Somewhere along the way most of us learn we have to eat our broccoli before we snack on the M&Ms. This, we're told, is just the responsible way to do things. Plus, you could never enjoy your treat with a big pile of vegetables staring up at you accusingly, from your plate, right?

This attitude - that work must always come before play - follows us into adulthood, making us into frantic stress monsters before vacations and shut-ins in the days leading up to a big presentation. It seems a sensible if less-than-joyous way to meet adult responsibilities and keep our leisure time free of looming work worries, but according to a fascinating new study, it all might be based on a lie.

You'll be happy to know that science shows you really don't do yourself any harm if you sometimes gobble dessert before dinner, or leave a pile of work sitting on your desk while you head out to play. In fact, reversing the usual order of things actually makes us just as happy and perhaps also more productive.

Fun before work is more fun than you expect.

To figure this out, a research teams led by Ed O'Brien of the University of Chicago designed a series of experiments in which volunteers both did something fun - say play a fun music-based iPad game or get a free pedicure at a "spa" the researchers set up in their lab - and also something onerous, like take a battery of grueling cognitive tests or university midterm exams.

Some participants were told to have fun first. Others knuckled down straight away and were only rewarded with the fun activity after. Who enjoyed themselves more?

Our intuition tells us that those whose minds were unclouded by upcoming tasks should have been more able to relax and enjoy their just rewards. And, in fact, that's exactly what the study participants themselves predicted -- they told the researchers that fun before work would be significantly less enjoyable than fun that was earned by first completing an effortful task.

But when O'Brien's team actually measured how much participants enjoyed their pedicures and other treats, they discovered our instincts are dead wrong. Fun is just as much fun if you put off work to enjoy it.

"People have this strong intuition that the good stuff will be better if it comes after these difficult things," O'Brien told the Wall Street Journal, summing up the findings, but "cashing in now feels just as good. What they're missing is that they could have it any time and good stuff will be good, regardless."

In fact, contrary to our more puritanical instincts that work must precede play, O'Brien even suggests that sometimes goofing off first actually is the wiser choice. "If I first have fun, I'm now in a good mood, more relaxed, I have energy, and work may seem easier," he notes.

3 takeaways

This sort of counterintuitive findings are inherently interesting, as they overturn our basic assumptions about the world, but in a HBR blog post laying out his research, O'Brien also claims his results have significant real world ramifications. In the tech-saturated modern workplace there is always more work to do - more emails to answer, more information to absorb. Waiting until all of it is somehow magically "done" is a surefire recipe for burnout.

Instead, O'Brien suggests dutiful workers bees rethink their attitude towards work and play in three key ways:

  • Question your assumptions about work before play. "Ask yourself why you're hesitant to do something fun or to reward yourself," O'Brien instructs. "If you find yourself thinking, 'It'll detract from my work,' you might be right. Some leisure can undermine our ability to work afterwards -- nobody is recommending having celebratory beers just before you run your 5k. But if you find yourself thinking, 'It'll ruin my fun, and the payoff will be better if I wait,' you might be wrong."

  • Visualize yourself having fun. "If you're worried about taking time off before finishing a big project, you could list the many things you'll be doing during some vacation to help you remember the fact that enjoyment is immersive. The experience likely won't be spoiled by your being distracted," O'Brien suggests.

  • Train yourself with low stakes "leisure first." Not ready to ditch work right before a major crunch period? Then work up to a healthier attitude towards fun by starting small. "Go have some fun (perhaps a quick trip to the spa) with some work left undone. Pay attention to where your attention is in the moment and how work feels once you return to it. The most effective strategy for shedding our biases is to go through an experience ourselves," instructs O'Brien.

In conclusion, here is, for sure, the happiest homework assignment I'll suggest to readers this week: go ahead and knock off early one day soon even though your to-do list isn't entirely checked off. Banning yourself from pleasure before you've cleared your plate at work isn't being responsible, according to this latest science, it's just your brain playing tricks on you. Ignore the guilt long enough to start having fun, and this study suggests you really won't regret it.