How important are friendships in your life? The right answer should be: very important. Research shows that having fulfilling friendships improves your health and can contribute to your longevity. Good friends also help you by supporting your career. In her bestselling memoir, Michelle Obama describes how having a tight-knit circle of friends who were mothers of young children empowered her to go after her dream job even though she had a four-year-old and a new baby at home.

Knowing the importance of friendships, I was especially taken with Lila MacLellan's new article in Quartz about how the way we plan and schedule our time with friends has a big effect on how much benefit we get from that time and those friendships. We should all pay attention, because friendships count for a lot in our lives, and they only get more important over time.  

So what are the two changes we should make in how we spend time with our friends? They're simple, but not necessarily easy.

1. Plan to get together, but don't set a precise time.

This, I have to admit, is the opposite of how I typically interact with my friends. For example, I just made a date to meet a friend at a spa in three-and-a-half weeks at 4:30 pm. That approach has always made sense to me--it's in my calendar, therefore I'll remember to show up and also not to schedule anything else that would be a conflict. But, as MacLellan explains, our calendars are mostly filled with work items, so when we put a social encounter in there as well, we're unconsciously telling ourselves that our friendships are a form of work.

Instead, she recommends "rough scheduling." Plan to have lunch with a friend on a given day, but don't pick a specific time until right before you meet. Invite a friend to drop by "after work" whenever that might be. My husband, who is infinitely more sociable than I am, excels at this. Perhaps because he's a musician, which means his relationship with time is loosely defined in general, all his get-togethers seem to work this way. He'll go help a friend with a project "sometime this afternoon." He'll call people to go out for drinks or drop by their homes whenever he feels like company.

As MacLellan admits, making plans that aren't nailed down in advance means it's easier for one party or the other to cancel those plans. But that's a feature, not a bug. If two people get together when one of them really doesn't want to be there, due to competing obligations, exhaustion, or for whatever reason--they're both better off skipping the whole thing.

2. Don't schedule other things afterward.

If you have a lunch date at noon and an important work meeting at 2, you'll be distracted all the way through the meal. You'll be glancing at your watch, wondering how soon you must leave to make it on time in case you get stuck in traffic. You'll be anticipating how the meeting might go and what you will say. You definitely won't be paying full attention to your conversation, your friend, or your meal.  

Granted, it can be difficult, especially with lunch dates, to give yourself open-ended time for meeting a friend. But it's worth making the effort if you can. Research shows that when we know another commitment is coming up, we can't help focusing our attention on it--that's how our brains are wired. That means that your friend might be sitting there pouring out his or her heart about a struggling marriage or a job dilemma--and you won't be able to focus enough to really listen or offer a helpful response. That's not good for your friend, or your friendship. And you'll miss the benefits of taking time to get together at all.