Here's the Secret Trick to Actually Enjoying Your Free Time

Throw out your day planner and live your life.

People who spend a lot of time on both sides of the Atlantic tend to say that, "In Europe, people work to live; in America, they live to work." Indeed, in my travels, I've found that whereas Europeans seem to view leisure time as something as essential as eating, Americans are more prone to think of it as something you do if you happen to have extra time after work—something you schedule into your planner like a pedicure or a trip to the dentist.

Now, a new paper published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology confirms that scheduling your free time isn't the best way to enjoy it, as you start to view it the same way as all of the other errands and responsibilities that you have slotted for the day.

"It becomes a part of our to-do list," Selin A. Malkoc, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, told The Washington Post. "As an outcome, they become less enjoyable."

As an example, the paper cites a study of 163 college students, half of which were told to schedule time to get frozen yogurt with a friend, and the other half of which were told to get frozen yogurt with a friend they bumped into. As expected, those who had put their fro-yo trip into their calendar "construed it more like work,"

Like my European friends, Malkoc attributes this outlook on leisurely activity to the fact that our culture values personal achievements—getting a raise, finishing a big project, and so on—over feeling happy on a day-to-day basis.

"The focus on productivity is so widespread that people even strive to make leisure productive and brag about being busy," the paper reads. "Most of this work implicitly assumes that when managing time, the ultimate goal is activity maximization—doing the greatest number of activities. However, a second, and possibly more important, goal is outcome maximization—making each activity count and achieving the desired outcomes."

Based on their analysis of studies on time management, it would seem like activity maximization actually has an inverse relationship with outcome maximization. What that means is that while taking a barre class with a friend in order to catch-up and get your daily workout in may seem like a great way to kill two birds with one stone, it actually lessens the enjoyment that you get from either activity.

Time is the most valuable resource we have, and the paper notes that a recent Gallup Poll found that nearly half (44 percent) of Americans experience "time famine"—meaning they feel they have too much to do and not enough time to do it. So how do you manage to get everything done and still find time to see your friends?

The paper suggests that you should avoid multitasking, space your deadline out evenly, and create more "rough scheduling," which means making loose plans to hang out instead of squeezing your friend in for a one-hour coffee in between your Pilates class and your next appointment. In addition to making your leisure time feel like less of a chore, not having a "hard stop" time will enhance your enjoyment of your time off.

It also suggests leaving room for spontaneity and living in the moment. After all, too many of us spend one leisure activity planning out our next leisure activity, thereby undermining our ability to enjoy what we're doing.

"Recent studies found that knowing about a desirable upcoming activity robs the current (and otherwise desirable) activity of enjoyment," the paper reads. "For instance, participants enjoyed a comedic video less when they knew that they would next watch another enjoyable video compared to those who were unaware of the future activity. Such a result is in line with prior work showing that being more in-the-moment, or mindful, improves enjoyment, as well as work showing that packing a variety of activities into short periods of time can undermine happiness."

Finally, you should schedule less, even if that means cutting back on things that you think are important. You really don't need that raise as much as you think you do, and that car you've been saving up for isn't going to make you happy. For more on this, check out why I Took Yale's Happiness Course and Here's Everything I Learned.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more