Why can we focus on video games for hours, yet struggle so much with work

If you don’t have ADHD, it’s hard to understand why someone can focus on video games for hours, but struggles so much with simpler tasks. Even if you do have ADHD, you may be puzzled by this and worry about “not really having ADHD” or “just being lazy”.

Here’s a breakdown of the main reasons for me:

1. Dopamine rush

Let’s start with why we do anything at all. Our brain is geared to give us “good feels” if we take actions that, historically, have helped us with our survival. Such actions include:

  • gathering things (be it food, material possessions, or video game unlocks)
  • a sense of progression towards achieving a goal or gathering an important possession
  • feeling like you’re improving your skill set
  • any action that people praise (e.g. writing a good novel, or pwning the enemy team)

Video games have loads of those!

It’s true that it feels better to buy a new home in real life rather than in The Sims, or to receive praise at work instead of from a team mate in a game, but that leads us to…

2. Quick rewards

Games are designed to constantly make you feel good while playing them. Long gone are the games where you had to farm for months to get that shiny new gear. Now you have daily rewards, quick levels, frequent loot drops, etc.

It takes years of saving up to pay for a deposit for a home, and more years to pay it off after that. You have to sacrifice other desires to achieve that goal, and you may not be able to afford the house of your dreams anyway.

It takes a few hours to move your Sims family from that poor house they started in to the shiny new mansion.

3. Consequences of failure

Another reason we tend to feel more reluctant to work on real-life goals is fear of failure.

If you lose a game of LoL or HotS, you may get a few angry teammates swearing at you. You will get fewer rewards. You may feel a burst of anger and punch the desk. An hour later, it passes and it is as if it never happens. You may jump right in to another match, win, and all is right with the world.

If you make a mistake at work, you may get fired. You lose your income, your health insurance, possibly your home. Maybe future employers will learn of it and refuse to hire you. Your life could be irredeemably impacted by this. The thought of this creates a constant underlay of anxiety, particularly if you enjoy your work and really don’t want to be fired.

We are terrible at redirecting our stream of thought, so when we’re bombarded with that level of anxiety, it takes up so much of our working memory, that we’re sure to make more mistakes and feel exhausted after even a short amount of time working. It doesn’t happen with games, since we don’t feel that anxiety.

4. Expecting failure

Many people with ADHD have a bit of a perfectionist side. It really comes out when it’s about something they’re so passionate about, it’s become part of their identity.

If that happens to be work (as it is for me), then we expect our work to be amazing, since we believe it shows who we are to the outside world. Any mistake we make exposes our flaws and make us look foolish. With that level of pressure, piled on to the anxiety from the point above, most people would likely just crawl under their bed sheets and refuse to come out!

In games, however, you are expected to fail. Nobody goes into a HotS match expecting to play perfectly. You know you will miss a few shots, and probably die a few times too. It’s inevitable that you will lose some matches here and there. So, no pressure or anxiety about being perfect.


So what can we do about this? Perhaps we can strive to take the attitude we have about video games to real life.

Let us find ways to reward ourselves more often, and embrace failure as a learning experience.

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