What is activity scheduling and how
can I use it to improve my health?

You can get significant mental health benefits from scheduling activities that you enjoy and that increase the amount of physical activity, social interaction, or other activities in your life. It might sound like a common-sense thing to do, and it is! It can be tricky to actually put into practice, though, so this post offers some reasons to persist with it and some tips for getting the most out of it.

Activity scheduling is exactly what it sounds like – it’s the process of scheduling activities! The types of activities you schedule will depend on your personal preferences, but the idea is to schedule activities that you enjoy or that align with your values and longer-term goals. This is often done as part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). You and your therapist can work together to identify activities that you want to schedule, then you put events or activities into your calendar in order to establish healthy habits and to make sure that you’re making time for things that will improve your wellbeing.

What are some examples of activities I could schedule?

You can schedule anything, but it can be especially helpful to schedule either:

   🌠 Any activity that brings you closer to your values and longer-term goals,

   🚲 Any activity that has been shown to benefit people’s physical or mental health, and/or

   💛 Any activity that brings you joy.

What if I don’t feel like doing a scheduled activity?

Sometimes (or often, especially if you have depression), it might be hard to motivate yourself to start or to derive joy from an activity. In those situations, you might need to schedule and start activities that used to bring you joy, or activities that bring others joy, even if you know that there’s only a low chance that they will have that effect on you right now. Other times, you may be pleasantly surprised with how enjoyable an activity is once you start doing it.

We recommend not waiting until you feel motivated to start an activity – if you can, it’s best to do the activity you scheduled, even if you don’t feel motivated to do it. Many people find that – even if they don’t feel motivated before they start – once they start an activity, they become motivated to continue.

Below, we list just some examples of activities that might fall into one or more of the categories above.

🌠 If you want to get closer to your values and longer-term goals, it might help to:

     ● Schedule calls and in-person catch-ups with the people you most care about

     ● Volunteer for a cause you care about

     ● Teach yourself a new skill that matters to your career (for example, through an online course)

     ● Help a friend or family member with coursework or homework

     ● Schedule regular times to reflect on your values 

     ● Schedule times each week to work towards a long-term goal you have

🚲 If you’re interested in activities that have been shown to improve people’s physical and/or mental health, you might want to:

     ● Exercise regularly (test out different types till you find some that you genuinely enjoy) [1]:

          ● Take dance lessons (or dance at home)

          ● Go walking alone, with a pet (or a pet you’re babysitting), or with a walking group

          ● Go jogging alone or with a running group

          ●  Do strength training (this doesn’t have to be at the gym – you can do squats, push-ups, sit-ups, and weight training at home)

          ●  Attend yoga classes (or learn online)

     ● Socialise regularly [2]:

          ● Meet with a friend for a walk or a meal

          ● Exercise with a friend

          ● Find a team sport you enjoy

          ● Volunteer for something where you know you’ll meet other volunteers

          ● Organise a board games night 

          ● Go to externally-organised events based on specific interests you have 

     ● Spend time outside (while being sun-safe) [3]:

          ● Go outside as soon as you can after waking up in the morning

          ● Go walking or hiking in nature, along the beach, or near a river or lake

          ● Go cycling in the countryside or mountain-biking

          ● Go kayaking

💛 Over time, you could also build up a list of activities that bring you joy.

The list of activities that could bring you joy might overlap with the lists above, or they might be very different – it will depend on your personal preferences. As mentioned above, if you have depression, it might be harder to choose activities on the basis of the joy they bring. You might want to instead choose activities based on what aligns with your values or longer-term goals, based on what has been found to be helpful for people’s mental health, or based on what brings many other people joy. 

All of the example activities listed above are also examples of something known as behavioural activation, which is a concept that we explain below.

What if it’s hard to schedule activities or to stick to my schedule?

It’s normal to have trouble scheduling activities or sticking to the schedule. We encourage you to talk to your therapist about strategies for making this more manageable. Here are some tips to get you started: 

          ● Try scheduling things that will be realistic for you to achieve and to fit into your existing schedule

          ● Try to simplify your goals, so that they are more manageable and less intimidating for you to work on

          ● If you don’t feel like starting an activity that you’ve scheduled, see if you can just do five or ten minutes of the activity. Then, if you still don’t feel like it after the length of time you committed to trying it, you could let yourself stop

          ● If you’re building a new habit, try tying it to an existing routine to make it a regular part of your schedule 

          ● Don’t try to set up too many habits at once

          ● Don’t criticise yourself if you miss an activity

          ● If you start to get into a new habit, congratulate yourself for doing that! But if you stop one day, you don’t need to despair – instead, you can congratulate yourself even more enthusiastically if you can restart it the next day

          ● Ask your loved ones to do the activities with you or to support you in doing them (for example, by taking care of the kids while you go to a dance class)

          ● If you feel unable to do the activity, you could instead take actions that are simpler and smaller than the scheduled activity (instead of missing out on the activity altogether)

What is behavioural activation?

Behavioural activation usually refers to the process of increasing the amount of physical activity, social interaction, or other activities in your life. All the example activities listed earlier (in the activity scheduling section) were also examples of behavioural activation. Behavioural activation can happen without planning in advance, but activity scheduling is one way of helping you to make sure you’re making a habit of it. 

The benefits of behavioural activation depend on the type of activities you’re choosing to do (as you can see in the footnotes associated with the subheadings in our list of activities above). But so far, behavioural activation in general has been found to be useful for reducing the symptoms of depression. [4] A meta-analysis is also underway to investigate its effectiveness in treating anxiety. [5]

What is social prescribing?

Social prescribing refers to when doctors or other clinicians recommend (or prescribe) non-clinical services, including (but not limited to) social support services and activities that promote social interaction or inclusion, groups or leisure activities that promote physical activity, activities that promote self-expression, non-clinical mental health services, and financial and housing advice services. 

The World Health Organization offers a toolkit to try to help clinicians participate in social prescribing [6], and a recent report recommended that GPs in Australia should do this more often. [7] 

A recent meta-analysis also found that social prescribing was effective in increasing the levels of physical activity that people participate in. [8] Social prescribing also seems to be helpful in reducing loneliness. [9]