Our brains rely on two modes of thinking to perform better. In fact, the brain switches back and forth between these modes regularly.
When you are doing your best work, learning something new or working on your most important tasks, you are in the “FOCUSED” mode.
It’s a highly attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities. We use focused thinking when we are actively working on a task.
True periods of focus — deep work, flow states, and highly productive sessions are achieved when you are completely immersed in focused mode.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has studied the relationship between attention and work, describes this state of mind as “flow”.
“Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable.” says Mihaly in his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”
It’s the attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities in the prefrontal cortex to ignore all extraneous information.
We primarily use focused mode to solve problems, tackle both small and large tasks and get things done.
Your brain assumes “DIFFUSED” mode when you are relaxed, resting, taking a walk or day dreaming.
“Diffused” is effective when you let your mind wander freely, making connections at random. In diffused thinking, your brain has the opportunity to connect the dots and link information and knowledge better.
Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman argues that “mind wandering serves multiple adaptive functions, such as future planning, sorting out current concerns, cycling through different information streams, distributed learning (versus cramming), and creativity.”
Studies have shown that activity in many regions of the brain increases when your minds wander. Your brain solves its difficult problems when you make time for diffused thinking.
When you’re constantly fixated on getting stuff done, what to write next, going for meetings or collaborating with colleagues, it’s tough to make room for the “diffused” state of mind.
To improve our attention span, concentration and performance, we need to reboot or reset the brain several points throughout the day.
“If you are trying to understand or figure out something new, your best bet is to turn off your precision-focused thinking and turn on your “big picture” diffuse mode,” writes Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science.
Many of us confuse being “busy” with being effective, or productive. You can only do your best work if you deliberately access both modes of thinking multiple times in the day.
And science backs it up, too. A study from Stanford University has shown that people are much more creative when they are walking around as opposed to when they are sitting still.
Being in one mode seems to limit your access to the other mode. Alternating between focused and diffuse thinking is the best way to master a subject, solve a difficult problem or do your best work.
Many incredibly busy and effective people schedule time to think. They take breaks from meetings, phone calls or emails to think, explore new ideas and allow existing ideas to make meaningful connections.
Generating good ideas, being productive and doing quality work requires something all too rare in modern life: a break from “focused” mode.
Charles Darwin took long walks around London.
Dickens wrote his novels between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. After that, he would go out for a long walk. He once said, “If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.”
Steve Jobs was famous for long walks too, which he used for exercise, contemplation, problem-solving, and even meetings.
Former Director of the United States Office of Management and Budget, George Shultz, he made time for quiet reflections. David Leonhardt wrote about his moments of reflections in The New York Times.
“When George Shultz was secretary of state in the 1980s, he liked to carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He sat down in his office with a pad of paper and pen, closed the door and told his secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called: “My wife or the president,” Shultz recalled.”
Thomas Edison took advantage of naps to generate ideas. “Many of Stephen King’s books begin as single sentences scribbled in a notebook or on a napkin after showering, driving, or walking,” writes Farnam Street.
Idleness is not a vice, it is indispensable for making those unexpected connections in the brain you crave and necessary to getting great work done.
Reset your brain for peak performance
Studies are showing that given your brain the needed break busy work restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive.
It pays to go on a media fast. Turn off your email for a few hours or even a full day if you can, or try “fasting” from news, entertainment and all distractions that prevent you from taking advantage of regular breaks.
It’s only when you come to appreciate and accept the ebbs and flows of your body that you can really start to deliver maximum results.
The world is getting louder. Distractions are inevitable. Make the most of your “diffused mode for greater concentration when you resume work.
All the little tasks and decisions you have to make every day as you work gradually deplete your psychological resources.
“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,” recommends Farnam Street. Taking a break (even for 15 to 20 minutes) is a proven way to sustain concentration and energy levels throughout the day.
Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University once wrote about the importance or resetting your brain every now and then.
“If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods,” says Daniel. He explains:
“If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network…
The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted;…The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.”
The human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days. The good news is that there is a fix to get back on track–all you need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track.
Ron Friedman of Harvard Business Review also stresses the importance of using both modes of thinking for best performance.
“When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve.”
When you’re focusing, you’re actually blocking your access to the “diffused” mode. And the diffuses mode is what you often need to be able to solve complex problems.
Both modes of thinking are equally valuable for efficient and effective work. Time spend in the “diffused mode” might feel like you are wasting time, but it’s a necessary part of getting things done.
This post was previously published on Entrepreneur’s Handbook and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Augusto Zambonato