Our brains employ two modes of thinking to tackle any large task: focused and diffuse. Both are equally valuable but serve very different purposes. To do your best work, you need to master both.
As she lost consciousness of outer things…her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting. — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Professor and former Knowledge Project Podcast guest, Barbara Oakley, is credited with popularizing the concept of focused and diffuse forms of thinking. In A Mind for Numbers, Oakley explains how distinct these modes are and how we switch between the two throughout the day. We are constantly in pursuit of true periods of focus – deep work, flow states, and highly productive sessions where we see tangible results. Much of the learning process occurs during the focused mode of thinking. The diffuse mode is equally important to understand and pursue.
When our minds are free to wander, we shift into a diffuse mode of thinking. This is sometimes referred to as our natural mode of thinking, or the daydream mode; it’s when we form connections and subconsciously mull over problems. Although diffuse thinking comes in the guise of a break from focus, our minds are still working. Often, it’s only after we switch away from this mode that we realize our brains were indeed working for us. Moving into diffuse mode can be a very brief phenomenon, such as when we briefly stare into the distance before returning to work.
Oakley uses evolutionary biology to explain why we have these two distinct modes. Vertebrates need both focused and diffuse modes to survive. The focused mode is useful for vital tasks like foraging for food or caring for offspring. On the other hand, the diffuse mode is useful for scanning the area for predators and other threats. She explains: “A bird, for example, needs to focus carefully so it can pick up tiny pieces of grain as it pecks the ground for food, and at the same time, it must scan the horizon for predators such as hawks…. If you watch birds, they’ll first peck, and then pause to scan the horizon—almost as if they are alternating between focused and diffuse modes.”
Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them which matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill —a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.
Think of how your mind works when you read. As you read a particular sentence of a book, you can’t simultaneously step back to ponder the entire work. Only when you put the book down can you develop a comprehensive picture, drawing connections between concepts and making sense of it all.
In a journal article entitled “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering” the authors write that “consciousness… ebbs like a breaking wave, outwardly expanding and then inwardly retreating. This perennial rhythm of the mind—extracting information from the external world, withdrawing to inner musings, and then returning to the outer realm—defines mental life.” This mental oscillation is important. If we stay in a focused mode too long, diminishing returns set in and our thinking stagnates. We stop getting new ideas and can experience cognitive tunnelling. It’s also tiring, and we become less productive. This can also set the conditions for us to fall victim to counter-productive cognitive biases and risky shortcuts, as we lose context and the bigger picture.
History is peppered with examples of serendipitous discoveries and ideas that combined diffuse and focused thinking. In many cases, the broad insight came during diffuse thinking periods, while the concrete development work was accomplished in focused mode.
Einstein figured out relativity during an argument with a friend. He then spent decades refining and clarifying his theories for publication, working until the day before his death. Many of Stephen King’s books begin as single sentences scribbled in a notebook or on a napkin after showering, driving, or walking. To turn these ideas into books, he then sticks to a focused schedule, writing 2000 words each morning. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road following seven years of travel and drawing links between his experiences. After years of planning and drafting, he wrote his masterpiece in just three weeks using a 120-foot roll of tracing paper to avoid having to change the sheets in his typewriter. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali took advantage of micro-naps lasting less than a second to generate ideas. Take a look at the recorded schedule of any great mind and you will see a careful balance between activities chosen to facilitate both focused and diffuse modes of thinking.
Studies exploring creative thinking have supported the idea that we need both types of thinking. In a paper entitled “The Richness of Inner Experience: Relating Styles of Daydreaming to Creative Processes,” Zedelius and Schooler write that “Research has supported the theorized benefit of stimulus independent thought for creativity. It was found that taking a break from consciously working on a creative problem and engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a phenomenon termed incubation.” When asked to generate novel uses for common objects such as a brick or paperclip, a useful test of creativity, individuals who are given breaks to engage in tasks which facilitate diffuse thinking tend to come up with more ideas. So how can we better fit the two modes together?
One way is to work in intense, focused bursts. When the ideas stop flowing and diminishing returns set in, do something which is conducive to mind-wandering. Exercise, walk, read, or listen to music. We veer naturally toward this diffuse state—gazing out of windows, walking around the room or making coffee when focusing gets too hard. The problem is that activities which encourage diffuse thinking can make us feel lazy and guilty. Instead, we often opt for mediocre substitutes, like social media, which give our mind a break without really allowing for true mind-wandering.
Our minds are eventually going to beg for a diffuse mode break no matter how much focus we try to maintain. Entering the diffuse mode requires stepping away and doing something which ideally is physically absorbing and mentally freeing. It might feel like taking a break or wasting time, but it’s a necessary part of creating something valuable.