Western culture has long honored the notion that work should come before pleasure—a vacation should, in theory, be the reward of many long nights at the office. But research suggests it’s time to stop always putting work ahead of fun. Chicago Booth’s Ed O’Brien and research assistant Ellen Roney find that people enjoy leisure just as much even when they know work will follow.
Most people expect difficult or boring tasks ahead will spoil pleasurable experiences. In a series of surveys, respondents consistently said they would get less out of leisure if work loomed.
But O’Brien and Roney conducted a series of experiments to actually test this intuition. In one experiment at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, they find that study participants had as much fun playing computer games before completing a looming series of math and word problems as they did when the tasks preceded the activity. (The math and word problems weren’t the fun kind such as sudoku and crossword puzzles, but a strenuous battery of cognitive tests.)
Similarly, when the researchers offered University of Chicago students a spa experience either before or after the students had completed the bulk of their midterm exams, the results again demonstrated that the students found the massages and footbaths just as relaxing before exams as after. In both experiments, participants underestimated how much pleasure they would get from leisure ahead of experiences that were less pleasurable and more like work.
The results suggest that when planning their breaks, people should remember that impending work won’t mar their free time as much as they fear. People might want to take vacations rather than delay days off and risk burnout.