Science Shows Over-Planning Your Vacation Can Ruin Both It and You

FOMO strikes again.

Are you the type of person who creates a dossier before a vacation — loaded up with dates, time, contact information, tickets, confirmation numbers, and little in the way of unscheduled time? Hey, we respect that. Studies show that anticipating a vacation brings a measurable and protracted amount of happiness.

But it turns out that this impulse to overschedule with abandon can actually have the opposite of the intended effect: It has the potential to completely ruin your trip — and strip joy right out of your life.

Travel + Leisure cited the work of Ohio State University assistant marketing professor Selin Malkoc, whose experiments on the subject of scheduling were published in the Journal of Marketing Research. She summarized in The Conversation, "Across 13 studies, we found that the simple act of scheduling makes otherwise fun tasks feel more like work. It also decreases how much we enjoy them."

She provided multiple examples, which all speak to highly relatable scenarios: "For example, in one, we asked participants to imagine grabbing a coffee with a friend. Half of the participants imagined that they planned this gathering a few days in advance and put it on their calendar, while the other half were told that they decided to grab a coffee on the fly. We found that this simple, relaxing activity was associated more with work-like qualities (“obligation,” “effortful,” “work”) when it was scheduled, compared with when it was impromptu."

And here's a vacation-related example: "We asked participants to imagine that they’d just decided to spend their afternoon at a forest preserve doing a variety of activities, like canoeing and guided hikes. We told half the participants that they’d simply do two activates with a picnic in between. The other half were told they had signed up for activities at specific times... with time reserved in between for a picnic. Basically all the participants were making a spontaneous trips to the park and all were going to participate in similar activities. The only difference was that some of the participants had strict schedules, while others didn’t. We found that structuring not only made the activity feel more like work, but also decreased participants’ desire to engage in them. In other words, even an impromptu leisure event starts to feel like work once it’s structured."

To wit, you might love nothing more in the world than spending a luxurious day getting pampered in a hotel spa. But if you pre-schedule that block of hours well ahead of your trip, it might carry a sense of obligation that associates it with a chore.

Malkoc said in The Conversation, "Scheduling, at its core, is about allocating time to activities. There are set beginning and end points. Such strict scheduling, however, is at odds with how people think about leisure and relaxation, which are associated with unconstrained freedom.... On the flip side, structured time is associated with work activities: Meetings start and end at specific times, deadlines loom and the specter of the clock is omnipresent. So when your weekend is structured and planned — even if the activities are fun — they start to take on some of the qualities we tend to associate with work."

In short, if you work all year just to grab some time away for a much-needed vacation, and then end up turning that vacation into an experience that resembles work — well, you'll never get the break you so badly need. And that's a recipe for serious life burnout. And when that happens, happiness is not likely to come easily. So, consider Malkoc's recommendation: "Next time you want to make plans, make them flexible. You’ll feel less constrained — and more likely to have fun, too."

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