A Study Encourages You to Have Fun First and Finish Your Work Later

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Photo: PeskyMonkey/Getty Images/Vetta

It seems like the natural order of things: first work, then fun. If you finish your dinner, you can have dessert; if you finish your homework, you can play your video games. It’s what parents teach children, and it’s how adults typically run their own lives, too — you have to get your work done sometime, after all, and, anyway, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy your chosen leisure activity if some unfinished project was still hanging over your head.

And yet the results of a recent set of experiments suggest that although people expect that they will enjoy goofing off more if they’ve finished their work first, that’s not exactly true. Fun stuff is just as fun even if you haven’t “earned” it. Ed O’Brien, a professor at the Chicago Booth School of Business, co-authored this new study, published in Psychological Science, and he wrote about his work this week for Harvard Business Review. Here’s how he explains one of the paper’s three experiments:

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.

And their results:

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.

O’Brien notes that there are limits to the interpretation of these results, and that “nobody is recommending having celebratory beers just before you run your 5k.” It also seems to me that of course there are times when fun stuff is more fun after you’ve finished your work; speaking from recent personal experience, I just completed a massive project, and the beer I had after turning it in was much more enjoyable than the beers I sneaked in before I was done. Still, the overall idea here is hard to argue with: Give yourself a break! A little rest will make you sharper when you get back to work, anyway. Not a bad message to get on a summer Friday.

Have Fun First and Finish Your Work Later