The Minecraft Method of Finding Your Focus

How to get things done when it feels like the zombies are always encroaching

A person playing Minecraft on an XBOX connected to a monitor.

Even though I’m not really one for video games, I can talk about Minecraft with the confidence of a much more seasoned gamer. I know, for example, that you can play in creative mode, which is all about world-building, or in survival mode, where your main goal is to dodge the monsters and, well, survive.

How do I know this? Because every day my seven-year-old turns on Minecraft in survival mode, my younger son joins in, and then the zombies come. “I want to play in CREATIVE mode,” he yells to his older brother, frantically defending himself against the enemy.

I get it: It’s hard to build when something scary could be lurking around the corner, ready to pounce. My concentration-zapping “zombies” aren’t little digital monsters — but they are constant interruptions, news-induced stress, and garden-variety exhaustion. When stress levels rise, creativity, focus, memory all take a hit. For me, that means that by the time I make it to my kitchen table to write, I often struggle to get a word out.

Research shows that the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that thinks creatively, remembers things, and focuses on challenging tasks — goes “off-line” during acute stress. Frustrating as that is, it’s also adaptive. Your brain’s job is to keep you alive, and if it senses danger — a zombie, hungry kids who can’t focus on Zoom school, another scary news update about Covid numbers — it temporarily allocates energy to fueling the stress response.

When the brain gets the signal that all’s well, the prefrontal cortex comes back online. The problem is, for many of us, the stress signal is ongoing. I know my work-while-parenting-in-a-pandemic situation probably isn’t changing anytime soon. So what do you do when you’re trying to get into creative mode and neither the world nor your mind is cooperating?

Telling the body to calm down can help. There’s plenty of evidence that meditation and diaphragmatic breathing, for example, can turn off the stress response, making way for the creative wheels to start turning again.

But the most effective solution may be to simply stop trying to fight it. Instead, manage your time around your most tangible stressors. When I can, I reserve all my creative tasks for times when I have emotional bandwidth. For example, I usually block out afternoons, when my kids are on screens, to work on writing that requires more “thinking.” The mornings, when my kids are the most demanding, are for tasks that don’t require as much brain space, such as clearing out my inbox or pitching article ideas to editors.

It’s not a perfect system. Honestly, sometimes when I have a 30-minute pocket of calm, I’d rather just sprawl on the couch than work. But, as in Minecraft, it’s a hell of a lot easier — and way more fun — to build something when you’re not worried about a zombie lurking around the corner.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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