Do you prefer doing one thing at a time or multitasking? Do you perceive your work day or week to be long enough to pack a variety of activities or too short? What is your perfect scenario? How does all this affect your feeling of being productive and your level of happiness?
Chances are you will feel happier doing several different activities during the day than doing similar activities, according to new working paper titled, “Will Variety Make You Happy?” by Wharton marketing professor Cassie Mogilner and Jordan Etkin, a marketing professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Mogilner focuses her research on happiness and its relationship with time and money, while Etkin focuses on motivation and goal setting, among other areas.
In a recent interview on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, Mogilner discussed the key takeaways from her research.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: In this day and age when we are seemingly going full speed at almost every moment, some people just feel better when they are doing a variety of things all at the same time. Then there are others who are not really fans of multitasking. What type of person are you?
Cassie Mogilner: It depends on the time frame. In [our research], we looked at the effect of variety of our activities on overall happiness. We found that over a day or a week or a month, variety — perhaps consistent with people’s perceptions — leads to greater happiness. However, over shorter periods of time than a day, such as an hour, 15 minutes [or a] half-hour, when variety actually does get experienced as multitasking, it actually becomes fairly stressful, and instead of variety increasing my happiness, it makes me less happy.
Knowledge at Wharton: This is not necessarily just in the workplace. This is even at home. [For example], on a weekend — as you brought up in an article you co-authored — you could be at home with your kids but you’ve got to cut the grass and fix something on the back deck or something like that. When you have all of those things melding together, it could [become a] negative.
Mogilner: Right. It [could] be a negative or a positive. For instance, you [could have] a high-variety Saturday. You could do chores. You could cook dinner with friends. You could watch sporting events. However, say you spent that whole day on the couch watching different sporting events, that might be a low-variety Saturday.
Our results find that a high-variety Saturday … makes people happier. It’s squishing those activities into a shorter amount of time that undermines people’s happiness. It’s really driven by this sense that you haven’t produced anything. When you’re trying to do too many things at once, you feel not very productive. And feelings of productivity are crucial for feeling happy and satisfied.
“When you’re trying to do too many things at once, you feel not very productive. And feelings of productivity are crucial for feeling happy and satisfied.”
Knowledge at Wharton: That level of productivity is important because if you’re in your workplace and you have a variety of projects to do [and] if you don’t feel productive, chances are a mistake or two may have been made and you have to go back and rework it. That level of frustration can grow.
Mogilner: Yes. In the workplace, happiness and feelings of productivity go hand in hand. In general, feelings of happiness and productivity go hand in hand. But when you think about employers’ interests in having their employees be productive, they should also have [a] joint interest of [keeping] their employees happy, because of that relationship between the two.
As people and employees, since we spend such a big portion of our day at work, it’s ideal [that] we feel happy and productive in the workplace. [The question is,] over the course of the day, how do you manage your hours? Over the course of your week, how do you manage days? And over the course of the month, [how do you manage] your days and weeks?
The findings of our paper give us suggestions for how you [could] schedule your time. When you’re thinking over the course of the day, maybe [you could] do one type of activity in the morning [and another] type of activity in the afternoon. You’ll feel more productive. The reason variety makes you feel happier over these longer periods of time is because it keeps you engaged. It offsets that potential for boredom and burnout.
There is a broad theory and observation in happiness research that we as humans are adaptive creatures. There is this notion of hedonic adaptation — that as we’re exposed to similar stimuli and doing the same things, we grow bored, even [with] wonderful, positive things. So, switching things, as in your activities, actually re-engages you and therefore makes you happy. But again, that only happens over a day or longer. When we’re thinking about these shorter time intervals, then those feelings of productivity are what you’re looking to highlight.
Knowledge at Wharton: In your study, you probably had to run the gamut from adults to students and a variety of sources.
Mogilner: Yes. We ran a bunch of different studies. We ran some studies among a “representative sample” — adults ranging in age from 18 to 75, [and varying] in gender, employment, etc. We also ran an interesting study on feelings of productivity among college students. We conducted a study at the library leading up to the finals. We approached these students at the library who were already studying, and asked them whether they would participate in our study.
Our study was simple. We told [the students]: “Over the course of the next hour, spend your time on materials for a variety of classes versus just spending that time on materials for one class.” At the end of the hour, we touched base with them. We asked them how productive, happy [and] satisfied they felt.
We also manipulated how long that hour felt or seemed. What we found was that when the hour seemed long, that engaging in the more varied materials or studying for more classes led them to feel more productive and satisfied. But when they viewed the hour as short, as people typically do, they felt less happy studying for a bunch of different classes because they felt less productive. They felt like they hadn’t made much progress in their studying, making them feel less happy.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is the criteria for that hour to be perceived to be long as compared to being perceived as short?
Mogilner: We used a simple manipulation where we asked [some of] them to write a paragraph telling us about how an hour is a long period of time. We asked other participants to tell us about how an hour is a short period of time. Notably, as you can influence how long a period of time is perceived to be, you can also influence how much variety is perceived among a set of activities given the same set of activities.
“The reason variety makes you feel happier over these longer periods of time is because it keeps you engaged. It offsets that potential for boredom and burnout.”
You could think about say, getting ready to get out of the house in the morning. If I think about the variety among those activities, I’ll [tell myself], “Well, I’m getting dressed. I’m getting my kids dressed. I’m getting breakfast on the table for me.” That is high-variety focus.
