Ask Ariely: On Work as Play, Volunteer Value, and Shower Scheduling

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Any tips for encouraging kids to view their homework as play?

—Gordon 

Not really. You can get kids to enjoy homework more or hate it less, but play is a different matter. A few years ago, some nonprofit groups came up with the idea of “PlayPumps”—merry-go-round-style systems hooked up to water pumps in rural parts of Africa that needed more drinking water. As children whirled about on the merry-go-rounds, their motion would pump groundwater up from below, whereupon it could be stored for later use.
The idea of PlayPumps seemed promising at first, but the results have been underwhelming. It turns out that when you take a play activity and force children to do it, you change the activity from play to work, and the fun goes away. Having to do something on command and on a particular schedule just isn’t play, and that isn’t ever going to change.
If you really want kids to view their homework as play, you need to change the way they view school. If school had more autonomy and choice, if students had more say in their daily routine there, education as a whole might start to become more playful. Sadly, in my experience, the only time in the educational journey when learning is genuinely self-directed is the dissertation phase of a Ph.D., but we should certainly try to introduce elements of play far earlier.

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Dear Dan,

I no longer enjoy my job, and I am considering quitting and volunteering for a few years at a local organization that does great work. Will my self-worth drop if I no longer have a job?

—Sabrina 

Sadly, I suspect it will. By trading a salaried job for pro bono volunteering, you are probably going to stop thinking about yourself as someone who has a career and generates income. Right now, both of these factors seem to contribute something to your sense of self, and they won’t be replaced. The wonderful organization you’ve found will surely offer you other sources of fulfillment and meaning, but the loss of self-worth will be there as well.
Organizations that rely on the goodwill of volunteers can take a few steps to help mitigate these problems. They can give volunteers titles that suggest a long-term view and offer a sense of making progress, such as “community manager” or “social dreamer.” They could even use the American Express trick of writing down the year that you started at the group and hailing someone as, say, a “Member Since 2012.” These small touches won’t turn volunteering into a career, but they might help the volunteers see their efforts as lastingly important.
All this still doesn’t address the problem of your lost salary. But what if nonprofits gave people a generic pay stub that recorded the impact that they had made for the organization? Such a pretend pay stub wouldn’t be the same as money, but it could give people a more concrete sense of contribution and worth.
One final point: I suspect that many new stay-at-home parents face an even worse crisis of self-worth. That is an occupation in which people have no prospects of career progression or even a faux salary, so maybe we also should think about ways to recognize how much their efforts matter.

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Dear Dan,

Is it better to shower at night or in the morning?

—Rachael

No question about it: at night. We get dirtier more quickly when we interact with the outside world, so showering first thing in the morning means that we will spend the rest of the day and all night in a grimy state. But if you shower at night, you will be clean while you sleep and thus maximize the number of cleanliness-hours per shower—clearly a better approach.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.