The twins sat down for dinner and looked out the window. Every night, a family of deer ends up walking through our front yard or a neighbor’s yard, so we spend a lot of time looking out the window, waiting for them. I set down the meal and said, “I’m going to give you a task. I want you to spend 10 seconds NOT thinking about the deer. Don’t think about the deer AT ALL. Got it? 10 seconds, no deer. I’ll count.”
They both started giggling nervously as they looked at each other, and admitted at the end of the 10 second count that they had spent the entire 10 seconds thinking about the deer. How could they not? I had told them (1) don’t think about deer, and (2) they were sitting by the window which is where they always see the deer. So there was nowhere to look that didn’t trigger the thought that I had just reminded them several times not to have.
I gave them the second part of the task: “Once again, spend a minute NOT thinking about the deer. But this time, I want you to come up with a list of words that contain an “S” somewhere before an “E” like house or seat or stare. As many words you can come up with in a minute while not thinking about deer. Got it? I’ll count again.”
They giggled through the first few seconds, but then I started seeing their fingers pop up as they counted how many words they could list in a minute. When I called time, they told me that while the deer had popped into their brain a few times towards the beginning, by the end, they had mostly forgotten about the deer until I stopped the activity.
The exercise comes from Jane McGonigal’s book SuperBetter, which is the paper companion for the same-named app. McGonigal is a game designer who has applied elements of game theory to living a better life. It’s self-help I can get behind because her focus is not to change you into someone different but show you how you can take everything you love about games and use those lessons to curb anxiety, increase focus, and overcome difficulties in the real world.
Pretty cool, right?
The app requires users to be 13 or older, so I’ve been using the exercises in the book with the kids. She writes about collecting and using power-ups during your day, fighting bad guys, and going on quests. And because everything ties into video games, my kids have been able to easily make the jump from how they feel playing a game on their iPod to recreating that feeling in the real world.
The game above highlights the idea of spotlight attention, which explains how we can fully lose ourselves in a game and not realize how long we’ve been playing it. It’s also something that a person can use to distract themselves from anxiety while they’re sitting in class or to push away any unwanted thought while they’re trying to take a test, even if triggers for that thought are all around them. If nothing else, playing this quick game is an internal reminder that they need to re-focus. At best, it can break the anxious or disruptive thoughts long enough that they can get back on task. And it only takes a minute to do.
Anyone else using SuperBetter and would like to talk about the ideas in the book and app?