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Unplan Your Life

Body+Soul, 2008

Our schedules these days leave little to the imagination. Countless datebooks tell the story of lives overflowing with commitments, all carefully slated so that nothing falls between the cracks. Given the challenges of juggling various responsibilities, it's sanity-promoting -- even necessary -- to map out each day.

But there's a downside to the almighty agenda. Although patterned thought and behavior keep things running smoothly, routine also has a dark side: rigidity. Some research has found that people who don't make room for enjoyable, "non-instrumental" activity (reading for pleasure, chatting with a friend) may experience more stress -- and that, in turn, can contribute to problems like depression, anxiety, weakened immunity, and heart disease. Even the simple act of doing something novel or unexpected from exploring a new social situation to a different work out, can trigger neurogenesis -- the creation of new neurons in the brain -- which has been linked to learning and mood.

Although you probably can't just toss your calendar out the window, you can make room for the wide-open, could-be moments that an airtight agenda might otherwise preclude. After all, the memories you cherish won't be of the meeting that started on time or the errands you ran. More likely, you'll cherish the thing you didn't expect: the surprise visit, the wonderful coincidence, the brilliant idea that popped up seemingly out of nowhere.

Here, a few fresh ideas for introducing more spontaneity into your life.

1. Pencil It In
Plans undoubtedly serve a practical purpose, but often we gravitate toward them simply out of security. By mapping out a schedule, we may be doing little more than alleviating the anxiety of not having one. If trashing your agenda in the name of spontaneity feels too terrifying, though, find a middle ground. See your schedule as a sketch of what you might like to do -- but utterly dispensable should situations change.

For instance, it would be nice to meet your sister for lunch at 11:30 and then hit that new exhibit at the museum by 1. But if lunch runs long and you're having fun, forget the museum and linger over dessert instead. The lighter on your feet you stay with your approach to planning, the better you can go with the flow as the day evolves -- without stressing out.

Inveterate planner Aimée Samuelson learned the virtues of the loose agenda from an unexpected source: her four-year-old son, Sebastian. "Almost any parent will tell you that penciled-in plans are the only ones to have," she says. And sometimes they can yield some special surprises. When Sebastian fell asleep in the car one afternoon, Samuelson and her husband decided to just keep driving and let him sleep, rather than go home and risk waking him up. An hour later, they found themselves in Manchester, Massachusetts. "And that's how we found Singing Beach," she recalls. "It was cold out, so we just parked overlooking the beach and watched the sunset. We never would have found it if we'd followed our original plans, and now it's our favorite spot!"

2. Tweak a Habit
In a world of extreme makeovers, it's easy to assume that the bigger the change, the better. In fact, the opposite may be true. "People think they have to make a dramatic change," says Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, author of "We Plan, God Laughs." "But far more subtle ones make a big difference."

Rather than quitting your job and moving clear across the country just to try something new, start with a few little things and see what happens. One way to create bite-size opportunities that encourage this process is to tweak a regular habit. Instead of taking a drastic leap from brunette to bleached blonde, for instance, try parting your hair on the other side.

If you habitually wear your watch on your left wrist, switch it over to the right. Usually hit the same place every day for a latte? Try somewhere (or something) different. You might even change your regular running route and explore a different part of the neighborhood.

3. Rejigger Your To-Do List
It's a gorgeous, sunny day -- perfect for taking a kayak out on the river or going on a day-long hike. But you've told yourself all week that today you'd go underwear shopping and pick up sheets for the guest room (and that screen door could use fixing). It's common to confuse premade plans with priorities, says Hirsch.

"We get so stuck in what should happen, whether it’s this moment or our whole lives, that we stop hearing what we authentically want to do. Instead, we put things we think we should do on a to-do list, and then beat ourselves up when they don't get done." That premade schedule may make you feel responsible and organized, it's not necessarily serving your best interests (especially if you put off kayaking until the next weekend, when it rains nonstop).

To keep your errand-oriented plan from taking over your life, remember that although you have obligations to your family and work, you also have a very real obligation to yourself. (And if the screen door has been busted for six weeks, another day won't matter.) Think of it this way: Will you feel better knowing that you finally bought business envelopes and swept the basement as planned, or that you ditched the agenda and instead met up with a friend to eat strawberries at the farmers' market? Once you begin seeing your time in these terms, you'll find ways to shift your to-dos around and take advantage of what crops up.

4. Say Yes
Packed schedules naturally discourage spontaneity: When you get an impromptu dinner invite or a chance to try rock climbing, the answer is usually no -- you're already booked. But even when the calendar is clear, it's easy to fall into the habit of dodging experiences that veer from routine.

"We often say no out of habit and fear. It keeps us from having to take a risk," says Patricia Ryan Madson, author of "Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up." "But once we see how fun it is to say yes to things, a world of possibilities opens up." As head of the acting program at Standford University, Madson saw this transformation in her improv students, who learned to react to each other's spur-of-the-moment ideas. "While many of them are nervous and shy at first, by the end, they're smiling, laughing, speaking louder," says Madson. "The classroom just lights up."

Just for fun, try saying yes to the next halfway decent invitation that comes your way -- even if it interrupts your plans ("But I always do laundry on Saturday mornings!").

If you're on a roll, you might even practice saying yes to everything for a whole day, or even a week. Want to see a movie? Sure. Care to stay at my lake house for the weekend? Yes! Open yourself up, and soon you'll be meeting new people, developing friendships, and experiencing different things.

5. Wing It
When Boston-based editor Donna Garlough and her husband, Dave, decided to honeymoon in Greece, they knew three things: when they'd fly in, when they'd fly out, and where they'd stay the first several nights. The rest of their trip was an open book, full of discoveries and day-of decisions. As it turns out, a minimalist approach was just what they needed. "After spending a year agonizing over wedding details, we needed a break. So we said, why plan? Let's just see where our hearts and stomachs take us," says Garlough. "If we'd planned every minute, we wouldn't have had that fantastic serendipity."

Although you may have some serious reservations about going anywhere sans reservations, you can experiment with winging things here and there. Say you have a free day in a new city (or your own). Although you could plan it to the hilt (flower show at 9 a.m., shopping at 1:15 p.m.), what would happen if you didn't map it out in advance? You'd discover as you go, free to pop into an unexpected bookshop or the delightful little bistro you otherwise might have missed if you'd had your nose buried in the "Let's Go" guidebook.

Renowned creativity expert Julia Cameron, author of the book-turned-movement "The Artist's Way," offers this tool as a way to unplug from routine. "Once a week, do something adventurous, something that challenges and pleases you," she says, whether it's a trip to a quirky boutique or to the aquarium. These mini-excursions invite the unexpected, putting you in the path of something potentially life changing. For Cameron, a trip to a travel bookstore led her to a book about Magellan -- which in turn inspired her to write an entire musical about the famed explorer. "It's amazing how this kind of activity can shake things loose," she notes. "It gives you a heightened sense of possibility and potential -- and inspires a fresh connection to your world."