Scheduling a fun event for your leisure time ruins it, removing the enjoyment from the activity as surely as if you had to be at the office instead. Does this mean that we shouldn’t plan at all? No. Loose plans are fine. You can arrange with friends to see a movie this Friday, but you shouldn’t choose the 8 o’clock show in particular. Done this way, you’ll enjoy the evening just as much as if you hadn’t planned it.
To test the theory, Selin Malkoc, a professor of marketing at Ohio State, ran 13 studies to see how we feel about scheduled events. In one, participants were given a fictitious schedule for the week. Half were asked to add an appointment to get frozen yogurt with a friend to the calendar. The rest were asked just to imagine this exciting date. Then all participants were asked to anticipate the event, and questioned on how they felt about it. Those who scheduled a time felt like the date was a chore and seemed like work.
Another test let participants pick out an entertaining YouTube video. Some were allowed to watch it right away, others had to schedule it for later. You can guess who got more fun out of the process.
A further test was designed to find out whether loosely scheduling an activity is as bad as giving it a set time. The researchers set up a stand on campus to give out free coffee and cookies, and handed out tickets. Some tickets were for any time within a two-hour window, the rest for an exact time. Those who had to be at the stand at a precise time enjoyed the break a lot less.
We know instinctively about this phenomenon. Anyone who uses something like Instapaper or Pocket to save a web article for reading later knows that as their article queue grows and grows, their enthusiasm to read those articles wanes. The same thing happens to people who subscribed to paper magazines on their favorite subject, only to let those magazines pile up, unread. Obligation, it seems, reduces enthusiasm.
These findings can be used to help business better connect with clients and employees. For instance, non-work bonding events in the office are often scheduled, making them feel like work. These events should instead be more impromptu, or scheduled loosely. “Impromptu social gatherings (proverbial ‘water cooler discussions’) are crucial to employee satisfaction partly because they are not planned, and are instead free-flowing,” write the authors.
Perhaps you’re an older person who despairs that the kids today can never make a firm commitment when organizing their leisure activities. They make a rough arrangement, then text back and forth, endlessly refining their plans until the last moment, whereas in the good old days we’d pick a time and place and stick to it. Well, guess what, you old stick-in-the-mud? The kids are enjoying themselves way more than you ever did.