SCIENCE
12/18/2015 11:05 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2015

This Is The Most Important Thing To Remember When Choosing A Job

It's not about the money, folks.
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Does a fat paycheck help ease the pain of a boring job?

Most of us kind of believe the answer is yes. Indeed, it’s the thinking behind many a young corporate lawyer or investment banker’s failed career.

But the reality is: People underestimate just how important it is to enjoy the experience of work, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

In fact, the researchers found that enjoying your work is a critical part of actually getting your work done -- and doing it well. This may seem obvious: You’re more likely to do a thing if you genuinely like doing that thing. Yet apparently, humans are terrible at understanding why they do things. This will play out in real time quite soon as so many of us fail to follow through on our New Year’s resolutions.

“People don’t realize how important the experience is after or before they are doing it,” Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at Booth and the study’s co-author, told The Huffington Post. “We found that those doing something fun persist longer than those doing something for money. People worked harder when we made the task more interesting.”

The results have implications not just for work, but also for exercise and eating. You’re more likely to work out if you enjoy doing the activity you picked. You’re more likely to stick to a diet if you actually want to eat the healthy food you’ve committed yourself to.

Printer rage: What happens when your work is too dull....
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Printer rage: What happens when your work is too dull....

Personally speaking, the research goes a long way in explaining why I have no problem writing three stories in a day, but struggle to file a simple expense report or schedule a dentist appointment.

For their paper, published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Fishbach and coauthor Kaitlin Woolley conducted six experiments on university students, faculty and Chicago residents. The study participants exercised, visited a museum or were asked to do various tasks. The aim was to learn whether people were motivated by “extrinsic” rewards like money or “intrinsic” rewards like having fun.

In one experiment, test subjects were asked to read either a computer manual or a joke book and do some evaluations. Most said they’d do more of either task if they were paid more, but those who chose to read the dull manual for more money had a hard time following through.

In another study, subjects were asked to choose between listening to The Beatles song “Hey, Jude” or an alarm clock. If they picked the clock, they would receive more money. Most chose the clock -- and after going through with the exercise, most of them regretted their choice.

The researchers found that when a task is boring or unpleasant, people have a hard time completing it, no matter the compensation. Yet in considering a task, people tend to devalue what the actual experience will be like -- the “intrinsic” rewards -- and focus more on the money they'll get for doing it.

So, you (well, this reporter anyway) wind up committing to, say, a five-day green juice fast because it will be “healthy” without considering how truly unpleasant it will be to drink only slightly acidic, gritty beverages for nearly a week. Or you think you can spend a few years researching legal documents because of a six-figure salary, even though you hate researching legal documents.

Enjoying your work, by the way, isn't simply about the task at hand. The experience includes the social environment, too. Do you like bantering with your colleagues over at the coffee machines? That really matters.

"It’s not just doing something you love. It’s doing it with people that you like. Having a nice office environment. Having a nice experience," Fisbach said.

To be sure, choosing work that you enjoy is a luxury only for some (typically well-off, better educated people). Many people have not-so-great options when it comes to work or pay. But if you do have the privilege of getting to choose around both those incentives, choose wisely.

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