Schedule Time for Play.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One of my favorite resolutions – but also kept with great difficulty – is to Schedule time for play. I often get teased about this resolution, because people think it sounds incongruous, and even silly, to schedule time for play. Play should be spontaneous, right? Aren’t we naturally alert for opportunities to have fun? Why put it on the schedule?

Well, that’s not how it works for me. Maybe it sounds odd to pencil “play” into my calendar like a dentist’s appointment, but what I’ve learned, from long experience, is that if I don’t schedule time for play, I don’t do it. Instead, I focus on working or crossing tasks off my to-do list, or I do the activity that’s most convenient, instead of what would be the most fun thing to do.

Writer Jean Stafford scoffed, “Happy people don’t need to have fun,” but in fact, studies show that the absence of feeling bad isn’t enough to make you happy; you must strive to find sources of feeling good. Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times more likely to feel happy.

One of my favorite forms of play is to read and to talk about books. Many of my resolutions are aimed at helping me to read more and read better (here are tips for reading more). As one way to schedule time for that play, I belong to three book groups. Having those regular meetings assures that I get that playtime in my calendar.

I’ve also scheduled time to play by undertaking a gigantic project with a friend – working title was the Black Lake Island project, now Four to Llewelyn’s Edge – in which we made a book of photos of our elaborately costumed children, to tell a story. This project is huge and wonderful, and is just about finished (I’ll post more about it soon).

Another reason to schedule time for play is that once you’ve scheduled it, you can look forward to it. Anticipation is one of the four stages of enjoying a happy event (anticipation, reveling, expression, and reflection), and one way to get more happiness bang for the buck is eagerly to anticipate something fun. I get a little jolt of happiness whenever I see book-group meeting on my calendar.

However, just as one of my Secrets of Adulthood is “Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy,” having fun doesn’t always sound like fun, when I’m considering it. Sometimes I don’t look forward to things that will be fun.

For example, even though I almost never feel like going to the movies, and depend on my husband to push us to go, I end up having fun. If he didn’t put it on the schedule, I’d never do it, and I’d miss out.

Even though I don’t always feel like going to the trouble to put up holiday decorations, I end up having fun. This is a task that must be put on the schedule, or else the holiday can pass without decorations. A few years ago, I shudder to remember, we didn’t get a pumpkin for Halloween. We had other Halloween decorations, but we didn’t carve a jack-o-lantern. My daughters didn’t seem particularly upset, but that counts as Mommy malpractice in my book. Pumpkin-carving needed to go on the schedule!

If you don’t put play on the schedule, weeks, months, and even years can pass without doing something you’d love to do. Planning a fly-fishing weekend. Taking a short train trip to visit that new museum you’re dying to see. Using the intriguing kitchen gadget you picked up. By scheduling time for play, you make room in your life for fun.

* It’s Friday! If you want a little break, check out this video of a breakdancer in real time and slow motion.

* Did I happen to mention that The Happiness Project is a #1 New York Times bestseller? Oh right, I did. Yay! If you’re curious about the book, you can…
Order your copy!
Read sample chapters!
Watch the one-minute book trailer!
Listen to a few chapters of the audiobook
If you’re inspired to start your own happiness project, join the 2010 Happiness Challenge, to make 2010 a happier year.

  • JB

    I completely agree with you. In college I would schedule naps into my calendar, because if I didn’t set aside time to sleep I wouldn’t have gotten enough. There are plenty of distractions out there that are “more important” at the time.

  • Gretchen,

    If you aren’t fond of going out to see movies, why not stay snuggled up on the couch & watch some good ones at home? Here’s a list of movies from 2009 that are both thought-provoking and entertaining.

    “Dinner and a Movie On a Cold Winter’s Night – How About Some Meaningful Movies for Grown-Ups and a Sophisticated Mediterranean Vegetable Ragout?”

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s not the going out to the movies that I don’t like — the notion of
      watching a movie never appeals to me ahead of time. Only once I’ve started
      watching am I happy that I’m watching a movie. I never feel like watching,
      then I almost always enjoy it. the mystery of fun.

  • Definitely agree. After I write this, I might just a schedule an island getaway with the boyfriend and his nieces and nephews.

  • DavidL31

    This is a great post, Gretchen!

    I know not everybody is like this, but I really have to agree with you. I have about 15 books waiting in line that I want to read (or try to read), but I almost always let the time to do them slip by without another thought. This will help.

    I just listened to the chapter in the audiobook about pursuing a passion, so today I got insight twice! Thank you so much!

  • kathid

    I have to be better about this. I’m not blaming YOU, but I started reading your book a few weeks ago and I got stuck in the “decluttering” mode. All I have done is sort and toss and organize ever since. I have convinced myself I can’t stop until it’s all done. Meanwhile, I’m not “allowed” to do anything fun. This isn’t a new thing with me, but this time I’m determined to REALLY clear the decks. I’m nearly done, and I’m hoping that it will free up LOTS of time to have the clutter removed.

