinks you want to read and hear, and that’s not always helpful.

    1. @Caitlin – I love the library idea, and also the idea of reading things you don’t agree with. It is true that the world makes it increasingly easy to live in a little bubble.

    2. Caitlin,
      Those are great ideas, I too love your idea of seeking out a variety of different perspectives. Thanks for sharing that. You sound like you would be a great person to hang out with!

  6. Great topic Laura. I think planning is an essential component of anticipation as you mentioned AND of carving out time for what is important versus the tyranny of the urgent. All that aside, people that actually let their plans run their lives and miss the opportunity for spontaneity are also missing out. “Plan a tomorrow to really live today and create a yesterday worth remembering.”

  7. Oh I don’t know…. Many of the best times I’ve had have been spontaneous fun where I just happened to run into someone I know and we all go out and have a great improvised time. But, unfortunately as a resident and a mom, this sort of fun just doesn’t happen that often so I am stuck with planning everything. I don’t enjoy it at all. I have a hard time thinking of fun things that I want to do in advance and they never end up being as much fun as I thought they would be. It also stresses me out because I have so little free time that I want the fun things I do to…. Not even be perfect. I just want them to not totally suck, which they often do. So, I’m afraid I agree with the article, though maybe it is that the people who are able to be spontaneous just have different lives that can accommodate that.

  8. Interesting discussion (here, I have to admit I didn’t read the other piece). So — sure (to your, Laura’s, main point). But on the other hand, I think there are ways to avoid making plans yet still have plans, e.g. my DH golfs — a lot. But basically, he’s one of the guys the other golfers call to fill out a foursome. So sure, he plans to golf. But only in that he accepts or declines plans arranged by others.

    Sort of similarly, I ride a bunch, but I don’t plan to go out to the barn that much — there are 2 days/week that I ride and while there’s some planning in there (one is a weekend day, so can have considerable flexibility in the “what time”), there’s also a lot of constancy.

    And I have to admit, I very often find planning to do stuff with other people more hassle than the benefit of seeing them. I know that sounds horribly anti-social (and maybe it is), but really, there’s a decent chance I’d derive more pleasure from (another) walk in the woods with (just) my dog than with trying (one more time) to find a time “we” (whoever the other part of “we” is) to meet for lunch. Or for a walk in the woods for that matter. Over time I’m finding friends who are some balance of sufficiently available/interested/spontaneous that this isn’t ALWAYS the case (as it once seemed very nearly to be), but it still happens a bunch.

    But sure — concert tickets, etc. Some things do need to be planned (and are worth planning).

    1. @Alexicographer – I guess it’s a question what category you would put recurring things in. On some level, these would be the best of both worlds. You’re not actively planning it each time, but you know a group of friends (sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller) gathers at a certain bar on Thursdays after work. There would be the upsides of getting the social time, but without obligation.

  9. Your advice in one of your ebooks really struck with me, so I always try to make sure any leisure time (weekends, vacations) are a combination of anchoring plans and unscheduled time. Balance is about teetering, right? So we don’t always hit a perfect balance but it’s usually pretty good.

  10. I really think there is a huge divide between people with children (or other dependents, like an elderly relative or a lot of animals perhaps!) and people without.

    20 something single city dweller with lots of 20 something single city dweller friends? SURE. Go plan free. I am sure you will find some fun wandering around (though I personally never really experienced that life – thanks med school / residency).

    Post-kids, especially when they are young enough to require babysitting and a reasonable schedule – I can’t see how you can NOT plan and do anything really fun! I also agree that anticipation is a legit part of the ‘fun’ experience.

    Also, I really like your point about the false choice. You can plan a date night but then be adventurous on deciding where to go (just don’t be disappointed when you can’t get reservations!). One thing I’ve heard couples do is have one person plan a date night to surprise the other – that way there is an element of surprise but without sacrificing the benefits that come with planning ahead.

    (PS I guess you can take this with a grain of salt since I am an ESFJ but I’m pretty sure E/J types are probably often really enthusiastic planners!)

    1. @SHU- I’m with you on this. If it works for life not to plan, then go for it. But I think a lot of the complaints from parents that they have no leisure time, no time for friends, no time to exercise, etc. comes because of resistance to planning. If you plan, it’s more likely to happen. To be sure, you may enjoy it less! But having 50% enjoyment of something that happens is better than theoretically having more enjoyment of something that doesn’t happen.

  11. That article seems a bit ridiculous to me. They ask how many times you’ve cancelled plans because you didn’t feel like getting up, dressed, and out the door (i.e., so it wasn’t worthwhile to make the plans in the first place), but I would argue that there are probably going to be many MORE times that you force yourself out the door to keep your plans and end up really enjoying them. At least I know this is true for me, and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard others echo many times.

    Also, I completely agree with the assertion that if you have small children, you don’t “go out” and do anything spontaneously unless you drag them with you everyone. I would much rather plan for a sitter, thank you very much.

    Somewhat to their point, however, and to the point of several commenters who spoke against scheduling every available minute, I’ve learned to be a “spontanous planner.” We have three kids five and under, and we do a lot of traveling. I do quite a bit of planning for this (plane tickets! Rental cars! Snacks!) but am very flexible in the moment. If something doesn’t quite go according to plan, we just roll with what the situation gives us as best we can. This has very much been a learned skill for me, as I love to stick to a plan. But now that I have a better handle on this skill (I certainly haven’t fully acquired it, ahem), I find that I enjoy all our planned events and trips more.

    1. @Sarah – maybe it’s the “upholder” in me, but I cannot imagine canceling plans with someone I had made plans with just because I felt it was a bother to get dressed. Apparently, some people are incredibly flaky!

  12. I’m lucky in that my husband and I are both planners, and we derive a lot of pleasure from planning. We lived in Europe recently for six months, for example, and both he and I had loads of fun looking at different places we could visit over the weekend (oh, the possibilities when you’re smack dab in the middle of Europe), and browsing endless AirBnB rentals for our family to stay in.

    I do like, however, to clear a couple of hours from my calendar (which requires planning), and just loaf around. My version of loafing around seems to always center around a bookstore or a library, then maybe a leisurely walk through a Whole Foods and/or Trader Joe’s (wow, yuppie nerd alert).

    So, a great point about a false choice. You can enjoy unplanned leisure by planning its boundaries, AND there’s a whole lot of joy to be gained from planning for leisure itself. Methinks the term is way too broad.

    1. @Sharon – I like the idea of planning for a chunk of leisure time, but deciding within it what to do. I have been known to do the library/Trader Joe’s combo too 🙂

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