3 Adventures to Plan for a Better Week

A formula for giving yourself something to look forward to

Illustration: Dora Godfrey

As pandemic life drags on, many of us are appreciating (and/or missing) the joy of having something to look forward to. An upcoming party gives structure to a weekend. A planned beach vacation makes the winter doldrums bearable. Some research has found that anticipating positive events can reduce negative feelings in stressful situations; other studies find that thinking about future positive experiences can nudge wiser choices in the present.

Covid-19 has made this all more challenging, and the predictable psychological result is a certain level of malaise. Fortunately, you don’t need tickets to Tahiti to reap the mental benefits of anticipation. I’ve studied how people feel about their time, and I’ve found that even a little positive expectation can go a long way. To make your calendar feel more joyful, you just need to set aside time for three things every week:

One big adventure

An exciting, unusual experience can keep us from feeling like each day is bleeding into the next. As the psychologist and memory researcher Lila Davachi explained in her 2016 TED talk: “In an environment with a lot of variety and change, you’re forming far more memory units than in an environment with very little change. It’s these units — the number of these units — that determine our estimates of time later on. More units, more to remember, and time expands.”

I define a “big adventure” as one that takes at least three to four hours, which for most of us would mean half a weekend day. Think about your upcoming weekends: What would you genuinely enjoy that’s within an hour’s drive? In recent weeks, I’ve taken my kids skating at an outdoor ice rink, we’ve visited a botanical garden greenhouse, and I’ve gotten timed tickets to two regional art museums. A big adventure can anchor your days off. You’ll still have tons of open time if you want, but if anyone asks on Monday what you did over the weekend, you’ll have an answer.

One little adventure

I define a little adventure as something fun and out of the ordinary that takes about an hour. These can fit into a weekday night or even a lunch break.

Anything novel works here. In recent weeks, for example, I’ve listened to a lecture about Bach’s B-Minor Mass and watched (virtually) a concert that the Philadelphia Orchestra performed to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Sometimes simply leaving the house after dinner can be an adventure, whether that’s to take a family walk or to play hide and seek with flashlights in the backyard.

Little professional adventures are possible, too. You could partner with a colleague to do a Zoom chat on a topic of shared expertise, for instance, and maybe even invite other colleagues to watch. If this nudges you out of your comfort zone, that just means you’ll definitely remember it.

Something whimsical

Consciously tweaking ordinary things to make them silly can jolt us out of everyday mindlessness. Make pancakes for breakfast in the shape of snowmen, hearts, shamrocks — or serve breakfast for dinner. If you’re the sort of person who paints your nails, paint them a crazy color. Buy a garden gnome or create your own funny statue and put it outside your home office window. In recent weeks, my whimsy has involved going down an ice slide at a local zoo and walking through the giant heart at the Franklin Institute on Valentine’s Day. I have duly noted International Waffle Day on my calendar (March 25) and plan to make the most of it.

For each of these three types of adventures, you can maximize the mental benefit by planning ahead. First, make lists. Adventures seldom occur to us exactly when we want them to. So keep a running list of potential adventure and devote a few minutes where you can to research.

And second, plan the adventures as far ahead as possible. If you know you and your significant other plan to take a sunset hike on a gorgeous trail three weeks from now, and stop to get takeout from a favorite restaurant afterward, your brain will spend the next three weeks looking forward to this fun. Planning the hike for tomorrow would be good too, but then you’d only get 24 hours of anticipatory pleasure. These days? We need every boost we can get.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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