Before becoming a parent, I was an avid gamer, spending countless hours battling demons, climbing up my rogue’s skill tree, or creating vast continent-spanning civilizations. But parenthood meant putting the joystick aside, as responsibilities took precedence. Work, bills, and the joys and challenges of raising a child left me little time for my once-beloved pastime.
But as my son got older and discovered the allure of games, I was pulled back into that world. He urged me to join him on his gaming adventures. And I figured, why not? Right now, he still wants to interact with his old man, so I should treasure the opportunity while it lasts.
Yet when I started playing, I had a strange reaction. The joy and fun were back, but I had forgotten about these long stretches of boredom, irritation, and frustration. In my younger days, these never would have kept me from gaming. But with all the demands on my time, I had become impatient.
I then asked myself why do I put up with these “time-wasting” activities in a game but drag my feet when it comes to work.
Sure, the easy answer is games are ultimately fun and exciting, and work isn’t. But for the significant soul-sucking obsessions, there are periods where you are just suffering. You agonize as your emptied resources slowly recover – snails move faster. You rollercoaster between boredom, fighting hordes of beasts that do no damage, and sheer terror, being ambushed by a boss that can insta-death you. You meticulously scout to clear the map only to find your opponent took the premium build spot. And heaven forbid if the gaming gods strike you with some random event that vaporizes hours of labor.
You’re in gaming hell – don’t want to be there but can’t leave.
So, what is it about games that make us endure the discomfort?
To answer that, I dived into the psychology of procrastination and the overlap with game mechanics. I noticed a fascinating pattern. Clear psychological elements made me stick to some games and abandon others. And these might be key to overcoming work procrastination.
What Psychology Says About Tasks You Procrastinate On
For background, what are the things that make us procrastinate? Psychologists state tasks with the following characteristics:
- Boring – not joyful
- Frustrating – not easy to do or intuitive
- Resentful – forced to do them
- Stressful – pain if you don’t do
- Meaningless – can’t see the higher reason for doing it
- Inconsistent – today one way, tomorrow another
- No immediate reward or progress feedback – when you finish, just silence
For the most part, the list is not surprising, with the first 3 having the most dominant influence. The more a task has the above features, the less likely you’ll do it.
Interestingly, many of those characteristics also appear in gaming, especially the first 4. Anyone who has sat through hours of mindless grinding, patiently building up your character/kingdom/gear/etc., has experienced these feelings:
- Boring – a lot of repetition, whether building a new city, killing a bunch of monsters, mining/farming stuff; once you get past survival mode, adrenaline and novelty can start to run dry.
- Frustrating – watching your treasury slowly recover is the virtual equivalent of watching grass grow. It’s irritating as you watch a rampaging army head towards your capital, and you’re just 3 stones short of finishing your impenetrable city wall with no gold to rush complete.
- Resentful – having to spend $50 to get 1000 extra gems so you can now buy other stuff or endure 15 minutes watching irrelevant advertisements to squeeze out that 0.1% more of a resource.
- Stressful – when the unexpected happens, such as encountering a miniboss popping up after you just drained your last healing potion or having a horde of mutants show up next to your newly founded city, and your defender is 3 hexes away having scouted in the opposite direction.
The point is we play games even when we have these moments. As said before, is it because gaming is still overall exciting, joyful, satisfying, and challenging (but not overwhelmingly so)? Are games inherently procrastination-resistant because they have elements that are the opposite of the first 4 procrastinating factors?
Maybe? But if so, is the solution to gamify your tasks and then bye-bye procrastination?
Is it that simple? But then I remembered not all games put me in a flow state. And some made me toss them into the trash bin. And since all games have procrastination-prone periods, there must be something differentiating between great and abysmal gameplay.
What Differentiates Great Games From Mediocre Ones? Does that Hold the Key to Anti-Procrastination?
We know not all games are created equal. Some we obsess over, and others ignored until we need the disk space. So, what causes that initial game crush to fizzle? That’s where the last 3 procrastination characteristics play a role.
