The Art of Making (and Not Making) Plans

Coaching of 22 October 2016 delivered by: Suzana Gurvitz
Document Submitted to the site by: Suzana Gurvitz
Adapted for coaching from: By VERENA von PFETTEN  OCT. 15, 2016

Adult life is full of commitments: bills to pay, family to see and a job you probably have to show up for. But in a world where many of us complain of being overscheduled, there’s something uniquely depressing about having no control over the time once quaintly called “personal” and “free.”

A recent study by the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis found that scheduling leisure time with friends — for movies, drinks, bike rides — can make these otherwise enjoyable activities feel like chores, which is often why we cancel them.

The New York Times covered the culture of plan-canceling as early as 1986. The topic has more recently been given new life thanks to the advent of efficient if impersonal modes of communication like text message and email.

But if technology has made bailing on commitments too easy, how about a radically different approach? Make fewer to begin with.

This doesn’t mean becoming a hermit — as tempting as that is in chilly weather or when there’s a new season of “Transparent” to watch — but, rather, scheduling your time more deliberately so you can be a better friend or family member. Consider it a mindfulness approach to socializing.

Out of my own personal antipathy to making plans came an ironclad rule: I don’t schedule more than two in a given week. Which means that, yes, I am frequently that person suggesting a date one or two months in advance. But it also means that the majority of my free time is open for spontaneous plans — actually doing what I feel like doing — which most often happen with my closest friends. Like airlines and frequent fliers, I give people who are important to me priority booking.

On its face, the act of making plans shouldn’t be stressful. We’re lucky to have people to make plans with, right? But it can be loaded, particularly for people who have lifelong friends and family close by.

If you say yes to everything, you inevitably reach a point where you realize you don’t have any time left for yourself.

Amy Astley, the editor in chief of Architectural Digest and someone with a reputation for very rarely canceling plans, explained her strategy.

“I start by asking myself if I really want to go,” she said. “Is there an actual reason for me to attend?  And if I decide I really want to be somewhere, I commit to it.”

If you’re dragging your feet, it may be worth evaluating why. If there is no real reason for you to engage (and no real repercussions if you do not), just say no and move on. The only thing worse than turning someone down is having to do it over and over again.

Which brings us to arguably the most awkward part: how to say no graciously.

“I personally don’t believe you have to justify yourself to anybody,” Ms. Astley said. “Except maybe your mother or your best friend. Just say, ‘I’m so sorry, I have a prior commitment.’ Or: ‘I’m sorry I can’t be with you that day. Hopefully next time.’”

When there are people you genuinely want to see, or can’t escape anymore, but you’re wary of committing to an all-evening event, try finding another activity. Ms. Astley often suggests a yoga class. “You can still be together,” she said. “You can chat before and after.”

Or, use the same technology that allows us to so easily cancel plans to stay in touch instead. I take advantage of my extra-long commute by skipping the bus, getting some exercise by walking instead, and using the time to call and catch up with family or friends I haven’t seen in a while. Bonus: An unexpected phone call in this day and age generally makes people feel extra special.

Still, lack of time is a common refrain.

And you can’t cancel plans if you don’t have any in the first place.

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