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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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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