Consider meaningless. From a psychological standpoint, there is no incentive to do any task if you can’t find meaning or value. If it provides you with no inherent joy or doesn’t help you achieve some goal, then what’s the point? After all, consider the opportunity cost – time you spend doing something worthless is time taken away from doing something meaningful.
So, if you go with the above premise, a sucky game is meaningless, while a great one is meaningful. And if you think about why some games lose their initial attraction, reasons like it’s ultimately pointless, stupid, or boring top the list. In short, you find it’s a complete waste of time.
Now you might wonder, how does playing Candy Crush for hours on end meaningful? In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t. It won’t extend your life, make you money, or help you achieve your goals. But it is play. And play has meaning. We can’t explain why we are curious or why we enjoy some things and not others, but psychologists do agree that play is crucial to one’s well-being, even if it doesn’t have meaning by traditional metrics. If it engages some part of you, it has value.
Hence, meaningful gameplay seems necessary for great games, but is it sufficient?
Digging deeper, great games also grab you in one of 2 ways:
- You’re curious to see how things turn out, whether it’s the storyline or puzzle-solving, sort of the page-turner effect.
- You can role-play; whether it’s being a sharp-shooting bad-*ss, a benevolent dictator, or an unstoppable hero, you get to adopt a persona and live vicariously through them.
If you think about the games you obsess over, where you enter a flow state and lose track of time, it’s probably one or both of the above. The game connects to you somehow. You are willing to carry out all the tedious, frustrating, irritating/awful, stressful tasks because you need to level up your character/nation/etc. In short, these tasks allow you to fulfill a higher purpose (a persona or curiosity).
What’s interesting is what the psychology literature says when people do tasks they don’t enjoy, even in the absence of an external reward. And that is, people do it because of intrinsic motivation – something inside them drives them to perform. In Dan Pink’s book, Drive, he says that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the key players in this internal motivation. Autonomy is about being able to decide how to take action. Mastery is developing expertise in a skill or subject. And purpose is addressing a cause higher than yourself. In this case, you can consider meaning and purpose to be synonymous.
Hence, if you find the game meaningful, this generates a strong enough intrinsic motivation to persist in tasks you wouldn’t normally do.
Going back to work, if you can connect your goal or task to a higher purpose, this can overcome the resistance to doing it. But sometimes, that is impossible. Or the link to meaning is weak, especially for tasks that don’t immediately lead to a goal outcome. In these cases, consider if skill or knowledge mastery can play a role. Getting good at something gives you a sense of accomplishment. Such positive feelings can help overcome task aversion — more on this in the next section.
What Makes You Rage-Quit?
A significant appeal of games is that they’re predictable, especially when compared to real life. You invest in X and get Y – rain, blizzard, or shine. You need so many experience points to level up, and once you do, your skills are permanently buffed up.
Just imagine if reality was that straightforward. The plan for skill and knowledge mastery is simple. You spend 10000 hours writing Python code to be certified as a Python programming expert – guaranteed reward for invested effort. (For those wondering about the 10K hours to be an expert, it doesn’t work that way, unfortunately, but that’s another topic.)
So, what happens if a game messes with that sense of consistency or opportunities for mastery?
One event that leads many devoted gamers to abandon their love is when game developers release a software update. It’s one thing to fix an annoying bug, but another when it alters gameplay. Game companies state they must do this for “game balancing” reasons (aka broadening market appeal so not everyone plays a barbarian fighter). Using that benevolent justification, the update can either nerf (reduces the power of selected skills) or buff (opposite of nerfing, so powers increased) aspects of the game.
For some, this change creates joy. For others, sheer anguish.
Consider you spend weeks (if not months) investing in a character’s skill tree to the point where you can finally access that superpower you so desperately coveted. Only you find out that in the last software release, they reduced the power by half and increased the cost by 10%. Or you find out all your friends got 20% enhancements while you got -15% because you’re considered overpowered, and now your piercing ice attacks are pitiful snowballs that just wet your opponent’s armor.
