Is doing the worst first good?
Have you heard the saying, “eat the worst first and save the best for last”? I internalized that so strongly as a kid, I let it rule most of my life. But now, I think it’s fundamentally flawed. The idea behind it is that you get the stuff that you don’t like out of the way and then reward yourself with the things that you do like. Which sounds reasonable, but brain science has shown that it doesn’t actually produce optimal results.
In studying pain, scientists Dan Ariely and his team have found that if at the very end of a painful experience we feel slightly less pain, we tend to have a better memory of the overall experience, even if it’s longer. So if you’re having a painful experience, but the ending isn’t quite as bad, it will seem like the whole thing wasn’t quite as bad. This supports the idea of saving the best for last.
But other studies on memory have shown that what people remember most are both the last thing and the first thing in a sequence. It’s the middle that we don’t remember very well, that first thing is important. If you start off with something difficult, painful, or unwelcome in whatever way, you’re less likely to continue because we tend to use that first experience of something to evaluate how the whole thing is going to be.
If it starts out bad, we think it’s all going to be like that. If you’re starting off with the worst, you’re setting yourself up for thinking that the whole thing is going to be terrible, of course you’re not going to want to continue.
Applying the strategy
I’ve been playing around with this idea lately in a variety of areas in my life. Including the literal interpretation of the saying in the sequence in which I eat my food. So, if the first few bites are something that I really enjoy, then I eat the stuff that I don’t care for as much in the middle, and lastly I end with something that I really enjoy: I remember having a better experience of the meal. That started to create more positive associations with those foods, which allows me to have a more pleasant day because it slightly improves my mood.
It’s not like it changes everything in my life for the better, but it’s a super easy and free way to make things just a little bit nicer. I’ve also been applying the strategy to other things in life. If I’m having trouble starting a task because I’m trying to get the worst part of it over with first: I resist starting, I procrastinate, and shut down. But if I do a part of it that I like first, even if it’s a small thing, it’s easier to get started. Then I’m over the inertia, and it’s easier to keep going.
At some point I do need to do the harder part, of course, the part that I don’t like. But then if I end with a part of it that I do enjoy, or it’s at least less bad, the overall experience feels better.
As I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed that it’s been creating more positive associations with work, chores and other areas of my life. It doesn’t change everything, and I don’t always remember to do it, but it’s helping make things a little bit more pleasant. If you do try this out, I’d be curious to see what happens for you.