Improve your social life by changing the way you schedule it

“Sun-touches-the-horizon time.”
“Sun-touches-the-horizon time.”
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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It’s impossible not to notice when someone refers to an event without using “clock time” language. Recently, at dinner, a professional dancer friend of mine told a story about a long day on set for a TV commercial. We asked him what time it finished. “It was, like, sun-touching-the-horizon time,” he replied.

It was a poetic answer that, after a beat, drew some gentle teasing, because clearly he was living on a plane of higher consciousness than the rest of us. But I also wished we could join him there. If only we could plan to eat when we’re hungry, instead of planning to be hungry when we were scheduled to eat. If only, too, we could have lingered in the restaurant until the conversation came to a natural end. Instead, our group had booked reservations after exchanging at least a dozen messages, and half of us had obligations later on forcing us to stay mindful of the time.

According to behavioral researchers, if our goal was to connect and make the most of our shared hours, we were doing everything wrong. In that case, Gabriela Tonietto, a professor of marketing at Rutgers University, and Selin Malkoc, a professor of marketing of Ohio State University, recommend not scheduling an exact time to rendezvous, but instead to try making arrangements on the fly.

Go with the flow

Scholars of chronemics—which studies time and our relationship to it, and how it affects communication—would call this living on “event time”: letting your actions be dictated by the flow of your day, or by natural events, like the sun’s rise or slow disappearance, rather than the clock’s ticking.

The American physicist and writer Alan Lightman has also written beautifully on these two distinct concepts of time, which he calls “mechanical time” and “body time.” In the novel Einstein’s Dreams, he writes, “The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along.”

Tonietto and Malkoc, who both specialize in consumer behavior and intertemporal preferences (how we make decisions about how to use our time) have found through multiple studies that people find social meetings to be more enjoyable when they play out organically, with some room to wriggle. Just the act of setting a time for a coffee or a phone call, and linking it to a specific hour, can suck some of the joy out of that meeting, because it makes it feel more like work. That’s because we associate chores and office projects with deadlines and Google calendar invites, but, they argue, most people prefer their personal time to be clear of any structural constraints. A check-in within your friend shouldn’t feel like just another task on your to-do list, they say.

Another way that you may be unknowingly sabotaging your social time with a friend is by scheduling your “date” right up against another meeting or appointment. In a separate series of studies—these mainly about productivity—Tonietto and Malkoc investigated how much a scheduled event in the future weighs on our mind before it has to. When we know that there’s another event looming, we can become fixated on that “next” thing, they say, even when it’s not something particularly taxing emotionally or physically.

In one experiment, for example, the researchers asked people who were waiting to board a flight at an airport to answer a 15-minute questionnaire. They found that if subjects were approached in the half-hour leading up to their boarding time, they were less likely to participate—even though there was no risk that the survey would make them late for their gate call—than those with a wider window before their expected departure.

Anyone who finds it difficult to focus on work at the office when there’s a meeting on their agenda later that day will get this behavior. When part of your mind is already waiting and expecting a change, it can be hard to start anything new or to concentrate deeply.

True, hanging out with pals is not the same as answering a stranger’s survey, or trying to get some real work done before a meeting, but Tonietto and Malkoc have also found in at least one experiment that people anticipated enjoying a massage less when they knew it would be followed by a meeting with friends. So, the basic problem with stacking your plans may very well be the same: the future is stealing your attention from the now.

Study on just how much time we spend thinking about the future is still in nascent stages, but it’s thought to be significant. Writing in the New York Times (paywall) in 2017, Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology and John Tierney, a science journalist, explained that forming conscious and unconscious thoughts about the future are “a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.”

Adopt a habit of rough scheduling

In some countries and cultures, more people do live on event time. It’s still possible to meet someone for “lunch” without specifying when that would be, and to drop in on family “later,” without being questioned as to exactly when. That’s the atmosphere we all ought to aim for if we want to feel the most relaxed and available to others. “Rough scheduling” can help us get there, say Malkoc and Tonietto. “As trivial as the change might seem, it has an important effect on human psychology: It reintroduces the flexibility to the leisure tasks,” Malkoc told the Washington Post.

Yes, maintaining only vague plans for “after work” or “sometime on Saturday” puts your social gatherings at risk of never coming to pass. But if you don’t schedule something and it falls through, Tonietto explained to a public radio show on innovation this summer, it’s probably for the better. One person was likely already stretched for time and only made the plan under mild duress, she noted, so how fun would it have been anyway?