Making plans is a little like reading spoilers or tearing the wrapping paper off a present — once you do it, the fun kind of wears off. The TV show holds less suspense, the gift is no longer a source of delicious anticipation, and that thing you have to do becomes just that, a thing you have to do. Plans, in other words, always seem to feel better as abstract ideas than concrete entries on the calendar.
In a recent column on The Conversation, Selin Malkoc, an assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University, explained her research on this phenomenon. In 13 separate experiments published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Malkoc and her colleagues found that the more strictly scheduled an event was, the less enjoyment it sparked, even when the plan in question was something pretty much universally enjoyable.
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 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 reason: Too much advance planning turns fun into work, a casual hangout into an appointment to keep. By contrast, Malkoc found, when she asked students to make a spontaneous, flexible plan, like meeting sometime in between classes, they felt more excitement leading up to the event. If the line between “having something to do this weekend” and “having anxiety about being too overscheduled this weekend” is a thin one for you, it’s something to consider: There’s a third option beyond filling up your calendar and staying home. It’s making vague, plan-like things, and then firming them up day-of. On the one hand, you keep your sense of freedom and a wide-open day; on the other, you also keep your social life.
Not that there’s anything wrong with staying home, either — even extroverts need some alone time every now and then.