Doing leisure activities during free time is generally fun until you take out your calendar to start scheduling every single activity.
According to a series of 13 studies conducted at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, once people start scheduling what they are going to do in their free time, the activities can become less fun.
"Looking at a variety of different leisure activities, we consistently find that scheduling can make these otherwise fun tasks feel more like work and decrease how much we enjoy them," researcher Gabriela Tonietto said.
The researchers had examined the effects of scheduling a specific time and date for different events. For example, some people might schedule in a time slot for taking a coffee break at work. The researchers found that having a time slot can make the activity feel like a chore, which can lower anticipation and overall enjoyment.
Co-researcher Selin Malkoc stressed that their findings are not suggesting that people should stop scheduling their activities all together. Several studies have found that using a calendar can increase productivity. Instead, Malkoc and Tonietto stated that people might benefit from having a balance between scheduled and non-scheduled events.
"A host of past research has shown that scheduling and planning is important in getting things done," Malkoc said. "This work mostly examined non-leisure tasks, such as getting a flu shot. In our work, we find that this is also true for leisure tasks - that is, scheduling indeed increases our chances of engaging in them. But, on the flip side, we tend to enjoy it less. So it really is a balancing game, and it comes down to knowing what you will gain and lose when we schedule fun activities."
The researchers believe that people might benefit from roughly scheduling an activity. For example, instead of planning a walk around the park at 4:00 p.m., plan a walk for the afternoon. By giving yourself some flexibility, you are more likely to yield the benefits from the walk. A 2015 study found that being in nature, which can include a walk in the park, improves cognition and reduces anxiety.
"Roughly scheduling a leisure activity does not feel as structured, does not lead leisure to feel more work-like and thus does not reduce enjoyment," Malkoc said.
Since leisure time is essential for well-being, the researchers hope that people will be more willing to let go of their planners and just enjoy the moment.