It may feel good to put a social event—like a date with your spouse or happy hour with girlfriends—on your calendar, especially when your schedule is chock full of obligations that are significantly less fun. But just the act of penciling in that event can take some of the pleasure out of it, according to a new study. For the most enjoyment, researchers say, you’re better off having flexible plans and spontaneous meet-ups.
“People associate schedules with work,” said study co-author Selin Malkoc, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, in a press release. “We want our leisure time to be free-flowing.”
Of course, we’d never see our friends if we stopped scheduling time with them entirely. So Malkoc and her co-author performed 13 separate experiments involving different types of plan-making, to see whether they affected people’s feelings about the events themselves.
In one exercise, college students were given a calendar filled with classes and extracurricular activities, and asked to imagine that it was their schedule for the week. Half of the students were then asked to add a frozen-yogurt date with a friend to the calendar, two days in advance. The other half were asked to imagine running into that friend and deciding to get fro-yo right then and there.
It turns out, those who scheduled the date were more likely to say it felt like a “commitment” and a “chore” than those who imagined it happening unexpectedly. In another exercise, students who were asked to watch an entertaining YouTube video enjoyed the clip more when they saw it immediately, compared to those who saw it later, at a pre-scheduled date and time.
In a video published by the American Marketing Association, Malkoc explains how she first noticed this effect in her own life. When visiting friends and family in her home country of Turkey, she says, she had a “very busy social calendar with a lot of things I was looking forward to.”
“Except as the time neared, I started saying things like ‘I have to get drinks with my friends,’” she said. “How could the things I was so looking forward to now become something I have to do?”
Co-author Gabriele Tonietto, a doctoral student at Washington University, admits that there’s a benefit to putting social activities on our calendars. Because we often treat leisure activities as our lowest priority, “our instinct might be to go ahead and schedule them,” she says. “We’re showing that, while that might help to make sure that we take part in those tasks, it might come at an expense.”
Luckily, the researchers found that “roughly scheduling” events didn’t seem to affect enjoyment levels. They studied this concept by giving students tickets to pick up free coffee and cookies while studying for finals, either at specific times or during a two-hour window. The students who were given the two-hour window reported enjoying their break more than those who had to take it at a certain time.
"Time is supposed to fly when you're having fun,” said Malkoc. “Anything that limits and constrains our leisure chips away at the enjoyment."
Overall, the researchers determined that scheduling diminished some of the purpose of leisure activities, in terms of both excitement in anticipation of the event and experienced enjoyment of the event itself.
The results were published in the December issue of the Journal of Marketing Research. Malkoc notes that the study only looked at short leisure activities that last a few hours or less—and that the findings may not apply to longer activities, like full days off or week-long vacations.
In fact, many experts believe that planning a vacation or fun weekend activity can give people something to look forward to during stressful times. (One study even found that vacationers felt happiest before they left for their trips, as opposed to when they returned!) Talking about a future trip can build anticipation, psychologists say, and may help it feel longer in your mind. And research suggests that paying for events ahead of time—which usually involves scheduling them—also helps people enjoy them more.
For a lot of reasons, it makes sense to pin down specifics for big parties or trips. But this study suggests that doing so for smaller, more intimate gatherings may just make them seem like one more item on your already too-long to-do list.
The researchers’ advice is simple: Less pressure, more enjoyment. The next time you make plans with a friend, keep it vague. “Maybe reference time more generally—think about the ‘afternoon,’ instead of from 2 to 3,” says Tonietto. This can hold all parties accountable for keeping the date, she adds, but will potentially help everyone enjoy it even more.