Must We Delay Gratification? Maybe Not

New research says fun is fun, even if there's work to be done.

Posted Jun 21, 2017

Source: iStock/Jasmina007

When to work and when to play? It’s a daily dilemma and most of us assume that if we get our work done first—write that report, study for that test, or do the chores—we will enjoy our leisure more. In other words, we think our time with a good book or Netflix will be sweeter if we’ve earned it. New research suggests, however, that we don’t know ourselves very well. Fun is fun, and we are perfectly capable of enjoying it in the moment even if drudgery lies ahead.

In the new study, published this week in Psychological Science, Ed O’Brien, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, set up a series of experiments with a colleague to test whether delaying gratification pays off the way we expect. In each experiment, some participants were asked to predict how much they thought they would enjoy something pleasurable if they knew work lay ahead. Other participants got to experience a leisure activity—a spa massage in the middle of midterms, for example; or a snack and a video game while waiting to take a demanding test—and rated their enjoyment of it.  In every experiment, leisure proved to be just as enjoyable with work left undone despite predictions to the contrary.

What should we make of this time management equivalent of eating dessert first? I asked O’Brien, who studies pleasure and wellbeing, about the implications of his research for balancing work and leisure in our lives.

What does this study tell us about pleasure?

We know much less about the psychology of pleasure than we do about other components of wellbeing. Our basic finding is that people may too often postpone pleasure to get work done first. I think it is because we want to make it “worth it,” to really savor it and avoid spoiling it. In some sense, our findings suggest that people worry too much about pleasure, about crafting the “perfect time” to have it, which of course never comes and may not even matter much anyway.

You didn’t measure whether people got their work done in the end. What if pleasure gets in the way of that?

That’s a great point. What we can say is this: If you avoid “leisure now” because you’re afraid it’ll spoil the work, you might be right. Our studies don't speak to that. But if you avoid “leisure now” because you’re afraid it’ll spoil the leisure, you might be wrong.

You write that pleasure is extremely absorbing in the moment. Why? Is the brain’s reward system triggered no matter what?

That’s right. Signals of pleasure and pain largely exist for functional reasons: our brain sends out feelings of pleasure to tell us to keep doing that thing, and feelings of pain to tell us to avoid it. What better way to get the message out then to grab our undivided attention? Of course, some activities evoke stronger emotional reactions than others, but in general people’s attention during [a pleasurable event] tends to dominated by that event alone.

Might enjoying something pleasurable help get work done later?

In a lot of cases, yes – and this is where we’re going with our own research, testing longer-term consequences of “leisure first” and trying to identify the situations in which it helps versus hurts subsequent work. It can be much easier to tackle a difficult work problem once you’re in a positive mood, but I think our intuitions often point us to do precisely the opposite (e.g., “just power through”).

Are there situations where gratification is worth delaying? 

Delaying gratification feels great. We’re not wrong about that. I think the thing to do when trying to figure out when to delay vs. when to cash is to try to figure out the less-costly option and go with that. Sometimes it’s extremely costly to engage in “leisure first” because it explicitly disrupts work; nobody is recommending you drink your celebratory beers just before running a 5K.

What can I tell my teenagers that will still encourage them to work? 

The most productive workers tend to be those who don’t construe their work as work in the first place. Why are you wanting to write this article? Why am I wanting to do this research? I presume it’s not because we’re merely trying to get to the reward that comes after. This is the reward. Work is a form of pleasure. I think it’s helpful to try to re-think your work/leisure relationship: to stop thinking of them as separate entities that need to be precisely ordered and precisely managed if you want to live well. Both can provide benefits, at any time. Anytime you’re doing homework, it can provide intellectual stimulation and a chance to overcome challenges. Anytime you’re playing video games, it can provide a break and a chance to recharge. Both are important. Why choose one?


O’Brien, Ed, and Ellen Roney. "Worth the Wait? Leisure Can Be Just as Enjoyable With Work Left Undone." Psychological Science (2017): 0956797617701749.

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