  • Somebody should schedule some playtime with that sad looking dog in the picture.

    I have found myself having to put naps on my to do list lately, near the top, or I won’t take them when I need to.

    Getting lost in a great novel is one of my greatest pleasures, and I never have to schedule that–I just carry it around with me everywhere, and I have to schedule everything else, or I would ignore the rest of life and just read the book until it ended. Once I got so absorbed in a fascinating book that I only realized, when the book ended, that it was 6am and I had been reading all night, and forgot to go to bed. But now I put sleep on my to do list so I will not forget to do it while having too much fun reading.

    This is a good point, though. We spend all our energy fulfilling obligations and being productive, and then do not have any left for reveling in the joy of being alive. Oops.

  • We all need time to play otherwise life becomes dull and repetitive. It’s nice to get that creative spar going once in a while.

  • sounds to me like a good resolution, when the person gets caught in the cycle of work and stress he might forget what happiness felt like

  • I agree. We do mini-vacations every quarter. I work hard but also play hard. Its refreshing to go on fun trips. When I get back I am usually recharged to work again.

  • To-Do Librarian

    Wow–This makes perfect sense to me. I keep thinking I need to “find fun” as the moments go by. Never really happens. In the few times I scheduled fun things to do, it usually works out. Otherwise, I spending weeks going through to-do lists/getting errands done. It’s a bottomless list!

    I’m very disciplined with my marathon training (e.g., dread it before I leave for my run, but almost always feel better after). Why not do it for fun activities? 🙂

  • I can totally relate to your movie behavior. I sometimes even get anxious about going to weddings. Granted, I have about 18 to attend per year. But, like you, once I’m there I have a wonderful time, each time. For me it’s that I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing at each moment (most of the time…unless I’m scrubbing the tub or something else I don’t like doing).

    I really like this post because it’s a reminder that Happiness requires building a certain part of our brain, like building a muscle when exercising. It’s a reminder that Happiness is also based on choices and continued action, rather than something we’re born with, that we can take for granted or not build upon.


  • real_life_change

    I’ve been amazed at the number of times when I thought I was “wasting” productive time by doing something that I’d consider “playing”, but then I feel recharged and able to be more productive later…or I received some great creative ideas during my play time. Thanks for the great post.

  • My original reaction was to disagree, but now I can see that I actually do it myself.

    Scheduling fun forces you to stop doing work and switch gears towards something different. Sometimes the activity might not even be fun (laundry, cleaning a room, etc), but it becomes fun just because it gets you moving, thinking and it actually relaxes you.

    The tough part is keeping to scheduling and actually having mandatory fun 🙂


  • Play is essential in my daily life! I’ve set myself strict work time and play time – normally 1 hour work, 1 hour play throughout the day until 6pm.

  • Great point. In my schedule, if it’s not in there it doesn’t get done!

    Therefore, I now realize that an entry must be made for fun as well. I too am an avid reader, but ‘stuff’ has a tendency to squeeze out my reading time.

    Now the only question is when. A good reading before bed should work … but where did I leave my pen? 🙂

    Best to you,

  • RachelGrey

    Playfulness is very, very important for my adult happiness. I had a fairly serious & responsible childhood, so I used to claim I was making up for that, but lately I’ve started believing that playtime is important for everyone.

    I believe that both physical and mental play are deeply beneficial. One of the very best life-hacks is figuring out some physical exercise that is a truly good workout and also feels playful. I do my share of plain vanilla workouts, but also have a couple of acrobatics classes on my weekly schedule so that I always get some time to play like a 6-year-0ld.

  • pamwalter

    You are so right! It’s easy for play to become overrun by the “tyranny of the urgent” rather than being sen for the more important thing it is. Thanks for the reminder.

  • ryantko

    This ‘scheduling your fun’ is SO true. For YEARS (and I’m talking over 15 yrs) my husband, kids and I have traditionally always gone to our local Pumpkin Patch. Due to a simply ‘busy schedule’, we missed 2 years of going. Well, since that’s such a great tradition…I’ve scrapbooked EVERY Pumpkin Patch year. Those 2 years that are ‘missing’….I could kick myself for. SCHEDULE the Fun is an EXCELLENT idea. Better to feel somewhat foolish than have regrets (like I do) when the moment passes!

  • I am so glad and relieved that I have found someone that has excellent thoughts on the very thing that I am going through in my life right now. Wonderful insight to the very thoughts that I have, from the time I awaken until the time I fade away into a nice but light sleep. Thank you so much for sharing yourself with me. You give me great insight and strength. I feel very relieved to know that others think and feel the same as I do. I fully intend to read and follow her as long as she rights. Very informative and entertaining literature. God Bless.