Why is it so difficult to meet someone (especially if we plan to)?

We live life on a schedule, but we increasingly cancel at the last minute, particularly if the plans are free and if they are with someone you trust

Illustration of person climbing
Cristina Estanislao
Karelia Vázquez

After a week and a long thread of WhatsApp messages, Rachel (not her real name) made plans with her friends from college to meet up for a picnic at the park. It was a plan that was decided upon after negotiating with her friends, one of which suffers from hay fever and another one who made them cancel two meals at indoor locations: on one occasion because the restaurant did not accept pets and the other because they did not serve gluten-free food. In all, three weeks passed before they were all able to get their calendars to align for the meeting. It had been impossible to get together any sooner. Exhausted, Rachel ended up asking herself once again why she took on the thankless task of calling her friends and urging them to meet up at least twice a year. But Rachel had not yet seen it all: 24 hours before the group was supposed to meet up, she messaged them to confirm the plan. Then there was an ominous silence that an hour later was deafening.

— Hellooo? — she insisted in the chat, to no avail.

She assumed that the picnic was canceled and that no one was going to tell her: “I was simultaneously ghosted,” she said with good humor. She was not angry, but she had abandoned all hope.

We have managed to trap time in digital calendars, agendas and apps. We confirm plans that end up overlapping each other because we don’t consider courtesy minutes, delays, and unforeseen events, much less our energy and mental reserves. In general, we are very optimistic with our time. We always think that we will get to everything. We get stuck in a doom loop of trying to take advantage of the day, the week, and the weekend until we end up overwhelmed and cancel everything that can be canceled. Spoiler: it is often the plans that are free of charge and meeting up with people we trust.

This throws us into a loop: we end up repeatedly making plans and then canceling them. Some experts believe that interacting with apps and digital calendars makes us laxer with our commitments. And that visualizing our time as a block, with its busy hours and minutes, is stressful. Dan Ariely, a writer and professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, argues that people take on more plans than they can actually handle because it is “incredibly easy” to plot them on a calendar, and it is satisfying to have a full schedule, a busy life, and to feel in demand.

Back in 1979 there was no Google Calendar, but we already had a strained relationship with time. That year, economist, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman coined the term “planning fallacy,” which described the optimistic bias in estimating the time required to complete a task. For Kahneman, the origin of the bias was in ignoring the time consumed doing a similar task in the past. This reference is key in making an accurate calculation, but is avoided through optimism and good intentions.

Time management has not only spawned an industry of apps, calendars, and digital and analog agendas to try to help the unpunctual and the optimistic. In addition, there is also a lucrative literary sub-genre, and hundreds of podcasts about the joy of learning how to take advantage of better timekeeping, a worthy exponent of which is Laura Vanderkam, author of bestseller, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. She writes: “What you do with your life will depend on how you spend the 8,760 hours in a year or the nearly 700,000 hours that a human life usually lasts.”

Is it advisable to divide those hours we have been granted into leisure and work? Is it a good idea to mix them? Is it convenient to use corporate tools to plan your personal life, or will you end up stressed, and canceling everything at the last minute?

A 2016 study from the universities of Washington and Ohio attempted to answer these questions. Broadly speaking, their conclusion was that leisure activities were more enjoyable when they were not “scheduled.” For the authors, “not scheduling” did not mean improvising, but proposing to meet the other person after work for a drink without setting a specific time. “As trivial as that change may seem, it reintroduces flexibility into leisure activities,” said Selin A. Malkoc, co-author of the study.

After reviewing 13 research studies, the authors found “sufficient evidence” that scheduling leisure activities turns personal life into work because it “introduces the variable of effort into a play context.” This spoils everything and wipes out the benefits of rest because, scientists say, it generates “reactive resistance” and reduces “perceived personal freedom.” Might these feelings explain why Rachel was collectively ghosted?

But the army of experts and coaches selling their ability to manage time and other people’s agendas insist that everything must be on a schedule, even sex. By the way, this is a recommendation that some therapists often make because, they say, what is not scheduled does not exist.

In her book, Vanderkam describes what happens to the hours in a society dominated by the battle for our attention. “If you don’t treat time with intention, you lose it. You lose those four hours of free time you had on Friday afternoon. In a world full of distractions, you will not automatically choose the healthiest or most relaxing activity, but the one you have at hand. In this way, four hours of free time will suddenly disappear like a dove in the hands of a magician.” Those hours can fly by searching for a movie on a streaming platform or scrolling through sites that don’t even interest you that much.

Vanderkam also does not believe that time off should be organized with military precision. “There’s a huge gap between not planning anything and timing it down to the last 10 free minutes of the schedule, but you can write down two or three things you’d like to do on the weekend,” she explains.

In his book Timekeepers (Canongate books, 2017), Simon Garfield finds an unexpected utility to calendars: “It may be that the real value of these temporal mosaics is, rather than the yearning to seize each and every minute, to show the user that their lives are not exactly as they think they are.” Working women are the ones who usually change “the movie they told themselves.” They often believe that they do not spend enough time with their children, but after studying their schedule they find that they devote each and every one of their free minutes to them. Then they stop feeling guilty and start going to the gym three times a week, he says in his book.

Another finding about our zeal with leisure time was authored by researchers at the University of Washington. Their finding seems obvious, but one scientist puts it with more authority: “If a meeting is planned and doesn’t work out, maybe one party (or both) didn’t want to go from the start,” Malkoc said in her paper. Professor Ariely of Duke University proposes an exercise to free up space in the schedule: “Imagine how you would feel if a particular event were canceled... If you feel relieved you don’t want to go.” There is no need to think about it further.

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