Procrastination & Self-Preservation

For weeks, I’ve had it in my mind to write about the topic of procrastination and how it relates to my role as a Dungeon Master. There have been moments when the urge to jot down thoughts on the subject was palpable and yet many others when the motivation to type out a mere sentence on the topic made me cringe. I have busied myself with other activities; some for the blog (conducting interviews) and some real-life distractions (furniture shopping, reading, etc). How I am procrastinating on writing a column about procrastination is enough meta to fry my brain.

When I created The Id DM over one year ago, I settled on the tagline, “Cramming before gaming nights just like everyone else.” At the time, I was finalizing details for each session up until the time players were filing into the gaming room. To be honest, that fact has not changed that much. I’m getting better but I continue to feel like my hair is on fire as I’m driving to a session because I’m not sure if I prepared enough. I assume most DMs procrastinate to some degree before most sessions.

Several questions about procrastination come to mind. First, why does procrastination happen? Second, what is the difference (if any) between procrastination for an unpleasant event – such as going to the dentist or preparing a work-related report – and a pleasant event – such as running a roleplaying game or writing a column for a blog that is a side hobby?

Instead of solely relying on my personal experience, of which there is plenty in the following column, I glanced through available psychological research on procrastination to answer those and a third and final question.

How can DMs reduce their level of procrastination?

The Delay in Procrastination Research

In a humorous bit of irony, the study of procrastination lagged behind other topics in the social sciences. Procrastination received little in the way of serious scientific analysis until the past 10 to 20 years. In a recent article published in International Journal of Psychological Studies, Wilson and Nguyen summarized the state of procrastination research:

The available material regarding procrastination shows that much of the research is of very recent vintage. Knaus (2000) notes that “prior to 1979, procrastination received limited attention in the United States” (p.153). As late as 2005, Ferrari, O’Callaghan and Newbegin wrote that “no systematic study has examined the global prevalence of chronic procrastination—the purpose delay in starting or completing tasks” (2005, p. 2).

One of the researchers mentioned above, Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D., has become a leader in the psychological research of procrastination. His research has shown that everybody procrastinates but not everyone is a procrastinator. Approximately 20% of the population – in an array of countries from around the world – can be labeled procrastinators, “A procrastinator is someone who habitually and consistently delays tasks.”

In recent years, he and other researchers have attempted to determine why individuals procrastinate. Popular assumptions regarding the causes of procrastination include:

  • Last-minute thrill experience – “It’s a rush going right up to the deadline!”
  • Fears of failure or success – “If I submit this proposal, then it might get rejected. Or it could be accepted and I’ll really have a lot of work to do.”
  • Pervasive and habitual activity – “This is just the way I am. It’s my personality.”
  • Ephemeral pleasures and chores – “I’d rather play Diablo III because that is more fun. Or I’d rather fold that pile of laundry because it’s easier and at least I can accomplish something.”

While the above reasons may play a role in some delay of task completion, the available research indicates the top causes of procrastination are when individuals judge the task to be unpleasant or boring and uninteresting. Commonly avoided tasks are those that are painful, awkward, annoying or otherwise aversive.

Consider your personal procrastination or the procrastination of colleagues and friends. What tasks are avoided the most? People typically avoid tasks they do not enjoy doing, which is not a surprise. There are not many people who enjoy filing taxes, going to the doctor or breaking off a troubled relationship; we tend to drag our feet on such endeavors because they are unpleasant or present a litany of aversive stimuli. The more we find ourselves surrounded by tasks we deem unpleasant, boring or uninteresting – the more likely we are to procrastinate. It may not always be the case, but a person who procrastinates all the time is likely someone who is not happy because most things around them are deemed unpleasant.

The early research on procrastination flows logically to me in terms of how I resist engaging in activities that I do not find enjoyable – certain work-related tasks and chore-like responsibilities come to mind! But why do I procrastinate on activities that fall into the realm of leisure and hobby – like writing a blog post or preparing to run a session of D&D?

The Illusion of Leisure

If only session preparation was so easy. (Image credit to Black Charlton and Todd Lockwood)

If scientific research demonstrates that the two leading causes of procrastination are tasks that are perceived to be unpleasant, boring or uninteresting and I habitually delay completion on a variety of tasks related to my DM duties then logically it follows that I find my DM duties unpleasant, boring and uninteresting. But D&D is a game! It’s a hobby and meant to be a source of pleasant, engaging and interesting leisure. Why would I procrastinate on tasks related to an activity that is meant to be fun and rewarding?

Because not all DMing is sunshine and flowers!

