Personal Growth

It's OK to Put Play Before Work — Research Says So

We've all grown up with the same idea: Work comes first, leisure comes second. Right? It's sort of established worldwide that you have to do the hard stuff before you can do the fun stuff. There's really no choice about it — homework before video games, veggies before dessert, et cetera. It's intuitive. You may not even be able to do something fun first because the knowledge of upcoming work will spoil it. But in a workplace culture where the work never really stops, even on nights and weekends, when exactly are you supposed to do the fun stuff? A psychology researcher has a shocking answer: You should do it first.

Work Now, Play Later

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Ed O'Brien, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, broke the news. Turns out, it is possible to put play before work.

O'Brien and his team asked a question many of us wouldn't even consider: Does it even make sense to hold off on a pleasurable experience until all the work is done? Overwhelmingly, people said they preferred to save leisure for later. If they relaxed first, they worried they'd be distracted by the work hanging over them. Makes sense — eat a donut after you work out, not before, and enjoy the donut even more for having exercised.

But then came the controlled experiments. O'Brien and research assistant Ellen Roney conducted four studies on the expectations and reality of delayed pleasure and presented their findings in the journal Psychological Science.

In one study, O'Brien's lab recruited students to go to the "spa" (a massage chair and footbath set up in their lab) before or after taking their midterms. They predicted — like most of us probably would — that students wouldn't want a spa session before taking their midterms, preferring instead to enjoy it once their hard work was done. Their prediction checked out. The students believed that their attention and immersion during the spa experience would be spoiled if it happened before midterms.

But the students were wrong — they significantly overestimated the impact of looming exams on their spa enjoyment. Taking exams before or after the spa didn't really impact their spa experience at all. Students enjoyed the spa about the same amount regardless of whether a big test was on the horizon.

Stalled Gratification

Does this mean the carrot-and-stick approach to motivation is broken? Maybe, but that's not O'Brien's fault. As he pointed out in Harvard Business Review, American workers haven't successfully used delayed gratification in a long time. "American workers work longer hours and take fewer vacations than anyone in the industrialized world. Most of them are unhappy with work-life balance, leave paid vacation days on the table, and wish they took more time for fun."

And yet, the American workplace is still designed with the carrot and stick in mind. "Many incentive systems depend on people believing that enjoyable rewards are best saved until work is finished," O'Brien wrote in the study. "The implication that a reward is just as good before work as it would be after work could jeopardize people's willingness to do work in the first place."

What he suggests is that we rethink work and play, and the order in which they happen. In the final part of O'Brien's research, he found that breaking a leisure activity down and imagining each second before partaking led to greater enjoyment and more accurate expectations. The participants were better able to experience pleasure, excitement, stimulation, and relaxation when they visualized an activity before doing it.

In real life, if you're worried about taking some time to relax before doing a big project, O'Brien says you should first ask yourself why you're worried. Eating a donut just before hitting the gym could actually make your workout terrible, so we don't advise that. But if you're worried that a looming deadline will "ruin your fun," you're probably wrong.

Then, visualize the fun experience before you partake. List all the wonderful things you hope to do on your vacation, or what you plan to eat at that mid-week dinner out. Try it when the stakes are low, and see how it feels. Most likely, you'll have just as much fun before or after your work is done.

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Written by Kelsey Donk September 13, 2019

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