Overscheduled? 7 Science-Backed Rules to Make the Most of Your Free Time

When you find yourself with some rare leisure time, here's how to get the most out of it.

Keep it off your calendar

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Scheduling every moment of your free time could make it less enjoyable. Picking a specific date and time for a fun activity can decrease the anticipation beforehand and enjoyment in the moment, probably because it starts to feel like an obligation, a Washington University study found. Tossing your calendar to the wayside probably isn’t realistic, but the researchers suggest picking a rough time to see friends—say, “in the afternoon” instead of “2 p.m.”—to keep the meet up flexible instead of feeling like a chore.

Put down your phone

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People who use their phones more than 10 hours a day feel more uptight and anxious during free time than those who use their phones about three hours daily, found a Kent State University study. The researchers say people who are on their phones a lot tend to feel obligated to stay connected to them, which can cause stress even when they’re trying to have fun.

Take a photo

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You don’t want to live life through a screen, but snapping a photo could boost your enjoyment. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, volunteers participated in an activity like eating in a food court or going on a bus, and some were told to take photos. Almost across the board, those who’d snapped pictures said they enjoyed the activities more than those who hadn’t. The exception? Hands-on activities like making an art project, which is why researchers think the extra engagement you get from photo-taking is what brings pleasure. Whip out your phone’s camera when you’re at a museum or the mall to get more in-the-moment fun and some amusing snapshots to look at later. Check out these genius ways to use your phone's camera.

Don’t switch the channel during commercials

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Sounds bizarre, but people who watch a show with commercials enjoy the program more than people who watch it without, found a study in the Journal of Consumer Research. The study authors say that viewers adapt to the amount of fun they feel while watching TV, so interrupting a sitcom or documentary with ads resets their level of enjoyment when the show comes back. This is your brain on binge-watching television.

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Pace yourself

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A study in the Journal of Consumer Research had volunteers either eat a widely liked food such as chocolate or play a video game. The participants were told either to eat or play at their own pace, or to follow instructions about how fast they could do so. Those who were told to consume the food or game slowly rated their experiences as more enjoyable than the other groups. Researchers say that unlike consuming too quickly (which people tend to do when choosing their own pace), spacing out an activity makes the experience feel more gratifying and last for a longer time.

Watch a tearjerker

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A comedy will probably bring a smile to your face, but a sad movie could make you happier too. The key is to think of your loved ones, rather than your own life, while you watch. In an Ohio State University study, volunteers who watched a tragic movie and thought about their loved ones increased their happiness when the film was over. But those who had self-centered thoughts like “My life isn’t as bad as the characters in this movie” didn’t have the same happiness boost.

Volunteer

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Research has shown that giving back boosts self-esteem, makes you more optimistic, decreases stress, and just plain makes you happy. In fact, donating to a cause can stimulate the same parts of the brain that light up when you eat or have sex.

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