This Is Why People Constantly Flake on Their Plans
This mismatch between the abstractness of our plans when they’re in the distance and their concrete nature once they’re imminent helps partly explain why people fall into the canceling habit.
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I want to see my friends, go out, be social, and I've never considered myself an overwhelmingly socially anxious person. Lately, though, I've encountered an issue when I make plans. When the day arrives, I start to dread it. The notion that I have to go out and do the thing I originally wanted eats away at me, and hangs like a cloud over everything I do. That's when I'll get the idea to cancel. I list in my mind all the different excuses I might give. I might write a "canceling" text a few times and delete it. Eventually I will send a text like "Ugh sorry I forgot I'm doing..." or "Can we resched, I'm really tired." When the plan does get canceled I'm filled with a huge sense of relief, and then end up doing nothing: watching TV, hanging around my apartment. When I wake up the next day, I feel a bit of nagging guilt and I wonder, should I have just gone out? Why can't I stop canceling my plans?
I used to be a serial offender at this! The time that sticks in my mind was in my teens. My newish best buddy was heavily into outdoor pursuits and asked if—during the imminent holidays—I’d like to join him on a five-day hike across challenging terrain. I leapt at the chance. It sounded exciting, I’d never done anything like it before and, truth be told, I was flattered by the invitation. I’m cringing now remembering how my friend planned the route with such diligence. He even gave me a detailed inventory of all the gear I’d need to bring.
You know the punchline. At some stage near the end of term, the reality of what I’d signed up for hit me. That initial vision of adventure, a friendship burnished by shared triumph over adversity—cue cheesy film score—was replaced by more concrete, less inspiring images, like spending all day walking (probably in the rain), eating horrible packaged food, and sharing a tent for several nights with someone I hadn’t even been buddies with for that long. Awkward. And way too much effort. Don’t worry, I came up with an epic excuse and faces were saved all round (at least that’s the version of events I tell myself).
This mismatch between the abstractness of our plans when they’re in the distance and their concrete nature once they’re imminent helps partly explain why you’ve fallen into the canceling habit. Your friends ask you to a party or to go clubbing or whatever—it sounds vaguely fun, and it’s nice to be asked. Then the event draws near and the practicalities kick in: you’ve got to make your way there, you can’t stand your friend’s friend who’s coming too, and you’ve got work early in the morning.
Step one, then, for overcoming your current dilemma is to force yourself to consider things in as concrete, practical terms before agreeing or proposing any social plans. One way to do this, especially if the plans are for a week or more in the future, is to force yourself to imagine that the plan is for later today or tonight. Would you really want to do whatever is on the cards later today? If not, this is a sure sign that you won’t feel like doing it for real next week or next month.
Related to this is the fact that when we are in one kind emotional state, we’re really bad at anticipating how we’ll feel when we’re in a completely different state. It’s kind of like having a lack of empathy for different versions of ourselves.
A really simple example is how, when we’re full and wide-awake, we’re often not very good at anticipating the animalistic needs of our hungry, tired selves. So, after a delicious lunch, say, we don’t bother to buy a snack on the way home for later that evening, which also happens to be when our genius morning self promised the boss we’d catch up on our overdue work project. Evening arrives and the zonked, starving you hates the earlier you. There are no munchies, and now you’re so tired the project is the last thing you feel like or are capable of doing!
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A similar dynamic can play out with your social plans. You’re hanging out with your buddies at lunch, feeling all chill and extroverted—one of them (or maybe you) suggests meeting up tomorrow night and it’s a no brainer, you’re in. Tomorrow night comes round, you’re at home, cosy, all snug and introverted. For this version of you, it’s sooo tempting to send the reschedule text (and a relief after it’s sent)!
In this kind of scenario, you’ve actually committed two empathy blunders on yourself—first, the extroverted you not realizing how antisocial you’ll feel tomorrow evening. But second, the introverted you, all snug at home not anticipating how, once you’re hanging with your friends again, your mood state (and your in-the-moment personality) will more than likely adapt and you’ll actually have a lot of fun. Bear in mind that there is research showing that even introverts enjoy behaving like an extrovert, far more than they think they will beforehand.
In order to stop canceling so many plans, you need to address both these crucial moments. Imagining plans more concretely, as I already described, will somewhat help prevent the first blunder, stopping you from agreeing to do things that you later won’t want to do. (Another tip is to ask a friend, similar to you, whether they enjoyed the same experience that you’re contemplating—if they didn’t, then don’t agree to do it.) Meanwhile, to overcome the second blunder, try having more faith in your ability to adapt and to snap into a different mode once you get there.
A habit I’ve gotten into to help with this latter issue is to keep a brief diary record of how I felt after either declining a social plan or going ahead with it. For instance, if I went ahead, I might write a short note to myself afterwards like “Felt tired and shy but great once I got there—soon loosened up after chatting to James, also met up with Sarah for the first time in ages. So pleased I made the effort." Doing this can help overcome the biases in how we remember and anticipate situations.
Ultimately, though, your talk of relief followed by guilt suggests that there could be a deeper dilemma here. Only you know what your priorities are in life—the friends who really matter to you and how you really want to spend your free time (is drinking with friends at a bar truly high on the list, for instance, or would you rather be at an evening class or playing a team sport?).
Maybe you do truly want to do the plans you’re agreeing to, it’s just that you’re having a hard time escaping the lure of a quiet night with the TV. In which case, you’re certainly far from alone—in a fact a recent study in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that most people realize that more meaningful activities will make them happier, yet they still spend a huge amount of time watching TV.
If this is you, the researchers’ advice was to plan ahead and make the transitions between different activities easier—for instance, to reduce canceling on your gym buddy, try keeping your gym bag always packed and ready to go; or if you keep canceling get-togethers at a bar, try arranging to meet at a super convenient place that’s on your way home from work, for instance.
On the other hand, it’s possible that you’re canceling a lot not so much because of the psychological biases I’ve discussed, but because you’re agreeing to do things that, at a more fundamental level, you really don’t want to do. Maybe you’re only agreeing out of politeness or a fear of losing friends, or because you like to think of yourself as a sociable person.
The fact you’ve only recently started canceling a lot suggests this could be something for you to ponder if you find the canceling habit continues for much longer.
Dr. Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2019 by Simon and Schuster.
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