But you could also view that same hour-and-a-half of getting out the door in the morning [by] grouping them all into a similar set of activities. We found that this perception of variety in one’s activities has the same effect on happiness and satisfaction.
Knowledge at Wharton: In your study with college students, you also did some work with them involving candies. It’s an interesting little aspect.
Mogilner: Yes. As you examine any of these questions, it is important to try to test them in different ways and among different populations of individuals. In order to show the robustness of the findings, we brought university students into a lab setting where we had total control over how they spent their time and the activities they were engaged with. They were given 15 minutes to do activities involving candies. I think we had gummy bears, jellybeans and M&Ms.
[We asked them to do] a variety of activities with those candies. For instance, in the high-variety condition we had with gummy bears, [we asked them to] eat them and rate how they tasted. With the jellybeans, [we asked them to] come up with names for the jellybeans. With the M&Ms, [we asked them to] categorize them by their colors. That’s the high-variety condition [where] they’re doing different things with each type of candy.
In the low-variety condition, we had them taste and rate the flavor of each of the candies. So, among the three types of candies, they were doing the very same thing. At the end of the 15 minutes, we asked how happy and satisfied they felt. Here again, we manipulated whether 15 minutes was perceived as short or long. We found that when 15 minutes was perceived as short, as it usually is, the variety of activities undermined their happiness. They felt they had not produced as much.… When we tried to make them feel like the 15 minutes was longer, we [found] no difference, suggesting that you can’t make 15 minutes seem all that long. But at least it highlights the effect of feeling that a time period is short or long and the effect of variety.
Knowledge at Wharton: You said that repetition at times could be a negative because you’re doing the same thing over and over. I would imagine that when you factor that in with people who think that the time frame — whether it’s 15 minutes or an hour — is long, those two factors together turn out to be a negative. There doesn’t seem like anything positive that could come out of that.
Mogilner: No, there’s a lot of positive. I’m focusing on the effect of variety but you could also flip it and say that there is a very positive effect of staying focused for shorter time periods. When you engage in a similar set of activities, some researchers explain it as being in a “flow state” where you’re very absorbed in that particular activity, you can have really positive effects.
[If you consider it to be] too long of a time frame, then those positive effects of staying focused end up turning into boredom. And so, on each side you can highlight the positive or the negative.
Knowledge at Wharton: In doing this study, were there any surprises in terms of the data that you collected and the results?
Mogilner: We went in with a hypothesis that was in line with [the findings]. In terms of the motivation of the work, initially we were interested in [finding out if] variety increases happiness. We were thinking: Over these longer time periods, how we should spend our days? How should we spend our weeks? [We felt] variety should generally lead to greater happiness. When we asked people to predict to what extent variety should lead to greater happiness, [they said that] regardless of how long the time frame was, variety should always lead to greater happiness.
“People who did a bunch of different things over the course of their day versus a bunch of similar things were happier at the end of their day.”
But then, that led us to think that it can’t always be the case that variety is good. We tried to think of instances where variety could actually backfire and lead to less happiness. That’s what led us to think [that] if we try to squish that variety into too short a time frame, then it could be stressful [and] make you feel like it is multitasking. [So we thought] that perhaps in those shorter time frames, multitasking or variety could actually undermine happiness.
Knowledge at Wharton: The real-world takeaway for this research is to recognize that at times, scheduling tasks over a period of time — whether that be a day, a week, or taking care of one activity in the morning and another in the afternoon — can lead to happiness overall.
Mogilner: Yes. The ideal takeaway from these findings [is to determine] the optimal way to schedule our calendars — from the hour up to the day and up to the week. This has very clear implications for how we should be scheduling our time. Going back to the effect of perceived variety, if you don’t have a lot of control in your schedule, [it encourages] you to think about the variety or the similarity among your activities, [and] to pull out the optimal or ideal level of happiness.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is there another avenue where you’d like to use this research or pursue another topic?
Mogilner: We’re still in the midst of this and nailing down the results. In terms of how to pursue this further, it would be interesting to apply it to service providers or advertisers [and see] what they should highlight among the experiences they offer.
Take cruises, for instance. Are you selling the variety among the activities or a niche set of activities making it more [like] a themed cruise? Also, related to some of my other work on happiness and the effect of age, it will be interesting to investigate if you are the type of person that values variety, and looking at [whether] age or other demographic factors influence the extent to which variety influences happiness.
Knowledge at Wharton: One factor in your study is how the respondents viewed not only the acts that they were being asked to do but also the time frames and how they go about their life in general. In some respects, people become conditioned.
Mogilner: Right. There is a sort of conditioning or perhaps habits [formed] around how we spend our time. This can encourage you to think about the time you spend in different ways.
There was a lot of variance in how people spent their time. They had total control in what those activities were. But we found that people who did a bunch of different things over the course of their day versus a bunch of similar things were happier at the end of their day. Those people who did a bunch of different things over the course of an hour were less happy than those who did a bunch of similar things over the course of the hour.
This is [about] really engaging with people in their lives, [studying] how they’re spending their hours and their days — and seeing this dramatic effect. In particular, because we told them to spend their time on similar versus different activities, you can see the significant effects on their happiness at the end of that time period. You can see that if we choose to spend our time in particular ways, we can influence our happiness.