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Go ahead, be a little spontaneous

A looser schedule can allow for serendipity.

A cartoon image of a person escaping from a cage. Denis Novikov/Getty Images
Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

On the spectrum from carefully curated scheduling to go-with-the-flow attitude, most people fall somewhere in the middle: a few can’t-miss occasions here, some loose plans there. The conditions of the past two years, however, have rendered impromptu hangouts difficult, if not impossible.

Unplanned dinners, playdates, and afternoon jaunts to the museum were complicated by pandemic restrictions, staffing shortages, reservations needing to be secured weeks in advance — not to mention concerns such as whether outdoor locales would have bathrooms or the weather would hold up. Even the easiest of hangs required at least a little planning.

The pandemic wasn’t the only deterrent to spontaneity. Before Covid shutdowns and restrictions, Americans’ daily schedules had become packed with meetings, classes, extracurricular activities, happy hours, and work dinners; there was no time left for pleasurable diversions.

“My daughter’s 15, and I look at a lot of her classmates and their lives are just scheduled from morning to evening with school and lessons and tutoring and organized sports,” says Edward Slingerland, professor of philosophy and distinguished university scholar at the University of British Columbia and author of Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity. “From an early age, we overschedule our kids and then we overschedule ourselves. Smartphones and laptops allow us to be constantly on.”

Constant planning comes at a cost. Planning is mentally taxing, research shows, and when leisurely activities, like going to the movies or grabbing coffee, are scheduled, free time starts to feel like work.

A looser schedule can infuse playfulness and adventure on a minor scale into life. Spontaneity is the state of being open to whatever situation is presented to you as it happens, says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. This can mean anything from trying a new restaurant for lunch at your colleague’s suggestion to waking up and deciding to go to the beach today. Living in the moment opens you up to new experiences, which can boost happiness, Blair says. “When you’re spontaneous, you get to enjoy what’s happening to you, rather than thinking, ‘What’s coming next? Am I going to be able to make that deadline? Am I going to be able to be on time for this?’

While the two are often conflated, spontaneity is not the same as impulsivity. Impulsive actions are often made with little thought or consideration for consequences, Blair says. Spontaneity involves a gut check before deciding to, say, put off cleaning the house in favor of an afternoon reading in the park. “There’s no thought process whatsoever in impulsivity,” she says. “But spontaneous people, by staying connected with your gut, you’re responding to your emotions, you’re doing a logical process, which takes longer, but your emotions say ‘This is fun, this looks different, I’ll do it.’”

As much as the pressures of modern life have constrained people’s days to calendar appointments and to-do lists, spontaneity isn’t a relic of more free-flowing times. Ironic as it may seem, there are ways to prioritize spontaneity by creating conditions where serendipity can occur.

The curse of overscheduling

When all of life’s moments are planned and you’re rushing from one event to the next, you miss out on small, accidental joys: a quick conversation with a neighbor, a new favorite store you decided to pop into on a whim, a chance to grab ice cream with your kid on the way home from soccer practice. Without moments of serendipitous interaction and activity, “it’s not a fully lived life,” Slingerland says.

With overscheduling and overplanning, leisurely activities are often given concrete beginning and end times, which is why these pleasurable pursuits can feel like work, says Selin A. Malkoc, professor of marketing at Ohio State University, who has studied the effects of planning on leisure. Social plans, Malkoc says, “those happen in life more spontaneously, or we’d like to believe that leisure happens more spontaneously. Because we put these leisurely things into what we would normally schedule — chores, responsibilities — it just takes on those qualities to some extent.”

Constantly monitoring the time so you can make it to a friend’s birthday party after your child’s morning swim lessons distracts from the fact that leisure activities are supposed to be pleasurable, Malkoc says. Spontaneous events, by nature, don’t require much planning or rushing around for the sake of punctuality. As a result, “in many instances, spontaneous things give us more overall enjoyment,” Malkoc says.

Phones, the mechanism for overscheduling, are distracting and enable users to tune out the world around them. When the road map for the day exists on smartphone apps, you become dependent on them for where to be and where to go instead of reveling in the people and places around you in the moment. “Back in the day, when we were on public transit,” Slingerland says, “people would talk on public transit, and no one does that anymore.”

How to be more spontaneous

During the first year of the pandemic, when socializing and leisure outside the home came with caveats and restrictions, intricate planning was essential, from making reservations to monitoring time limits at attractions and restaurants.

The constant checking and verifying and planning — from both a health and social perspective — were inherently stressful, Blair says, and you may still be feeling the effects of all that stress. “Which is why you might go do something new and find it so exhausting,” she says. “My work right now is helping people get calm again, bring down those cortisol levels, stop the watchfulness so that you can react from your amygdala — that’s the emotional center that says, ‘Oh, this is fun. Let’s do it.’”

To make decisions from a place of spontaneity, you have to feel safe, which may be a hard habit to develop after living in self-preservation mode for so long. Break out of fear-based responses, in which you feel threatened and make a choice to protect yourself, and instead shift to more mindful-based thought processes to embrace spontaneity.

If a friend suggests a last-minute concert on a Tuesday night, take a few deep breaths to help break you out of a potential mindset of fear, then make your choice, Blair suggests. “That settles you down,” she says, “allows the fear response, which is also in the amygdala, to settle, and then you can make a logical calculation about what’s going on.”

To create conditions that allow for spontaneity, you first have to have the time to be spontaneous. Excited as you may be to reconnect with friends, resume hobbies, or even meticulously plan every second of a vacation, leave a day of the week or even a few hours of your day unscheduled to see where the wind takes you. This goes for planning with kids, too.

“When I schedule my kids, it feels like I’m improving them and enriching them but … they’re very uncomfortable the one day that they don’t have something to do. They get bored if I don’t give them an activity to do,” Malkoc says. “Let them be comfortable with being and just finding something interesting to do on the spot.” While this may mean turning down some plans, you can let family and friends know you’re free all day on Saturdays for visitors if anyone wants to drop by, Malkoc says.

Of course, having expendable income makes being spontaneous a little easier: You don’t have to worry about where the money to pay for an impromptu vacation will come from or feel the pinch after taking a surprise day off of work. But many off-the-cuff activities can be cost-free. Wearing an old band T-shirt you found in the back of a drawer, saying hello to other students at school, sending a text to a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and taking a different route to work are all ways to shake it up without spending a cent.

Slingerland suggests ditching your phone for a few hours (or just putting it in airplane mode) to rid yourself of distractions: “You may find a store you never noticed before. You may have a conversation with a neighbor you wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

After a prolonged stretch of planning, prioritizing spontaneity may be anxiety-inducing, but each time you leave a weekend unscheduled or agree to tag along to a friend’s kid’s dance recital after running into them on the street, you eventually won’t have to be as intentional. “Spontaneity just doesn’t happen,” Malkoc says. “We have to make the space for spontaneity for it to be able to happen.”

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