Mike Shea posted a terrific summary of data collected from approximately 200 DMs running D&D 4th Edition; he asked questions about how DMs prepare for each gaming session. One of his conclusions was that DMs waste too much time on designing monsters and building worlds; he encouraged DMs to change their preparation with a caveat:

Who the hell am I to tell DMs they shouldn’t build fantastic worlds and powerful monsters? Obviously, we all do this for fun and should all spend time where we enjoy spending it. Sometimes, however, we think certain activities, like monster design and world building, give us the (perhaps false) impression that we’re actually helping our game. Some activities, like statting out monsters, is mechanically simpler than the dangerous and scary act of raw creation needed for things like really good NPC design.

Spend your time where you enjoy it, but have a clear and realistic view of how much use it actually is during the game.

Without meaning to, I think Mr. “Chest Squatthrust” Shea illustrated a very compelling component of DM procrastination.

He asked DMs to rate how much time they before each gaming session on the following specific tasks:

  • Adventure Planning
  • Combat Encounter Design
  • Non-Combat Encounter Design
  • Battle Map Preparation
  • Monster Design
  • NPC Development
  • World Building
  • Puzzle Design
  • Experience and Loot
  • Props and Handouts

One of the response options was None – as in, “I don’t spend any time preparing this task before my games.” The two least common tasks selected as None by DMs were Adventure Planning (3%) and Combat Encounter Design (5%). The two most common tasks to be selected as None by DMs were Props and Handouts (42%) and Puzzle Design (39%). The results indicate that DMs find Adventure Planning and Combat Encounter Design to be the most pleasant, engaging and interesting tasks in preparing for each session and find Props and Handouts and Puzzle Design to be the least pleasant, engaging and interesting tasks when preparing for a session. Another interpretation is that DMs find Adventure Planning and Combat Encounter Design to be the most vital to a successful game – and thus spend more time on the activity – and find Props, Handouts and Puzzles to be unimportant for a successful gaming session.

The data demonstrate that not all DMing-related tasks are created equal. There are many components to preparing and running a gaming session. It is logical for DMs to focus on the aspects they find most pleasant and interesting and ignore or delay working on aspects they find adversive and boring. Scott Rehm (The Angry DM) summarized some of the more thankless tasks a DM is dealt on a regular basis with his unique blend of truth and slight exaggeration:

Look at what DMing entails. Really look at it. You spend hours every week creating worlds, characters, and stories. And you can’t do that without truly getting attached to what you create. You become invested. Heavily invested. Hell, you have to be invested just to put in the time to begin with. Even learning all of the rules is a huge time commitment. And, even if you’re not running a homebrew campaign or writing your own adventures, you still need to study the adventures and bring them to life. The most inexperienced, laziest DM still puts enough time and creative energy into every game for it to qualify as an unpaid, part-time job…

DMing is a sick trap. Its hell for creative people. Create something you love, then turn it over to the ravages of a bunch of uninvested, self-worshiping morons. DMing is like writing an epic series of novels and then locking yourself in a room with a bunch of fan fiction writers, week after week, and clapping for them as their self-insert avatars urinate on the corpses of the characters you breathed life and subtlety and nuance into for years.

If a DM even feels 10% like Scott’s description above, then procrastinating while preparing for gaming sessions is not so much a problem as it is a solution to engaging in an unpleasant activity.

Even though running a gaming session is primarily thought of as a leisure activity, there are still several (if not many) components of the activity that are undesirable. Each DM needs to be honest with herself or himself and assess the DM-related tasks that they either enjoy or find boring. It can be a trap to force oneself into preparing for sessions the same way over and over again because “that’s how I’ve always done it and that’s how it’s done.” If a DM is constantly procrastinating instead of preparing sessions, then it’s very likely he or she is not enjoying preparing sessions.

Wall, Meet Head

One clear way to eliminate procrastination is to stop engaging in the task altogether. If preparing for a gaming session is becoming too aversive, then there is no reason to continue punishing yourself with the activity – even if it is considered a leisurely endeavor by others. Take a break. Cancel a session. Change the way in which you prepare to eliminate the tasks that are not enjoyable.

Stop bashing your head into a Brick Golem.

In recent months, I have done all of those things to increase enjoyment during DM preparation and reduce procrastination. I canceled a session because I “wasn’t feeling it” and now rely more heavily on published materials instead of creating a homebrew world from scratch for each session. Preparing for sessions was beginning to feel like work, and I have enough work through my day-to-day occupation, thank you very much! While conjuring up new NPCs, locations and encounters was enjoyable at first, it started to take on a toll on me. At first, I figured this was my standard procrastinating behavior that I’ve engaged in since grade school. Now I realize that I simply wasn’t enjoying the process.

Most DMs probably do not want to cut DMing out of their life because it is likely not that unpleasant all the time! When DM finds a task appealing but is still delaying the completion of the tasks, these are suggestions to combat procrastination:

  • Keep a to-do list, and update it often.
  • Set your priorities, and tackle the most urgent matters first.
  • After the most pressing tasks, do the worst jobs next. Putting them off will just make your whole workload seem more impossible.
  • Set realistic goals and deadlines.
  • Pick your projects carefully, and fight the impulse to get involved in too many activities even if they seem pleasant and interesting.