Hell hath no fury like a gamer wasting their life on a nerfed talent.*
When games change how they are played, it causes major disruptions in your harmony, enough in some cases to where you abandon the game. Any effort you invested in mastery is sent down the drain overnight. (Guess better a quick death than a slow deterioration.)**
From a psychological standpoint, the loss of consistency or setback to mastery is exceptionally disruptive and uncomfortable. It introduces both pain and uncertainty – in short, highly demoralizing.
Games prone to rage-quitting play havoc with skill/knowledge investment, but great games manage that razor-edge balance of keeping you on your toes, hard but not overwhelming.
In psychology, learning goals perform well in high failure-prone situations because their focus on skill/knowledge mastery emphasizes progress. So, even if you die a lot (the case in many games), as long as you move forward, you are motivated to stick to it. And great games often provide many leveling opportunities, encouraging you to grow. In addition, providing you with chances for mastery is another way to achieve meaning. It’s cool to be considered an expert at something – even if it’s virtual.
Going back to work, see if there is something of interest that you would like to master or at least be recognized as an expert in.
*(For those who wonder if this only happens in games, if you ever hear the blood-curdling, soul-crushing scream from your browser, it might be from a blogger/You-tuber/Facebooker whose precious website rank built over the years evaporated overnight when Google/Youtube/Facebook “updated” their algorithms. Change can be unsettling.)
**(I have never experienced rage-quitting in my decades of play on the PC, but it took only months on my smartphone. OK, I didn’t rage-quit in the middle of the game but came close. When I finished, I just uninstalled the game. Throwing my phone into the trash wasn’t an option. I didn’t even know the phrase “rage-quit” existed until my son told me.)
Would You Play If Receiving Rewards Were Random (Are You OK, Getting 0)?
While meaning and mastery seem necessary, they take time to build. And let’s face it, a significant reason – if not the only reason – we like games in the beginning is for the rewards – we like getting cool stuff. As said earlier, predictability for invested effort provides psychological comfort. We want that guaranteed payoff.
But what happens if getting rewards is random?
For context, this concept popped up when I was playing on Habitica, a productivity role-playing game where you can play a mage, rogue, healer, or fighter. You can level up your character by completing tasks like habits, daily-to-dos, or one-time events. You can also participate in contests where people post challenges and reward winners with gems, which allow you to buy stuff for your character. One popular competition involves people posting the total number of Pomodoro sessions they did during the contest window (Pomodoro – 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break). In one version, the winner is randomly selected among all those who participated and did at least one Pomodoro. Let’s call this version A.
In version B, the competition is a race where you must be among the top 5 people with the most Pomodoros. But unlike the typical ranking contest where if you do more, you increase your win odds, getting into the top 5 just makes you eligible to be in the random draw to be selected as the solo winner. So, unlike traditional races, the winner isn’t the one who did the most. Number 1 can do 20 Pomodoros, while Number 5 did only 9. Both scored high enough to be randomly selected.
What’s weird when I first saw these challenges – you can only pick one and are disqualified if you try both- is my competitiveness leaned towards version B. After all, competing against 5, your odds of winning are higher than against, say, 20 in version A. But I suspected and noticed immediately that version B brought out the ultra-competitive types. Often, these were students who study for 12-16 hours a day, so they rake in 24-32+ Pomodoros daily. And the contest ran for about a week.
I do pull long hours (and in my younger foolish days, was an ultracompetitive psycho student) but now limit my Pomodoros to time spent working on my blog. So that’s rarely more than 4 hours a day, about 8 Pomodoros max. In short, my rank would be in the gutter if I competed in version B.
But what surprised me was my reaction to the “unfairness” of the race contest. Yes, I could go ultracompetitive, break my 4-hour limit, and put in more. Yet, if I’m going to be working that hard, screw randomness. Recall, if I don’t make the top 5, I have 0 chance of winning. And I would be pissed if I’m #6 because someone eeked out 1 more Pomodoro than me. Instead, I’d rather take my chances in version A, and if I get picked, great. If not, that’s OK. I don’t want my hard work to be gutted just because I missed the mark. At least, version A tells you it’s a level playing field for all.
