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How to be spontaneous

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We are calendar control freaks booked up weeks in advance, but is a lack of spontaneity stifling more than just an impromptu skinny dip?

Words: Lizzie Pook

It’s 7am on the Mediterranean coast and you’re in nothing but a beach towel. The soft breeze whips through your already-tangled hair as you prod tentatively at the sand with your toes. A tiny shore crab scuttles by and you look up to see the sunlight glistening in the inky sea. Suddenly, two of your friends sprint towards the water and crash into the waves with shrieks of joy. One of them turns to you and beckons. There’s nothing for it – you take a deep breath, shrug off the towel and run.

The thought of spontaneous moments like this is enough to induce a sort of sweaty-palmed hysteria in most of the overplanners among us, and sheer excitement in the rest. But the reality is that spontaneity is on the wane, with increasing evidence suggesting most of us no longer take a laissez-faire approach to our lives.

Statistics show that the average woman is now so busy we plan our lives five weeks in advance, with one in 10 having the next 10 weeks of her diary filled to the brim with work and social commitments. It’s no surprise then that two-thirds of us long for more spontaneity, whether it’s booking flights on a Friday for a weekend in Europe; stepping off the night bus halfway to home because, actually, the night is still young; or ballet dancing on a nightclub podium in Latvia (that was in fact a member of the Stylist team last year).

It seems we’re drifting away from this impulsive way of being and becoming so obsessed with the acute forward-planning of every single aspect of our lives that we’re losing our ability to live on the edge. Like Emma Well 27, an executive assistant from Colliers Wood in south London, for instance: “My diary is colourcoded, and I highlight tasks when things are done,” she admits. “Events which are yet to be decided are written in pencil so they can easily be erased. For every trip I go on, I create a holiday folder which consists of all the important documents as well as research on the area.”

Studies have shown that 43% of women would describe themselves as “very organised” like this (compared to 32% of men). Social events are being strategised to the nth degree; hen dos come complete with colour-coded accommodation options; and the venue for our birthday celebrations is booked at least three months in advance. While this may seem like top organisational skills to some, we’re fast losing our grip on incorporating any sort of last-minute fun into our lifestyle.

Think back to some of the most memorable times you’ve had and chances are they started innocently, and then ended 14 hours later via an impromptu zoo visit/houseboat trip/ karaoke session involving the ritual slaughter of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart. “A few years ago, my best friend and I climbed up a fire escape to a sold-out gig, completely on a whim,” recalls Anita Bhagwandas, Stylist’s beauty and features writer. “We ended up walking through a door which led directly onto the stage, while the band was mid-set. The security guards eventually let us stay because they admired our stupidity and tenacity. We still laugh about it today.”

natural instinct

Spontaneity is in our blood. The propensity to be spontaneous has been a key part of our evolution, giving us the ability to escape danger and accelerate our development. Passive strategies and behaviours are not evolutionarily beneficial. As animals we must be constantly active, exploring the environment with off-the-cuff actions, taking risks and learning from our mistakes.

Acting spontaneously also makes us more creative. Scientists from John Hopkin’s University in Maryland, USA, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to prove that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition and turn on those that let self-expression flow. So going with your instincts could unleash your creative potential.

You’ll be happier if you act on impulse more often, too. Studies show people who make snap decisions on everything from which lunch to buy to who they choose as a partner are happier and healthier than those who agonise over everything. Researchers at Florida State University found that thinking too much to get a decision just right can become a vicious circle leading to obsessiveness and unhappiness. They claim people who dwell on decisions can never really enjoy the psychological benefits of committing to something and can cause themselves undue grief.

But now it seems we’re losing one of our most valuable evolutionary tools. We’ve become a generation of ‘overs’; over-thinkers, over-planners and over-analysers. And this need for unfailing organisation is having a detrimental effect on all aspects of our lives. So why is it so hard for us to just live a little?

“The internet has led to us spending so much time planning every single minute, we’ve become architects of our own social experience,” says psychologist Emma Kenny. “Compare our current behaviour with 15 years ago, when we didn’t have all this fingertip technology,” she adds. “We weren’t aware of what everyone else was doing every second and spontaneity was part of our everyday lives.