Last, I’m a firm believer that our behavior is influenced by rewards or perceived rewards. An individual should explore their reasoning for delaying task completion and ask, “What are the benefits of procrastinating? How am I rewarded for this behavior?” The answer to such questions may be surprising and can bolster a strategy to overcome procrastination.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

20 thoughts on “Procrastination & Self-Preservation”

  1. These days several of the games I run are very low prep-no prep. Last night I ran the pocket edition of Danger Patrol, and one of my regular games right now is 3:16 DP needs no prep at all, and a planet for 3:16 takes me 5 minutes at most. So my prep time is spent on my one prep taking game (Dresden Files, although even there I can wing it a lot) or doing largely pointless world building stuff (because I enjoy it.) like a “Space wikipedia” article on the Space Madness that had dominated the previous 3:16 session.

    1. That is great that you are enjoying whatever preparation you need to do. I think it is something game designers should keep in mind when building a game – the success of the game typically hinges on the ability of one person to execute a session. A game should not require hours of preparation to achieve a “really great” session.

  2. “DMing is a sick trap. Its hell for creative people. Create something you love, then turn it over to the ravages of a bunch of uninvested, self-worshiping morons. DMing is like writing an epic series of novels and then locking yourself in a room with a bunch of fan fiction writers, week after week, and clapping for them as their self-insert avatars urinate on the corpses of the characters you breathed life and subtlety and nuance into for years.” Scott, there has never been a truer statement about DMing. I spent hours coming up with a rich landowner Drow NPC with a tabacco smoking butler only to see one beheaded and the other engulfed in lava in his own living room. Iddy, it’s interesting to propose the topic of your blog as one that is potentially unpleasant. I agree that there are numerous aspects of DMing that are tedious, or unrewarding. But I think it’s that one golden session, when all the players were on cue, and everything went splendidly. I think that utopian session is what keeps us up late almost every night, writing dialogue for a bar maiden or deciding how that demon will ask the warlock to repay his infernal pact. Well done yet again.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and providing feedback. Certainly a successful session provides reinforcement for the preparation put in before the session, but it skews the cost-benefit analysis. It is likely possible that a successful session is quite possible *without* hours of preparation. I’ve been experimenting with finding that sweet spot where I feel prepared enough but not stressing myself out with trying to do too much. Before last session, I felt a strange calm. I was almost nervous because I *wasn’t* nervous – if that makes any sense! The session was great overall and I think I’m finding my groove.

  3. I still enjoy the creative parts of DMing…. but I’ve learned to be more Michael Bay and less David Lynch.

  4. I find DMing to be one part challenge and one part wrist cutting. In one hand I’m creating an amazing amount of content for my players to play in. On the other hand my players have free will and often trounce even the most elaborate plot points before they can lead to where I’d like them to go. Sometimes I feel like a farmer with with a delicate crop that gets trampled every sunday. But it’s a labor of love and I’m glad people are still motivated to write amazing articles like these to help us all out.

    1. Thank you for commenting. It seems you share some of the same struggles as me at times. I do not feel as if my players “wreck” the story I’m creating, because it’s up to everyone at the table to shape the story. I have adjusted to focusing on the next session or two and relying more on published adventures. It cuts down on the amount of prep time required. That said, I still space off and think about how plotlines inter-weave and how things may resolve in 10 to 15 Levels . . . but hey, that can be fun too.

  5. I find that GMing is like most of my other hobbies that take effort (ie, not computer gaming). There is a sweet spot of effort/time that I’m really excited to put into it, and once I get past that, it doesn’t matter if I’m writing NPC backstories or drawing maps, I’m just ready to think about something else for a while . . .

    So I guess I’d say my procrastinating is more about mini-burnout than the relative appeal of the various types of prep-work.

    1. Indeed, I think burnout is obviously related and something that I’ll likely write about at some point. Although, many other talented folks have talked about the issue of burnout already. If you catch yourself going past that “sweet spot” of effort/time and the rewards are not coming, then take a break and focus on something else. I like playing videogames, but I can’t do it *all* the time because it’ll get “old” and “boring.” Gotta mix it up!

    1. Thanks for writing. And you’re right, my “pain in the butt” task it likely another person’s “joy” to work on. 🙂 Thanks for the link, I’ll have to read through that article.

  6. Thanks for writing this article. I am a new DM (read: I started DMing once and got through half a game session before throwing in the towel – now I’m back for more punishment) I was researching how to create a game for low levels when i stumbled on your site. The links you provide in your articles are really useful for someone who has spent the last 2 weeks world building and just now realizing that this is an almost irrelevant task regarding a beginning world. Thanks to your tips and the links, I am off to do some real research and prioritizing my planning to focus on the upcoming game. (fortunately, it is a me and one other person game, so we are uber-flexible. :D)

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