Tag: Barbara Oakley

Focused and Diffuse: Two Modes of Thinking

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.

Let Go of the Learning Baggage

We all want to learn better. That means retaining information, processing it, being able to use it when needed. More knowledge means better instincts; better insights into opportunities for both you and your organization. You will ultimately produce better work if you give yourself the space to learn. Yet often organizations get in the way of learning.

How do we learn how to learn? Usually in school, combined with instructions from our parents, we cobble together an understanding that allows us to move forward through the school years until we matriculate into a job. Then because most initial learning comes from doing, less from books, we switch to an on-the-fly approach.

Which is usually an absolute failure. Why? In part, because we layer our social values on top and end up with a hot mess of guilt and fear that stymies the learning process.

Learning is necessary for our success and personal growth. But we can’t maximize the time we spend learning because our feelings about what we ‘should’ be doing get in the way.

We are trained by our modern world to organize our day into mutually exclusive chunks called ‘work’, ‘play’, and ‘sleep’. One is done at the office, the other two are not. We are not allowed to move fluidly between these chunks, or combine them in our 24 hour day. Lyndon Johnson got to nap at the office in the afternoon, likely because he was President and didn’t have to worry about what his boss was going to think. Most of us don’t have this option. And now in the open office debacle we can’t even have a quiet 10 minutes of rest in our cubicles.

We have become trained to equate working with doing. Thus the ‘doing’ has value. We deserve to get paid for this. And, it seems, only this.

What does this have to do with learning?

It’s this same attitude that we apply to the learning process when we are older, with similarly unsatisfying results.

If we are learning for work, then in our brains learning = work. So we have to do it during the day. At the office. And if we are not learning, then we are not working. We think that walking is not learning. It’s ‘taking a break’. We instinctively believe that reading is learning. Having discussions about what you’ve read, however, is often not considered work, again it’s ‘taking a break’.

To many, working means sitting at your desk for eight hours a day. Being physically present, mental engagement is optional. It means pushing out emails and rushing to meetings and generally getting nothing done. We’ve looked at the focus aspect of this before. But what about the learning aspect?

Can we change how we approach learning, letting go of the guilt associated with not being visibly active, and embrace what seems counter-intuitive?

Thinking and talking are useful elements of learning. And what we learn in our ‘play’ time can be valuable to our ‘work’ time, and there’s nothing wrong with moving between the two (or combining them) during our day.

When mastering a subject, our brains actually use different types of processing. Barbara Oakley explains in A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (even if you flunked algebra) that our brain has two general modes of thinking – ‘focused’ and ‘diffuse’ – and both of these are valuable and required in the learning process.

The focused mode is what we traditionally associate with learning. Read, dive deep, absorb. Eliminate distractions and get into the material. Oakley says “the focused mode involves a direct approach to solving problems using rational, sequential, analytical approaches. … Turn your attention to something and bam – the focused mode is on, like the tight, penetrating beam of a flashlight.”

But the focused mode is not the only one required for learning because we need time to process what we pick up, to get this new information integrated into our existing knowledge. We need time to make new connections. This is where the diffuse mode comes in.

Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. … Diffuse-mode insights often flow from preliminary thinking that’s been done in the focused mode.

Relying solely on the focused mode to learn is a path to burnout. We need the diffuse mode to cement our ideas, put knowledge into memory and free up space for the next round of focused thinking. We need the diffuse mode to build wisdom. So why does diffuse mode thinking at work generally involve feelings of guilt?

Oakley’s recommendations for ‘diffuse-mode activators’ are: go to the gym, walk, play a sport, go for a drive, draw, take a bath, listen to music (especially without words), meditate, sleep. Um, aren’t these all things to do in my ‘play’ time? And sleep? It’s a whole time chunk on its own.

Most organizations do not promote a culture that allow these activities to be integrated into the work day. Go to the gym on your lunch. Sleep at home. Meditate on a break. Essentially do these things while we are not paying you.

We ingest this way of thinking, associating the value of getting paid with the value of executing our task list. If something doesn’t directly contribute, it’s not valuable. If it’s not valuable I need to do it in my non-work time or not at all. This is learned behavior from our organizational culture, and it essentially communicates that our leaders would rather see us do less than trust in the potential payoff of pursuits that aren’t as visible or ones that don’t pay off as quickly. The ability to see something is often a large component of trust. So if we are doing any of these ‘play’ activities at work, which are invisible in terms of their contribution to the learning process, we feel guilty because we don’t believe we are doing what we get paid to do.

If you aren’t the CEO or the VP of HR, you can’t magic a policy that says ‘all employees shall do something meaningful away from their desks each day and won’t be judged for it’, so what can you do to learn better at work? Find a way to let go of the guilt baggage when you invest in proven, effective learning techniques that are out of sync with your corporate culture.

How do you let go of the guilt? How do you not feel it every time you stand up to go for a walk, close your email and put on some headphones, or have a coffee with a colleague to discuss an idea you have? Because sometimes knowing you are doing the right thing doesn’t translate into feeling it, and that’s where guilt comes in.

Guilt is insidious. Not only do we usually feel guilt, but then we feel guilty about feeling guilty. Like, I go to visit my grandmother in her old age home mostly because I feel guilty about not going, and then I feel guilty because I’m primarily motivated by guilt! Like if I were a better person I would be doing it out of love, but I’m not, so that makes me terrible.

Breaking this cycle is hard. Like anything new, it’s going to feel unnatural for a while but it can be done.

How? Be kind to yourself.

This may sound a bit touchy-feely, but it is really a just a cognitive-behavioral approach with a bit of mindfulness thrown in. Dennis Tirch has done a lot of research into the positive benefits of compassion for yourself on worry, panic and fear. And what is guilt but worry that you aren’t doing the right thing, fear that you’re not a good person, and panic about what to do about it?

In his book, The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, Tirch writes:

the compassion focused model is based on research showing that some of the ways in which we instinctively regulate our response to threats have evolved from the attachment system that operates between infant and mother and from other basic relationships between mutually supportive people. We have specific systems in our brains that are sensitive to the kindness of others, and the experience of this kindness has a major impact on the way we process these threats and the way we process anxiety in particular.

The Dalai Lama defines compassion as “a sensitivity to the suffering of others, with a commitment to do something about it,” and Tirch also explains that we are greatly impacted by our compassion to ourselves.

In order to manage and overcome emotions like guilt that can prevent us from learning and achieving, we need to treat ourselves the same way we would the person we love most in the world. “We can direct our attention to inner images that evoke feelings of kindness, understanding, and support,” writes Tirch.

So the next time you look up from that proposal on the new infrastructure schematics and see that the sun is shining, go for a walk, notice where you are, and give your mind a chance to go into diffuse-mode and process what you’ve been focusing on all morning. And give yourself a hug for doing it.