Neuroscientists Explain Why Future Plans Always Sound Fun but Can Be Anxiety-Inducing Day Of

Photo: Getty Images/Jessie Casson
Whether it’s a much-needed vacation or a dinner party at your place, there’s something exciting about making plans for the future. You can plot out what you’ll do and when, who will be there, and how amazing it will feel to just kick back and enjoy. But, when the day of said plan actually arrives, living them out (instead of just canceling them) often feels like the last thing you'd like to do. But why is planning more fun than actually, you know, doing?

According to research, anticipating plans can give a bigger mental boost than actually doing the plans. One meta-analysis found that people reported higher levels of happiness while they were waiting for an event or experience when compared to waiting to receive actual material goods. The same holds true for planning versus taking a vacation.

Experts In This Article
  • Craig A. Smith, PhD, Psychologist Craig A. Smith, PhD, is an investigator at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. His work focuses on cognition and neuroscience.
  • Frank Ghinassi, PhD, Psychologist Frank Ghinassi, PhD, is the president and CEO of Rutgers Behavioral Health Care.
  • Jason Moser, PhD, neuroscientist and professor of cognition and cognitive neuroscience at Michigan State University

Below, neuroscientists delve into specific reasons why planning can be more fun than doing, plus how to start making plans you actually will enjoy.

5 reasons why planning is sometimes more fun than doing, according to neuroscientists

1. Your memory of how things went in the past was a little hazy

Let's take for instance the plan of hosting a holiday party. You probably remember the last time you hosted a holiday meal as being a warm and fuzzy experience with friends and family. What you might have forgotten, though, was how stressed out you were trying to get all the food on the table in time.

“Our brains’ ability to accurately remember the facts of the past is not terribly good,” says psychologist Frank Ghinassi, PhD, president and CEO of Rutgers Behavioral Health Care. “We tend to remember things through a lens of emotion or in a way that’s less concerning.” As a result, he says, you tend to focus on the positives of the experience and skip over the negatives—until you find yourself right back in the same position again.

2. You initially glossed over all the work involved

Making plans is the easy part, says neuroscientist Jason Moser, PhD, professor of cognition and cognitive neuroscience at Michigan State University. “In the abstract, these things can sound fun,” he says. “But getting down to the details, which need to be covered as plans approach, requires effort.”

“In the abstract, these things can sound fun. But getting down to the details, which need to be covered as plans approach, requires effort.” —neuroscientist Jason Moser, PhD

It’s also easy to “think about the abstract but put off the details,” like what time you need to leave your place to make sure you catch your flight, who is going to watch your dog while you’re away, and how you’re going to have to cram to get all your work done before you leave, Dr. Moser says.

3. Reality is complicated

It’s easy to imagine your plans will go perfectly. “There can be a lot of satisfaction to imagining how great the experience will be, and how much fun everyone is going to have,” says psychologist Craig A. Smith, PhD, an investigator at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development whose work focuses on cognition and neuroscience. But, he points out, “the reality may not, and often does not, fully live up to expectations. The reality may not be as wonderful and amazing as the experience you fantasized or dreamed about while planning the event, even if things go off without a hitch.”

Some events and experiences can be complicated and the reality of that leaves a window open for potential issues to pop up on the day of, Dr. Smith says. “There are often many things that could go wrong, and often some things do,” he says. “The possibility of things not going the way you planned can be a source of great anxiety and stress.”

A lot of things about reality are also out of your control—especially once your plans are put into motion, Dr. Ghinassi says. “Once the event begins, all of the illusion of control evaporates, and your ability to actually control things diminishes enormously,” he says.

4. You have performance anxiety

“There can be a threat of a feeling of failure, which is performance anxiety,” Dr. Moser says. “That’s true whether you’re having people come over to your house or going on vacation. You can be worried that something won’t work right.”

That level of uncertainty and stress can lead to anxiety about actually being able to pull off your plans, he says. “The closer you get to the situation where something could go wrong, the more the threat is closer, and the more you feel anxious about what could go wrong,” Dr. Moser says.

5. You feel responsible for everyone having a good time

It’s easy to feel like the responsibility for everyone enjoying themselves falls on you when you’re the one who made the plans, Dr. Smith says. But some people are impacted by this more than others. “In terms of personality, people who tend to be highly perfectionistic are very likely to be greatly upset if even little things go wrong,” he says. “Extreme perfectionists tend to hold themselves and others to impossibly high standards, and are almost certain to be dissatisfied with how things play out if even the slightest thing goes wrong—which, of course, can be extremely stressful to them.”

How to make sure you actually enjoy your plans

When whole point of making plans is for you to enjoy them, it's key to understand how to actually do so. To make sure the process is as positive as possible, from start to finish, Dr. Moser recommends trying to remind yourself of exactly how things happened the last time you attempted similar plans, but to also try to view it in a positive (but realistic) light. “As much as possible, try to remind yourself of things that went well,” he says. “When it comes down to it, we tend to exaggerate how bad things will be.”

Dr. Smith suggests letting yourself imagine how great the plans you’ve made will be, but also spending “considerable effort on trying to anticipate the various things that could go wrong and to try to minimize their probability.”

When the day of your plans arrives, Dr. Moser suggests that you simply “practice a radical version of acceptance,” knowing that some things will go according to plan and others won’t. “It’s all okay,” he says.

Oh hi! You look like someone who loves free workouts, discounts for cutting-edge wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders, and unlock your rewards instantly.

Loading More Posts...