Depending on your outlook, first dates are either fun and fascinating or the bane of your existence. Meeting a new person who you may know nothing about beyond a few messages exchanged on an app is full of limitless potential, both for good and for bad; it’s an opportunity to show up intentionally as your best self, and also a project that may feel like it takes a lot of energy and effort. No matter how you feel about them, though, first dates are necessary — without a first, you don’t get to a second, a third, and hopefully eventually a lifetime together. Whether first dates are your favorite thing or more especially if you dread them, here are my best strategies for setting yourself up for success on first dates.
Know what outcomes you’re looking for
You may have been told by a boss or a productivity influencer that when you set goals, you should make sure they’re S.M.A.R.T. — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. This means that “doing a good job at work” isn’t a very SMART goal, because it’s not specific or measurable, and may not be achievable depending on your circumstances. A better goal would be something like “making 50 new sales before the end of the year” — it’s something you can accurately assess whether you’re achieving or not.
To this philosophy of goal-setting, however, I would add one criterion: your goals in any circumstances should ideally be about what you can control, not your outcomes. This may seem antithetical to the point of goals, but in the above example, whether or not you make 50 new sales may or may not have anything to do with you. For instance, if we’re in the midst of a global recession, you could be the best salesperson on earth and it wouldn’t matter. For that reason, it’s better to focus your goals on your own actions that are within your sphere of influence: a good example would be shifting the above goal to “making 500 cold calls to new clients this quarter.” This is entirely within your control, and also something that has a major influence on the outcome you want — someone who makes 500 calls will likely end up making 50 sales if that’s at all possible to achieve.
How does this translate to dating? The outcome most of us actually want is a successful, long-term relationship that begins with an unimaginably great first date with instant chemistry and love at first sight. Of course, almost all of that is out of our control, most notably everything about the other person, but also our own feelings and theirs — so aiming for that isn’t setting ourselves up for success. We’re likely to end up exhausted and disillusioned after a dozen mediocre dates and want to quit entirely. Instead, try thinking of goals and outcomes that do fall within a realistic sphere of influence: something like “I want to leave this first date with a solid sense of whether I’m interested in seeing this person again.”
Take charge of what you can control
Along the same vein, the reality is that the vast majority of factors in whether or not a date “goes well” is out of our control. We don’t know whether our date is fun, likable, has the qualities we’re looking for in a partner, or is even the same person they say they are on a dating app. Putting all our date eggs in the basket of our date’s qualities as a person means our experience could oscillate wildly between amazing and awful — so let’s look to what you do have some agency over when it comes to your date.
Of course, we can’t guarantee to have a good time, no matter your effort or mindset — there’s no toxic positivity here, and if you have a bad time, that doesn’t mean it’s your fault. However, think about your emotional and psychological state around dating, and what you can do to give yourself as much of a leg up as possible. Can you choose to have the date at one of your favorite places, so that you’ll enjoy that aspect of it even if the company isn’t amazing? Are there any rituals or practices that bring you personal pleasure, like getting all dressed up and putting on a favorite perfume, maybe taking some selfies, that you know you’ll get something out of no matter what happens afterward? I always recommend cleaning up your place and maybe lighting some incense or turning down the bed like you’re in a hotel before you leave for the evening — if the date goes really well and someone comes home with you, that’s great, but in the more likely event that you come home alone, you have a beautiful, cozy space to greet you. (Nothing can crush your spirits even further after a bad date than coming home to find a pile of laundry you still need to put away before you can call it a night.)
Make your set of personal rules
What about on the date itself? If you’re finding that you still dread “getting out there” even with these strategies in place, there’s more room to take agency in your dating experience.
Make a list: what are the parts of bad first dates, or dating in general, that has bothered you the most in the past? You can decide what rules and practices you want to put in place for yourself to change that (or at least limit it).
Are you a sober person who hates watching dates get drunk over dinner? Make a rule that you only do coffee for first dates. Do you dread exiting a date, never knowing when it’s been long enough that you can go home, and end up trapped at a bar with a stranger for three hours? Make yourself a rule that first dates are exactly one drink long — if you want, you can even communicate this to your date. Do you have a terrible time dragging yourself back out into the world after a long day at work? Make a rule that first dates are only on the weekends (you might be more amenable to going out on a Wednesday for a second date with someone you already know you like). Hate wasting your weekends when you could be with your friends on strangers? Make the opposite rule.
If you’re worried this makes you seem overly rigid or fussy, don’t. First of all, it’s actually helpful to display your “worst” qualities early on with somebody new. But more than that, creating an artificial “rule” actually makes it easier for us to set boundaries with someone — and often, for them to accept them. It’s often easier for us to justify — to ourselves and others — our own preferences and boundaries if we do it in the service of something outside ourselves. It’s not you, it’s just the rule!