As Hanukkah approaches, people can start feeling a little more in touch with their beliefs. But there’s a pattern that can emerge even when we’re in the midst of “projects” that mean a lot to us personally – like the eight days of Hanukkah. We dive in to undertakings teeming with energy and good intentions, but after a while we can fade. But when there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel, we get recharged and bring it home in a big way. This pattern—slacking in the middle—is fairly common, but what’s interesting is that not only does the quality of our work fade in the middle of a long work project, but our personal beliefs can go on a temporary vacation as well.
Chicago Booth professor Ayelet Fishbach and her former student, Maferima Touré-Tillery, set out to see how people’s performance, along with their ethical and religious standards, vary across a series of tasks.
In one experiment, the team had participants flip coins to determine whether they proofread long or short passages. Chance would predict an equal distribution of long and short passages across all 10 trials—and there was, at the beginning and end of the tasks. But oddly, in the middle, short passages were landed on 70% of the time, which suggests that the participants might have been assisting the flipping process a bit.
The same pattern of results was observed when it came to cutting out a series of shapes and to receiving undue credit for their work. Even when the researchers tested participants who were strongly religious, they found that the participants were more likely to light Hanukkah candles at the beginning and end of the eight nights, and less likely to do so in the middle.
Fishbach and Touré-Tillery think that this effect has to do with how we determine cost-benefit ratios over time, so that it somehow doesn’t seem so bad when we relax our own standards—even ethical or religions ones—in the middle of a project.
This may be because we feel that the beginning and the end are more indicative of our own beliefs about ourselves. “People believe that these actions at the beginning and the end are more telling of who they really are,” said Fishbach. “So they pay closer attention to act the way they want to see themselves.” If you’re having a hard time getting through the middle of a project, don’t beat yourself up too much—it seems to be just a part of being human. And being aware of it may help you stay a bit more energized through that long middle stretch.
—Alice G. Walton