Before you think “I’ll read this later” – if you’re a gamer who procrastinates, skim to the bullet point summary at the end. The article is a highlight reel covering the main reason why gamers procrastinate, and how to overcome it.

Oh shit – it’s 3am. I just spent another day playing games rather than working on my project. What the hell is wrong with me? I’m screwed.

If you’ve felt this before, you’re not alone. This internal monologue is familiar to many gamers, and it’s certainly something that used to rattle around in my head. While it hasn’t always been easy-going, I’ve gained the upper-hand on procrastination, and I’m hoping to help people by sharing my hard-won victories.

Before we get into it, my name is Dr. Cody Phillips – I have a Ph.D. in Computer-Human Interaction, and I’m an academic games user researcher. My research looks at the intersection of motivation and wellbeing, and how games can impact the people that play them. In general, I believe that games can be a great source for personal development, but if you’re anything like me they can sometimes feel like an obstacle to achieving your goals.

Understanding Procrastination

Many people roughly understand that procrastination is a gap between intention and action, but they’re ultimately trying to solve their procrastination without first understanding the root cause of it. Without understanding why you procrastinate, you’re prone to making errors in judgement like thinking that procrastination is a pathology that afflicts an unlucky few, that procrastination is a personality trait like laziness, or that procrastination is a time management issue. I can assure you that everyone procrastinates and that almost everyone who procrastinates knows how to read a calendar. If you’ve gotten this far into the article, you’re (probably) not lazy and stupid. So why do you procrastinate?

Procrastination relates to emotions

Hard work is often scary work. When facing new challenges, part of us is concerned that we don’t have the answers. A leading cause of procrastination is a failure to regulate your ‘negative affect’ or your negative emotions. Boiled down, this form of procrastination is best personified as the fear, uncertainty and doubt related to work that you need to do. If this form of procrastination afflicts you, you’ll unintentionally avoid your tasks by prioritizing actions that increase your mood. 

How Games Fit In

The reason we associate video games with procrastination is that the people who play video games use video games as their main form of procrastination. There’s a circular logic to it. Of course gamers are going to procrastinate, because all people procrastinate. Of course gamers are going to play video games when they procrastinate because they’re gamers. You should also reasonably assume that someone who enjoys knitting will procrastinate by knitting. The widespread belief that video games lead to procrastination seems to exist because video games are a widespread hobby.

Recent research investigating procrastination among video game players was not able to support a strong relationship between hours spent playing video games and procrastination. Across two different surveys, the researchers found no statistically significant relationship between the number of hours spent playing video games and procrastination.

Think about that for a moment: even if you play a lot of video games, you’re not more likely to report procrastinating on your work. If there was anything that was going to support a link between playing video games and procrastination, this would have been the smoking gun. Yet that effect didn’t exist in either of the independent surveys.

In order to find any effect between hours spent playing and procrastination, the researchers needed to combine their two surveys – only then did they find a small effect between hours spent playing and procrastination. And even then, the effect was partially mediated by whether or not you’re playing for entertainment or playing for escapism. So the evidence supports that a weak relationship between hours spent playing video games and procrastination does exist, but the authors rightly caution against taking that result at face value owing to its limited effect size and collider bias.

This lack of meaningful result is in-line with a growing number of studies that are unable to demonstrate a relationship between video games and negative outcomes. For example, it has also been found that the time spent playing video games has no adverse impact on academic performance. Overall, the evidence linking games to procrastination or decreased work performance is far from solid.

How to Reduce Procrastination

With the understanding that procrastination is an affect related problem, the leading treatment for procrastination is a reduction in negative affect. In a recent study, researchers found that self-forgiveness for procrastination can reduce future instances of procrastination on similar tasks (in their case, studying for university midterms). The authors noted that self-forgiveness mediated negative affect and that the decrease in negative affect was responsible for a reduction in procrastination behaviour. Other strategies for reducing negative affect are things like meditation, using gratitude journals, or listening to certain genres of music.

In theory, anything that reduces negative affect may be able to reduce procrastination. If that’s the case, intentionally playing video games for a short amount of time before starting work might be an effective way to help you reduce your overall procrastination. Solving procrastination by playing video games sounds a lot like procrastination with extra steps – but if you deliberately carve out some time to play games you may be able to keep your negative affect level low enough that you’re less likely to procrastinate in the future. As a quasi-experiment, I’ve added playing games to my daily to-do list, and anecdotally I’ve been more productive since doing so. I even started this blog.

Implementation Intentions

Another salve for procrastination is to set implementation intentions. These are basically one of the holy grails of productivity and are able to help you with procrastination, getting rid of bad habits, creating new habits, goal achievement, and a myriad of other things. I’ll likely write a longer article about implementation intentions (and mental contrasting) in the future, but the basic premise is simple. Rather than just writing down your goals, create a plan for implementation. Set a behaviour that you want to do, and then pair it with a when, a where and a how. For example, at 10 pm every evening, I will set a timer for 20 minutes, go to my balcony and meditate for 20 minutes. The when is clear – 10pm. The how is reasonably well defined – set a 20-minute timer. The where is clear – my balcony. And the habit itself is clear – meditate.

People who use implementation intentions tend to be far better at holding themselves accountable for their actions. I would highly recommend giving it a try, and seeing if it works for you. If you want to dial it up to the next level in an easy way, tell someone your implementation intention. You’ll create some accountability and that extra bit of social pressure could help you to get it done.

Main Takeaways

  • Procrastinators aren’t inherently lazy
  • Procrastination is triggered by negative affect (negative emotions)
  • Games are a gamer’s procrastination mechanism of choice, but:
  • Links between hours spent gaming and procrastination are weak at best
  • To reduce procrastination, you need to lower your high levels of negative affect
  • Do this by intentionally meditating, using a gratitude journal, listening to music
  • You could even try to play video games for short periods before starting work
  • You should also use implementation intentions, which involves:
  • Writing down what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, and how you’re going to approach it.

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