Yet, as irritating as version B’s reward setup is, it is pretty realistic. Consider there are real-world situations where you have to go through rounds of evaluation to “win the prize.” In business, whether it’s job promotions or companies competing for a bid, there is a minimum for technical competency. But once you meet that bar, the field gets narrowed to a small set of candidates. And unless you know the decision-making criteria, it can seem random how the winner gets selected. For simplicity, let’s just call that randomness luck. Good if you win, bad if you don’t.
So if version B suggests rewards are a function of skill and luck, from a predictability standpoint, this sucks. Fortunately, that model rarely shows up in gaming, or does it?
Consider gambling. Winning is rarely guaranteed, yet people are addicted to it. So, what’s the appeal?
The difference is the amount of effort expended for the potential reward. While placing bets at a card game requires more mental energy than playing slot machines, the overall effort cost is low. Imagine if you had to run 20 laps for each bet or solve 10 story problems to play each round. The physical and mental barriers to action are higher. Your brain is looking at the cost-benefit more closely and may find the “pain” is not worth the “gain.”
This is the crucial insight about rewards. Your brain is calculating whether the gain provided by the prize is worth the pain of the invested effort. If the answer is yes, no problem, you do it. But if taking action is painful, distasteful, or just bitter, then you need to sweeten the deal with more significant rewards*.
And you must be consistent. If you pat yourself on the back that you did a good thing and no reward comes, part of your brain remembers this “betrayal.” So don’t be surprised if suddenly you don’t want to do things anymore. Just imagine if you spent hours on a quest only to have the random treasure generator reward you with an updated leather +20 armor that you could have bought from the shop’s bargain shelf. If this happens often enough, the game ends in the recycle bin.
So, it’s not the mere presence of rewards that matters. Their value has to be high enough and delivered consistently to justify the effort invested.
Another thing to consider about rewards is when finding meaning or mastery opportunities for your tasks is impossible. In that case, pick something you enjoy and pair it with what you must do. Professor Dan Ariely did just that. He was the only patient who successfully went through the entire protocol for a drug trial. Everyone else dropped out because they became nauseous and miserable. He managed because he loved watching DVDs. He knew once he took the drug, he was going to be crappy for hours. So he rented several DVDs and simply watched them after taking the treatment. That way, he could mitigate some of the suffering by doing something he enjoyed.
So, if you hate it but must do it, pair the activity with something pleasurable to overcome the effort hump.
*Stating the obvious, don’t pick a reward that unravels your progress. Binge-watching Netflix for 5 hours after writing for 30 minutes is negative in cost-benefit. Don’t do that.
Summary: The 3 Gamification Elements to Make the Unpalatable Tasty
Ideally, it would be great if all the things we needed to do were fun, exciting, and easy, but that’s rarely the case. Conversely, there is no insurmountable barrier for people to play games. But not all gamification elements are essential, as some games are great and others abysmal. These are the 3 gamification aspects to leverage when you have to do undesirable work tasks:
- Goals/Tasks must be meaningful; people obsess over games that give them joy or purpose. Find something about your goal or task that you can reframe as personally meaningful. Brainstorm what about the work gives you meaning or can be viewed as play. This will make it more palatable to take action.
- Allow mastery to happen. Whether solving a Rubik’s cube or consistently nailing the domination strategy, great games allow you to master knowledge or skill. When you look at things you don’t want to do, see if there is something about them that you can add to your knowledge base. A side benefit is it’s nice to be the go-to person for something you’re expert at. If nothing else, getting better at what you do lowers how much time you have to spend doing it in the future.
- Rewards are essential but must be awarded consistently and be proportional to the effort expended. At the end of the day, a reward feels great when its value is comparable to how hard you worked. Now, you may not be able to reframe the work or find anything of interest to master about it. If that is the case, pair it with immediate external rewards. You are justifying putting in the effort. If things are going to be mindless, tedious, frustrating, or stressful, at least when you finish, you get something joyful out of it. Think of it like having dessert for eating your veggies.
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