To be happier, try a “rougher” schedule

A new study suggests using "rough scheduling" for leisure activities to avoid making even fun feel like work.

"Lost yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered for they are gone forever." — Horace Mann

We have so much to do and so little time in which to do it. Days seem to go by fast—weeks, months, and even years race by ever more quickly. There seems to be no choice but to get organized and become adept at scheduling everything we need or want to do, even when it’s supposed to be something fun. But as we multitask our ways through calendars and to-do lists, we somehow rarely gain any sense of pleasure—we’re just hanging on for dear life even as we’re engaging in fun activities meant to refresh and balance us. According to a new paper, there are things we can do to be optimally productive and enjoy our busy lives more, including a method the authors dub “rough scheduling.”

The basic conflict

The study’s title, “Activity Versus Outcome Maximization in Time Management,” by time-management experts Selin A. Malkoc and Gabriela Tonietto frames the problem: It’s a conflict between two competing goals:

  • activity maximization — whose goal is getting as much done as possible.
  • outcome maximization — whose goal is getting things done as satisfactorily as possible.

The new paper is actually a follow-up to Tonietto and Malkoc’s 2016 “The Calendar Mindset: Scheduling Takes the Fun Out and Puts the Work In” that documents 13 surveys the authors performed. While activity maximization makes perfect sense for tasks related to obligations and responsibilities, the researchers found that it can be the enemy of outcome maximization. They concluded:

  1. When leisure activities are scheduled, they take on qualities of work, leading to lower utility.
  2. This effect is only observed when the scheduling is specific.
  3. The effect is unique to leisure vs. work activities.

Avoiding time famine

Overwhelmed. (Flickr user Alice)

Rough scheduling is intended as a remedy for what’s called “time famine,” the overwhelming feeling that there’s simply not enough time to get everything done. And, as the new study notes, “This feeling of time scarcity is linked to many undesirable outcomes, from insomnia to worsening physical health to stingy wallets.” Add to that list an increasing difficulty in doing even work-related tasks well.

There’s an entire industry built around getting more things done. After all, telling others how busy one is is an image-builder, suggestive of success and productivity. There are books, videos, systems — like the aptly named GTD® (for “Getting Things Done”) method — and a host of apps out there whose sole purpose is increasing your efficiency. And some of this works quite well, too, from the outcome maximization perspective. But with every minute of time accounted for in advance, our leisure activities end up having to be slotted into these hard-won, strategically parsed timetables. And that can ruin them.

Achieving a happier balance

(Image: Public domain)

The study suggests that by better balancing activity and outcome maximization we can achieve better performance when we’re working as well as more rejuvenating pleasure when we play.

Increasing your performance during work activities

Schedule less

Instead of packing as many activities as possible into a period of time, prioritize. It can be heartbreaking to allow less-important tasks to slide, but by allotting a more reasonable amount of time to our high-priority activities, they're more likely to get done well since you're less under pressure from unrealistic time constraints as you perform them. (Maybe you can delegate the discarded low-priority jobs to someone else.)

Perform one task at a time

You may be proud of your perceived ability to handle multiple small tasks as you work on larger ones, but studies are clear that multitasking doesn’t really work. It just divides your attention, leading to less care, attention, and creativity for what you’re supposed to be doing, and, therefore, to lower-quality work.

Space deadlines evenly

While externally imposed deadlines have been shown to increase performance, when setting your own deadlines, spread them apart evenly to budget your attention more sensibly. As the paper puts it, “Deadlines that are evenly spaced increase performance relative to less staggered ones. For example, students with three evenly spaced deadlines throughout the semester obtained higher grades than those with all three deadlines at the end of the semester.”

Increasing your enjoyment during leisure activities

(Credit: Thomas Hawk)

Schedule more roughly

“People schedule leisure activities to ensure their participation, implicitly assuming that participation in an activity automatically leads to its enjoyment,” asserts the study. Alas, the authors’ previous research reveals that it’s just not so. The reason is that “the strict beginning and end times imposed by scheduling disrupts the free-flowing nature of leisure activities,” making it less enjoyable and more like work.

The solution, Malkoc and Tonietto say, is to schedule roughly, by which they mean to schedule leisure activity only into windows of time that have neither a pre-planned beginning or end. An example of this would be to plan to go out to dinner “after work” instead of “6 pm.” Their research suggests that leisure activities planned this way are just as satisfying as those that are completely spontaneous.

Avoid hard stops

Similarly problematic is the imposition of strict end times for enjoyable events, such as when they’re to be followed by scheduled work activities. After all, this violates rough scheduling by requiring the fun to end at a specific time. “The hard stop posed by the scheduled activity creates time pressure that may undermine enjoyment during the preceding time,” the study says. It takes you out of the enjoyable moment, distracting you by what’s coming next.

A better idea is to leave an unscheduled buffer between fun and work, or, better yet, reschedule the work altogether when possible so as to leave leisure activities open-ended.

Focus on the now

As you might imagine from the section above, to really get the most out of leisure activities, it’s imperative that you be present as they occur, even if what’s pulling you away is something you’re looking forward to. In the authors’ prior study, “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.” As in many other areas in life, “being more in-the-moment, or mindful, improves enjoyment,” says the current study.

Happily busy

As you seek a way to juggle the many tasks before you in a more satisfying way, try to remain aware of maintaining a balance between getting as much done as possible and having an enjoyable daily life. Both goals are worth striving for, and the study’s suggestions make it less likely you’ll someday reach the lower reaches of Life’s To-Do List dissatisfied about what never got done, and feeling burnt-out. It’s so much better to have enjoyed the action-packed ride.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.