Modes of thinking

What is the difference between focused and diffused modes of thinking?

Thinking is something we do all day, every day. Whether it’s working out an especially difficult problem, planning what you’re going to order from the takeaway later, or daydreaming about nothing in particular, thinking is what helps us to come up with solutions and achieve our goals.

Of course, thinking when you’re trying to work out a problem is the most intense mode of thinking, but this isn’t the only way that you are likely to find the answer.

There are in fact two different modes of thinking- focused and diffused- which, when deployed in the most effective manner, can help you to solve problems even quicker and more efficiently!

Focused mode

As the name indicates, this is when you sit down and dedicate your whole concentration on doing something. This is a direct approach to solving a problem or learning, and it uses rational, sequential, and analytical approaches.

Some examples of focused mode thinking include: giving a public talk, learning facts (such as the times tables), and solving a rubix cube.

Essentially, if all your attention is focused on doing something, you are in focused mode thinking!

However, this can be a narrow and specific way of working out something, and this is particularly evident when you’re trying to solve a problem. If you’re sat trying to figure out a difficult problem, sometimes it can be hard to think of another solution other than the wrong one you initially came up with. This is called the “mindset effect”.

The mindset effect

When we first approach a problem, we may come up with what we think is the right method and answer. Inevitably, it turns out to be wrong. But then, as you’re trying to think of a new way to solve the problem, you just can’t escape the way you have already tried!

If this has happened to you, you are definitely not alone. Everyone finds it difficult to see another way to approach the problem, but the trick is to learn how to overcome it. The mindset effect acts as a barrier for us when we’re trying to learn, so we need to take a step back and allow ourselves to find an alternative method to get the answer.

Diffused mode

This is where diffused mode thinking comes in. In contrast to focused mode thinking, diffused mode is when you allow your mind to relax and wander and think about all kinds of things!

When you leave the table (and what you’re working on), diffused mode thinking kicks in. It allows you to take a step back and see the bigger picture, which in turn can be beneficial when you come back to your work as you may have thought of new techniques and solutions that could help.

So, if you’re struggling with your work, don’t get frustrated and refuse to leave the table until you’ve solved it. Go for a walk, have a shower, eat something, or even do a bit of other work, anything except working on that specific problem! Even though you will be distracting your mind for a bit, your subconscious will still be working on the problem and you may find you have a ‘lightbulb’ moment when you come back to the task in hand.

Diffused mode thinking allows you to look at and solve problems in a more relaxed, natural way, and this is when learning becomes easy!

How do I use this information?

Knowing this is all very well, but how can you implement it in your learning? Well the key is always to start with focused mode thinking. It is important to put your mind to the problem and really try to come up with a solution, which you may end up doing! In which case, move on to the next question.

If, however, you are struggling, getting frustrated, and can’t see any other way to find the answer, this is the mindset effect. Just accept that it will happen and use it as a prompt to take a break in whatever way you choose. This is when diffused mode thinking will kick in, which will give your mind a chance to step back from the problem, and hopefully see the right way to get the right answer!

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