Work first, play later. That’s the conventional wisdom that promises to make people more productive at work and allow them to enjoy their fun stress-free.
The truth may be very different.
So says social psychologist
in a recent paper published in the journal Psychological Science on the balance between leisure and work.
“People have this strong intuition that the good stuff will be better if it comes after these difficult things,” says Dr. O’Brien, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. But instead, he says, “cashing in now feels just as good. What they’re missing is that they could have it any time and good stuff will be good, regardless.”
If people understand that, it may mean not only more freedom in how they manage their lives but also greater productivity. “If I first have fun, I’m now in a good mood, more relaxed, I have energy, and work may seem easier,” says Dr. O’Brien, citing numerous other studies that establish a link between a positive mood and productivity.
Dr. O’Brien and his colleague,
studied about 1,500 participants in seven separate experiments. Some involved students at the University of Chicago, and some included nationwide online surveys of people from all walks of life who were in their mid-30s, on average.
The research involved controlled experiments such as pairing a fun activity (playing a game) with a work task (completing math and word problems). Participants were asked to imagine both activities and how much they would enjoy them, depending on the order in which they were done. Then they completed both tasks and described their level of enjoyment. The researchers found that the game was as enjoyable to those who played it before the work task as it was to those who played it afterward.
In another case, researchers offered some students a spa treatment before midterm exams and others the same treatment after the tests, to see if the looming exams would spoil the massages—they didn’t.
Another experiment involved snacks and watching videos, paired with a stressful “cognitive marathon” of hand-held puzzles, logic games and calculations. Subjects were told the challenge would be exhausting and that chocolates, pretzels, popcorn and watching videos on YouTube would be the reward. Those who received the rewards first were much more immersed than they had predicted they would be in consuming snacks and watching funny videos despite the pending work.
Mixing it up
So what’s really going on?
“People are terrible about predicting their own feelings and thoughts,” says Dr. O’Brien, who admits that when he was in graduate school, he would gird himself for all work and no play, sometimes for weeks at a time, whenever it was time to launch a project.
He says people overestimate the distraction posed by unfinished work and underestimate the level of enjoyment they’ll experience from fun activities, which are “so much more absorbing than we can possibly imagine,” he says. “When you’re imagining something, you’re in a totally different mode than when you’re experiencing something,” he says, pointing to the more primitive “lizard brain” mentality that can become dominant during pleasure over the higher-level cognition that drives imagination.
Dr. O’Brien wants to conduct research to see how his findings hold up when the work tasks people need to complete involve a sense of personal or social responsibility or obligation to a colleague or boss—the kinds of tasks people face in the real world. He’s curious about how much of a factor guilt would be in those conditions. “We’re testing how we can scale this up in real settings,” he says.
Meanwhile, his takeaway is to spread out the fun as he plans his week. He aims for more of a mixed balance instead of backloading the fun moments to Friday night and the weekend, and cuts himself some slack when trying to power through grading, writing papers and taking care of important personal business.
Now that he’s focusing on this balance, Dr. O’Brien thinks the boost he can gain from sometimes indulging himself can contribute to work success. “Doing work while you’re happy is just such a more productive way of working.”
Ms. Gallegos is a news editor for The Wall Street Journal in New York. Email: email@example.com.