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Research Shows That Putting Work Before Fun is a Bad Strategy

Don't complete work first just because you think it'll make relaxation more enjoyable.

Fun is the reward for completing work. Do your homework and then you can play outside, kids. Check off your to-do list and you can sit on the back deck with a beer, dads. But a recent paper published in Psychological Science shows that doing something fun or relaxing before the work begins might actually lead to some positive results.

Researchers Ed O’Brien and Ellen Roney sought to understand the balance between leisure and work by testing how participants performed certain tasks before or after doing a fun activity. In most cases, the order didn’t seem to matter – fun activities were as enjoyable to those who played them before the work tasks as they were to those who played afterward. In essence, that long weekend or uninterrupted hour of Destiny 2 play won’t necessarily feel better just because you’ve gotten outstanding work out of the way.

“People have this strong intuition that the good stuff will be better if it comes after these difficult things,” Dr. O’Brien told the Wall Street Journal. However, he added that “cashing in now feels just as good. What they’re missing is that they could have it anytime and good stuff will be good, regardless.”

O’Brien and Roney set up about 1,500 participants in seven separate experiments, including one where they played fun games and completed math problems in different orders, reporting that the games were as enjoyable regardless of order. In another similar experiment, snacks and YouTube videos were put up against hand-held puzzles, logic games, and calculations. In that case, the researchers actually found that participants were much more immersed in the puzzles after they had eaten the snacks and watched the videos. “Doing work while you’re happy is just such a more productive way of working,” says O’Brien.

O’Brien suggests that people adhere rather blindly to the conventional idea that the stress of pending work will spoil relaxation. The same goes for relaxation being more satisfying as a reward. “People are terrible about predicting their own feelings and thoughts,” he says. “When you’re imagining something, you’re in a totally different mode than when you’re experiencing something.”

The takeaway? Chill out and enjoy life a bit. And try not to overestimate how stressed out you’ll be about doing something fun instead of that pile of work until you’re actually in the moment. In the balance between work and fun, the actual balance is more important than whatever order the two are put in.