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Stop Putting Off Fun for After You Finish All Your Work

Jul. 7, 2017 Harvard Business REview

My laboratory has surveyed people from all walks of life about their preferences for ordering work and leisure. Time and time again, we hear the same thing: of course you can’t just leave and have fun before work is done. Work comes first, leisure comes second.

This sounds intuitive. No one wants to spoil a pleasurable experience because they’re worrying about their to-do list or feeling guilty for celebrating prematurely. That’s why, for example, we’ll schedule a trip for the weekend after a big due date as opposed to the weekend before. We save rewards until after we’ve actually earned them, hoping that way we can really enjoy ourselves.

But is this intuition correct? My lab recently conducted a series of experiments to test what “leisure first” really feels like — and we found that it’s not nearly as worrisome as it seems. Our findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

In our first experiment, we invited 181 passersby at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago — working adults from diverse employment backgrounds — to complete two activities. One was called the Fixed Labor task, a strenuous battery of cognitive tests; the other was called the Magic Maker game, a fun iPad game involving creating and listening to music.

We randomly assigned some participants to play Magic Maker after they had successfully completed Fixed Labor; while others were stuck with the opposite order: they had to play the fun game before getting the harder task over with. Before playing, participants predicted how enjoyable their experience would be on rating scales from -5 to +5. After playing, they rated how their experience actually was.

The result? While participants thought activity order would matter a great deal — participants in the “play first” condition predicted significantly lower enjoyment ratings than participants in the “play after” condition — in reality, order didn’t matter at all. Actual enjoyment ratings were equally high in both conditions. “Play first” participants enjoyed themselves just fine.

We replicated these findings in a follow-up experiment. We built a makeshift “spa” in the laboratory — with a massage chair and footbath — for 259 ever-at-work University of Chicago students. Students could choose to come during the weeks right after their stressful midterm exam period or during the weeks right before midterms began. (We had essentially the same number of students show up at both time periods, and they were of similar age, gender, etc.) They predicted their enjoyment before visiting and rated their experience afterward.

We found that while the students who visited the spa before midterms predicted that the experience would be less enjoyable due to looming midterms exams, they actually enjoyed themselves just as much as those who visited the spa after midterms. The intuition was again mistaken.

Why don’t we think “leisure first” will be as fun as leisure later? The answer has to do with our ideas about distraction. In the spa experiment, we also asked the students to predict the percentage of time they’d be distracted by midterms as opposed to just sitting back and enjoying the massage. Then, after actually having the spa experience, they reported the actual percentage of time that they ended up being distracted. While the students assumed they would be highly distracted if they received a massage before midterms (they predicted exams would dominate nearly 40% of their attention at the spa), this didn’t actually happen. In reality, the students thought about midterms less than 20% of the time. They mostly just enjoyed themselves.


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