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Now or Later: Why You Should Make Fun a Priority

by Katie Moritz
July 12, 2017 | Living

Just two more work items to check off your list, and then you can take a walk. Just a few weeks left of this massive project and then you can take a mini-vacation. Just six months left as "the new guy" and then you can start taking a lunch break.

After all, abandoning your work to blow off some steam is a bad idea, right? If you wait to take a break until your work is done, you'll be able to enjoy it more.

Wrong.

A research team actually looked at how much people enjoy activities before and after finishing their work. And the results are kind of counterintuitive.

Don't worry, you'll have fun

fun rewire pbs

It's almost human nature to want to put off having fun until everything that's hanging over us at work is off our plates. We're worried that if we go have fun before we're done with less-fun stuff we'll spend the whole break worrying about what we still have to do when we get back.

But research from the University of Chicago suggests that's just not true. Delaying gratification might work for you, but it's not necessary for you to enjoy yourself.

This research team asked about 200 people to complete a fun task and a work task. Some folks had to do what would be intuitive for most of us—complete the work task before moving on to the fun task. But some people got to do the fun task before they started the work task. Before they started, they had to rate how much they'd enjoy the fun task depending on the order of how they'd be completing things.

The participants thought that the order of the tasks would affect how much fun they had a great deal. But it actually didn't matter at all. Real-life enjoyment rates were the same, no matter the order. The folks that had the difficult task looming didn't have any less fun playing the game.

The researchers tested this again with the lure of a spa day for University of Chicago students who were about to take midterm exams. Some of the students got a massage and a footbath right before midterms, and some got the spa treatment afterward (they got to choose when they wanted to come). Before relaxing, they predicted how much they'd enjoy the treatments.

Students who came to the spa before exams started predicted they'd enjoy it less with studying and tests on the brain. But when they rated their experience afterward, their enjoyment levels were indistinguishable from those of students who went to the spa with exams out of the way.

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Not only did they have just as much fun as the students who went to the spa after midterms, they worried about their tests less than they predicted during the fun experience. While they predicted they'd be distracted by exams 40 percent of the time they were getting their spa treatments, that percentage was actually less than 20. They really were able to take a mental break from the things that were worrying them.

"Our findings suggest we may be over-worrying and over-working for future rewards that could be just as pleasurable in the present," researcher and UChicago assistant professor Ed O'Brien wrote about the experiments in Harvard Business Review. "American workers work longer hours and take fewer vacations than anyone in the industrialized world. Most of them are unhappy with work-life balance, leave paid vacation days on the table and wish they took more time for fun."

Take time to balance your life

Why does having fun matter? Because, among other things, it makes us better workers.

"Leisure improves our work," O'Brien wrote. "People often work better and are more satisfied with their jobs after returning from restful breaks. Enjoying work also helps people stick to longer-term goals."

When we put off having fun, we might "end up feeling burned out or dissatisfied at work. We may keep postponing doing something fun for 'the right time,' only to realize that it never seems to come."

If you're having trouble tearing yourself away from your work to restore balance to your life, O'Brien offered three steps:

1. Ask yourself why you're resisting rewarding yourself. If it's because you think you won't enjoy yourself until your work is done, please see above. However, O'Brien does acknowledge that some fun activities aren't meant to be done until after work is over (his example was drinking heavily before running a 5K). A healthy amount of worry about your work is good for you—the key word being "healthy."

2. Visualize the fun thing you want to do. If you're worried about leaving for a vacation during a project, imagine in detail what it will be like to be on the trip. Take it a step further and write a list of the things you'll be doing while you're away. It'll serve as a reminder that you will have fun and be able to take a mental vacation from your work as well as a physical one.

3. Try having fun first when the stakes are low. Rather than booking yourself a huge vacation with a project left undone, start small—try taking a spa day at a place in town and allow yourself to get away without too much worry and planning. While you're at the spa (or doing whatever fun thing you choose) be mindful of what you're paying attention to. When you return to work, be mindful of how you feel. Experimenting with healthy "leisure first" behavior is the best way to show yourself that it's harmless—and might actually make you a better worker.

Read O'Brien's advice in detail at Harvard Business Review here.

Need a quick getaway from work? Try walking the stairs for 10 minutes. It'll perk you right up.

Want more strategies for improving your work-life balance? Check out this expert advice.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2019. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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