Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist & Founder
As a psychologist I am often asked about how people can ‘let go’ and be more spontaneous. To answer this question, we need to think about why it is that we struggle with this in the first place. One important reason is that through our education and our work experiences we often learn to do things efficiently. Planning and optimizing tasks is an important skill. However this ‘doing’ mode can be difficult to switch out of.
This ‘doing’ and ‘optimising’ mode can sometimes turn tasks that should be enjoyable, restorative and creative into things that should be ‘done’. This can really suck the enjoyment out of everything. Sound familiar? If this is you I would encourage you to begin to notice when you start to go into this mode.
Lots of societal messages can be unhelpful here too. Remember that ‘productivity’ craze that went viral during the pandemic? This is a good example. I’ve lost count of how many clients have been hugely triggered by this and it has been detrimental in them being able to relax and enjoy any free time they have. The need to constantly be productive is very unhelpful for us.
Understandably most people want to make the most of heir time when they travel. Flight and hotel costs are very expensive at the moment. We may only visit a place once and so we want to see the sights and experience what it has to offer. This makes perfect sense but if we switch into ‘doing’ mode on our travels, there is a danger that sights and activities began to feel like ticking boxes. This can reduce our enjoyment and mean that these experiences are not as restorative as they could be.
What is spontaneity and why is it important?
Spontaneity involves going with flow, and loosening our grip on needing to feel ‘in control’. It is about letting ourselves be in the moment rather than focusing on doing or achieving. It is a focus on doing what feels right rather than being productive or efficient.
When we are spontaneous, we are tuning in to how we feel on a given day and going along with this. Doing this all of the time would be unhelpful as we would not get very much done! However tuning into to how we feel on a regular basis is important as it helps us to connect to ourselves.
Seeing the value in spontaneity
Think about positive experiences you’ve had when you’ve been spontaneous. This might be finding a restaurant unexpectedly or coming across a part of a city that you’ve really enjoyed. There is something quite magical about stumbling on a restaurant that looks really unassuming and turns out to be amazing.
A couple of research studies can tell us about how being spontaneous can help our well-being. These studies found that spontaneity was linked to lower levels of distress (Ronconi et al., 2018, Testoni et al., 2016). Being spontaneous also appeared to be related to having more confidence in our ability to achieve tasks and goals (Ronconi et al., 2018). These were fairly small studies, and so it is difficult to make strong conclusions. However they suggest that a little bit of spontaneity can be a good thing, and can help us to build confidence in ourselves and our abilities.
Are there any downsides to spontaneity?
Most people think about the ability to be spontaneous as being a good thing. But being spontaneous does have the potential to be a problem, if we do it too often or if we are behaving in ways that have potential downsides for us. This is where the concept of spontaneity overlaps with impulsivity.
Impulsivity is generally viewed as unhelpful particularly when people make choices or behave in ways that are risky and have detrimental consequences to their lives. The key difference is that impulsive behaviour tends to include this ‘recklessness’. Dr Leon Seltzer expands on this definition by explaining that impulsivity often comes from a place of ‘mental imbalance’. In contrast, spontaneity often comes from feeling relaxed and able to tune in to how we are feeling at a given time and acting accordingly.
Why do some people struggle with being spontaneous?
We will all vary in how comfortable we are being spontaneous, due to differences in our personality and coping styles. Our family backgrounds are important here too; if we grew up in a family where trips were heavily planned then we will probably be less comfortable with spontaneity.
Those of us who tend to experience anxiety will also tend to be less spontaneous and flexible, particularly if we use planning as a way of coping. You will tend to struggle with spontaneity if you are someone who likes to feel ‘in control’, which is often a coping mechanism for anxiety.
How can I be more spontaneous?
In Dr Leon’s Seltzer’s definition people who feel free to act spontaneously do so because they have self-confidence and trust their own judgment. This is really what we need to build to allow ourselves to be more spontaneous.
The important thing with building your confidence with spontaneity is to start small, and gradually build your confidence. Here are some examples of small ways to be spontaneous on your travels:
- Choose a restaurant without checking reviews
- Allow yourself an afternoon without having anything planned or booked and tune in to whatever you feel like doing
- Ask your travel companion to choose the activity and make it your mission to enjoy it, even if it is not an activity you would usually choose
- Ask a local person for a recommendation and follow it without spending a lot if time researching or checking reviews
- Leave time in your travel plans for spontaneity and avoid over planning
- Order something from a restaurant menu that you wouldn’t usually try
One of the barriers to being spontaneous can be the fear of not enjoying yourself or not making the best use of time. These are the kinds of fears that can lead us to switching back into ‘doing’ mode. When you notice these fears, remind yourself “I’m here to be carefree and to enjoy, and not to optimise”. In line with this, spend time in the moment and notice all of the sights and sounds. This can help us tune back into ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ mode.
If you liked this article check out our previous post Should I plan or be spontaneous with my trips?
Ronconi, L., Giannerini, N., Testoni, I., Zulian, M., & Guglielmin, M. S. (2018). A structural model of well-being, spontaneity and self-efficacy: Italian validation between adolescents and young adults. Trends in psychiatry and psychotherapy, 40, 136-143.
Testoni, I., Wieser, M., Armenti, A., Ronconi, L., Guglielmin, M. S., Cottone, P., & Zamperini, A. (2016). Spontaneity as predictive factor for well-being. Zeitschrift für Psychodrama und Soziometrie, 1(15), 11-23.
The Wisdom of Spontaneity (Part 1) | Psychology Today United Kingdom
The Wisdom of Spontaneity (Part 2) | Psychology Today United Kingdom
The Wisdom of Spontaneity (Part 3) | Psychology Today United Kingdom