How To Optimize Learning: Focused vs. Diffuse Thinking

By Nikki Carter

Published September 15, 2022

Nikki Carter is a writer and editor who's been published on Business Insider, Skillshare and more. She's created content for clients in health care, tech and other industries.

It's likely you've heard of different learning styles and understand that people learn best in different ways. For example, some may prefer to read material in order to absorb it while others want to hear, see, or experience it—and oftentimes, people move between different styles, depending on the situation. 

This is true for learning modalities as well, of which there are two major ones: focused thinking and diffuse thinking. These modalities were first named and outlined by engineering professor and author Barbara Oakley, who posited that animals and humans alike use both approaches in our lives.  

Just as learning styles are very different and don't have crossover, focused thinking and diffuse thinking are completely opposite approaches. Yet, the key to optimal learning may be to conscientiously incorporate a blend of both styles. 

Focused vs. diffuse thinking: an overview

So, what are these modalities actually about? To sum it up at a macro level:

  • Focused thinking is exactly what it sounds like. When you employ focused thinking, you apply yourself and concentrate very carefully on the matter at hand. Often, you rely on things you already know to understand new things or solve problems.

  • Diffuse thinking, on the other hand, is essentially what happens when you take a step away from your work and let your mind wander. If you've ever had a new, exciting idea come to you while you're watering plants or taking a bath, you've experienced diffuse thinking. 

Each way of thinking has different advantages, and that's why using both as you learn can provide the most benefit. You could go so far as to say that you have to use both, as you wouldn't be able to take in new knowledge without focused thinking, but you may miss the opportunity to make interesting, more "big picture" connections that aren't as obvious at first glance. 

What is focused thinking? 

Focused thinking is more traditionally pushed as the "right" way to think. Reflect back to being a young student; your teachers likely emphasized the importance of sitting down each day to focus on your schoolwork. It's much less probable that they told you to put your work down and go play for a while!  

It's widely accepted that focused thinking is how you learn and apply concepts—and it's true that an advantage of focused thinking is that it allows you to process information in the moment and move forward with a project. 

If you've ever experienced being "in flow" or working in a "flow state"—which can be described as a feeling of total fascination with and concentration on the task at hand—you were likely leaning on focused thinking to push through and solve problems that arose. 

Related: How To Be Productive: A Complete Guide With Steps And Tips

Examples of focused thinking

Here are some scenarios in which a person is using focused thinking:

  • Studying flashcards for an upcoming exam 

  • Reading new material aloud in order to understand it 

  • Performing athletic drills to refine a specific skill 

  • Focusing on one task at a time (in other words, not multitasking) 

  • Sitting down to write an essay 

How to apply focused thinking

To practice focused thinking, try outlining your goals and then break them into concrete, achievable steps. For example, if you want to take the LSAT exam, you might sign up for the exam, search for a study resource you like and identify what sort of study schedule you need to keep in order to reach your target score. 

The time you spend studying and learning the material for the exam, as well as applying it by taking practice exams, is focused thinking. 

What is diffuse thinking?

As beneficial as focused thinking is, you can't stay in that mindset forever. It's simply not sustainable to be productive and laser-attentive at all times. It's important to be able to see the big picture. Enter: diffuse thinking.

Diffuse thinking is largely subconscious. It happens when you allow your mind to wander and create space for rest and new insights. 

You may already know what diffuse thinking is, but might not have the word for it. For example, many writers understand that when they're experiencing writer's block, it's time to start doing other activities. When they're in the throes of another hobby and their mind has shifted from their writing, sometimes new ideas or creative approaches seem to "float" into their minds. 

Examples of diffuse thinking

The following are scenarios that showcase diffuse thinking:

  • Asking yourself a question or thinking about a problem you'd like to solve, and then stepping away to mindfully enjoy nature as you go on a hike

  • Signing up for a new-to-you class to develop a different skill or hobby than the one you usually work on

  • Shelving a manuscript for a few months so that you can return to it with fresh eyes 

Related: 100+ Hobbies You Can Add To Your Resume

How to experience diffuse thinking

Today, we're so connected to technology and other tools that we have to be intentional if we want to experience the magic of diffuse thinking.

Here are some things to try:

  • Move your body with a yoga or breathwork practice

  • Take a walk outside in nature

  • Run yourself a steamy, relaxing bath 

  • Take a short mid-day nap 

  • Schedule periods of rest and non-work into your day 

  • Go on a long, aimless drive 

We also have to be intentional about setting up systems so we remember the ideas or thoughts that come to us from diffuse thinking. If you've ever had a great idea and then completely forgotten it by the next day and felt frustrated, you may understand why you may need some help holding on to the insights generated by diffuse thinking. 

Consider taking a second to quickly jot down thoughts or ideas that come to you in unexpected ways. You can start a list on your smartphone or send yourself an email to make sure you don't forget your ideas. You can also try recording a voice memo or even a video—be creative! 

How to blend focused and diffuse thinking

Consider the old saying about a person who "can't see the forest for the trees." This is an apt analogy, as a person who only employs focused thinking will be so close to the details of the individual trees that they can't see the forest. 

Meanwhile, if you only look at the forest from a zoomed-out perspective, you never see the details of the single trees and their leaves and branches!

The two ways of thinking are not only complementary; they depend on each other. The information you take in during periods of focused learning gives you more to work with during times of diffuse thinking, and the ideas you have from diffuse thinking can redirect how you spend your focused time. There's a symbiotic relationship between the two that will help you in all areas of your life.

Here are some ways you can work with both learning modalities:

  1. If you're starting a new project, take in all of the information upfront (focused thinking) and then allow intentional time away to let that information percolate (diffuse thinking). 

  2. Block your schedule to work in "sprints" of time; this is also referred to as using the Pomodoro method. For example, you could set your alarm for 25-30 minutes of focused work time and then give yourself 5-10 minutes to eat a snack, close your eyes in silence or go for a walk and get some fresh air. 

  3. If you're studying, do that in sprints as well. Sit down and take in the information you're trying to master (in the medium that works best for you), and then take time away to let the concepts settle and give yourself time to process what you've learned. 

Different learning styles lead to optimal overall learning

When it comes to focused and diffuse thinking, it usually makes sense to toggle between the two approaches so that you achieve balance, creativity and optimal results. A mix of focused and diffuse thinking can help you learn new concepts, complete projects and unlock new levels of inspiration. Experiment with different ways to incorporate both modes of learning, and you'll start to discover what works best for you. 

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