Why Our ‘Work Now, Relax Later’ Mentality Is Totally Wrong

What research says about delaying fun.

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

Putting off something fun or relaxing until we’ve finished whatever project we’re working on is standard procedure for many of us. But new research shows our “work now, fun later” mentality isn’t doing us any favors. In fact, fun is fun no matter when you have it, according to this Harvard Business Review article on the new findings.

Ed O’Brien, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-author of the study, writes in HBR that “we may be over-worrying and over-working for future rewards that could be just as pleasurable in the present.”

O’Brien and his study collaborators designed a series of experiments to try and understand why we default to a “leisure later” mentality. They published their findings in the journal Psychological Science.

In the first experiment, participants completed two activities: One was a difficult series of cognitive tests, the other a fun iPad game. Some participants played the game first, while others played it after the tests. Everyone was asked to predict how enjoyable their experience would be and rated their experience after. While participants “thought activity order would matter a great deal,” O’Brien writes in HBR, “in reality, order didn’t matter at all.” People had just as much fun playing the game before the test as they did after.

The researchers then replicated this experiment in their University of Chicago lab and had stressed-out students enjoy a “spa experience” (massage and footbath included) either before or after their midterms. Like the first experiment, participants were asked to predict their enjoyment and rate their experience after. The researchers found that, again, when the fun was had didn’t matter: Students who came before midterms enjoyed the spa just as much as students who came after.

An interesting twist to this experiment was that O’Brien and his colleagues had the students who came to the spa before midterms estimate how distracted they’d be by looming exams. O’Brien explains that distraction is a key culprit in our notion that “leisure first” isn’t as enjoyable. Students thought they’d spend 40 percent of their spa time distracted by midterm fears, O’Brien writes in HBR, but in reality, they reported spending less than 20 percent of their time thinking about their exams.

These findings have important real-world implications. American workers, specifically, are pretty terrible at taking breaks: They “work longer hours and take fewer vacations than anyone in the industrialized world,” O’Brien writes in HBR. Add that to our obsession with busy-ness and continually delaying rewards in hopes of there being a “right time” for fun, and we may end up hindering our own success and productivity.

“If people intuitively put leisure last—there’s always more work to do—they may fail to take advantage of such leisure opportunities and end up feeling burned out or dissatisfied at work,” O’Brien writes, adding that leisure can be good for our work. We perform better and feel more satisfied if we take the right kind of break, which can help us “stick to longer-term goals.”

O’Brien notes that the “leisure later” mentality is ingrained, so he offers a few suggestions in the HBR piece on how to get yourself out of “work now, play later” mode. First, ask yourself why you don’t want to reward yourself or do something fun. O’Brien caveats that yes, certain leisure activities can get in the way of productivity (he uses drinking beer before running a marathon as an example), but consider what he and his study collaborators found: Doing something fun before you get down to business doesn’t make it any less fun.

He also writes that outlining exactly what your “fun” will look like can help you avoid distraction during the experience. For example, if you’re going on a vacation in the middle of a big work project, visualize what your trip will look like. O’Brien suggests closing your eyes or making a list. Think specifically about what activities you’ll enjoy, like taking long walks or finally reading a book you’ve been saving. “Engaging in highly specific, concrete, and directed imagination is something good decision makers do often, but most of us do rarely,” he writes in HBR.

Lastly, he writes that we need to simply try it for ourselves. Leave some non-urgent work undone and treat yourself. It might encourage you to schedule “fun” in your calendar right before that 10 a.m. meeting.

Read more about the findings here

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