Nowadays, we don’t let things evolve; we plot every single aspect of our nights out.” There is competitiveness to this organisation, too. “We plan intricately so we know we will be able to tell our social media ‘friends’ that we’re having the best possible type of ‘fun’. But with this we lose the very essence of a joyful occasion, which occurs when you’re in the moment.” Take into account the fear of missing out which fuels us to accept every invitation so we don’t hear about an amazing party we weren’t at or have to endure a dinner party conversation we can’t join in and it’s unsurprising we’re becoming slaves to our diaries.

Planning things so far in advance gives us the one thing most of us really strive for in life: control. Relinquishing it is not easy. But relying heavily on the infinite wealth of data the digital age provides also means we are not trusting ourselves to make our own decisions. “Modern society has conspired against us to make us less spontaneous,” says John-Paul Flintoff, writer and improvisation coach. “Because of the consumer-focused nature of our lives now, we think our own decisions or gut instincts can’t be right if we do not have the latest material possession or expert opinion to back them up.”

And it’s not just uncertain outcomes that make us anxious. Often, we might fill up our diaries well in advance to save us the ‘problem’ of having a spare afternoon. For a whole generation of persistently busy women the idea of spare time has become more terrifying than a session of root canal at the hands of a particularly sadistic dentist. A recent study commissioned by Ikea found that 46% of adults admitted they are anxious when presented with free time. “I would rather do anything than sit still and ‘relax’,” says Rose Hancock, 28, a PR executive from London. “If I find I have a gap in my diary I’ll schedule a walk or a run. The pressure of free time and spending it valuably and interestingly becomes too much to bear.”

But by stacking up appointments we impose countless ‘deadlines’ on ourselves. And the pressure of meeting them all can make us even more stressed. Studies have shown that constant deadlines can increase the risk of a heart attack four-fold. So while you might think you’re saving yourself bother by painstakingly co-ordinating diaries with your fellow time-poor friends and scheduling lunch dates and cinema trips from now until 2014, you aren’t actually doing your health any favours.

acting on impulse

These negative effects can be quelled by a shift in the way we design our lives. We’re not talking major Eat, Pray, Love-style upheaval here. According to the experts, all you need to do is start incorporating small active ‘risks’ into your everyday behaviour. Flintoff believes we should save ourselves valuable time spent agonising over trivial decisions like whether to buy a pink or navy winter coat by trusting our own gut instincts.

“People often see this as making things up on the spot and using information that you don’t have. But that’s not true. You already have whatever you need to make these decisions.” This is because as we accumulate knowledge – whether it’s the flavours we like to taste together or even how we’ve won arguments in the past – our brains begin to recognise patterns. We then unconsciously organise these patterns into blocks of information – a process described by social scientist Herbert Simon as ‘chunking’.

Over time our brains chunk and link more and more patterns and store these nuggets of knowledge in our long-term memory. When we see a tiny detail of a familiar design, we instantly recognise the larger composition. This is what we regard as a ‘flash of intuition’ which leads to a spontaneous or snap decision.

The rules of sponTaneiTy

And for the control ‘enthusiasts’ among us, we can take small steps towards becoming the type of person who hosts an impromptu house party on a Sunday evening or turns up at Heathrow with just a passport and a bikini. Time management consultant Rashelle Isip (theorderexpert.com) suggests we can incorporate more spontaneity into our lives by streamlining our planning.

“Plan ahead, but just enough,” she says. “Get in the habit of covering the bare bones of your household affairs, such as paying bills and running vital errands. Once you’ve got the basics covered you have more freedom to go out on spontaneous adventures, while having the comfort of having planned something.”

Ironically, we can also plan ‘windows’ for spontaneity. “Put something in the diary even if it’s an appointment for time spent doing nothing,” says Kenny. While planning is pretty essential when faced with big events such as weddings, anniversaries, buying a house or moving to a new city, the benefits of adding a little spontaneity into our lives speak volumes. Granted, knee-jerk decisions aren’t always the right ones (that leopard print onesie that seemed like a really fun idea at the time), but making mistakes is part and parcel of life. So, here’s to deleting our calendars, cancelling our plans and seeing where the day will take us…

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