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Focused and diffused mode

Imagine effective learning for an important exam. A typical picture is a person focusing in front of a computer or a book, making notes, looking for answers. But would you consider a productive learning time sitting, looking at the void and doing nothing? Surprise surprise, it works.

Focused mode

When we focus, we direct our brains to a concrete problem. Thanks to that, we can comprehend more elements at once and solve more complicated problems. This is an important skill in most professions. On the other hand, the focused mode has its weaknesses, for instance:

  • kills creativity - the more we concentrate, the less creative we are, and as a result, it is hard to generate original answers or solutions,
  • does not consolidate new information with the rest of our knowledge,
  • can be maintained only for some time without a break.
Example: There was a great experiment showing how being focused too much stops us from making a creative answer. It was first conducted by prof Sam Glucksberg in 1966 and after that, confirmed many times by other researchers. Random people were asked to solve The Candle Problem. The solution is not hard, but it requires some creativity. Those who were offered a reward needed more time to solve it. The higher the reward for solving it fast, the longer it took to do it. People were forcing themselves to concentrate on the solution, but it is hard to find a creative answer when we are in a focused state of mind.

When we learn or when we do our job, it is essential to be able to concentrate. When we work on demanding tasks, it should be our primary state of mind, but not the only one. There is another extreme we should switch to from time to time - it is called the diffused mode.

Diffused mode

The diffused mode is when we are not trying to think about anything specific, but we let our brain wander around. This is an essential time because our brain can process the knowledge and relates it to that we already know (see Deep Work). As a result:

  • creative ideas appear - creativity requires space for thoughts, making connections with our experiences and ideas from other disciplines,
  • we organize our thoughts well - without time to process new information it is hard to understand it deeply, and as a result, we don’t use it and quickly forget it (this process is known as cramming),
  • we clean up our head and get ready to concentrate better in the next focused mode session.
A screen from [Learning How to Learn course by dr. Barbara Oakley and dr. Terrence Sejnowski](https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn?). It presents a metaphor of focused and diffused mode of thinking: Pinball machine with either bumper placed very closely (focused mode) or far from each other (diffused mode). In the first case, they concentrate in a small area, so the pattern is predictable and bumps are fast. In the second instance, the ball bumps widely and much more unpredictably. It uses our whole brain and based on that it can create a creative answer or big picture understanding.
Make an experiment: When you learn, note what you don’t understand or problems you need to solve. Take a break and go for lonely walk in quiet. But before that, take a look at the unanswered problems and questions. After the walk, take a look at the list again. It is likely that many of those questions will be answered after the break, or that the concepts that seemed hard will now be more clear. It is because of your diffused mode working on those tasks when you were walking and enjoying your break. No wonder many great thinkers like Steve Jobs were known from making long walks when they needed to think.

Use focused and diffused modes alternately

The focused mode should be the primary mode we use when we learn or do cognitively intensive work (like programming, reading, making important decisions). When you are in focused mode, the more concentrated you can be, the better. But we should always find time for diffused mode as well. An effective way to do it is by first concentrating on a single task and then making an effective break.

Make effective breaks

Effective breaks are those that do not consume your attention. It means:

  • no social media,
  • no news,
  • no emails,
  • no games,
  • no movies,
  • no podcasts,
  • etc.

Any of those might disturb your brain’s attention. Some good ideas for an effective break are:

  • make yourself a tea or coffee,
  • go for a walk,
  • sit down and relax for a few minutes,
  • make a short stretching,
  • meditate.

Pomodoro technique

One of the known techniques that may help a lot is the Pomodoro technique. It is very simple:

  1. Decide what you want to work on.
  2. Set a timer for 25-45 minutes and, at that time, concentrate only on the single task (focused mode). Ignore disruptions. If you got a great but unrelated idea, just note it and continue concentration on your task.
  3. Once the time is done, set another timer for 10-15 minutes. This is your break. Make it effective - relax, avoid content, do not think about your task.
  4. Jump to step 1. Every 4 pomodoro, make your break longer (15-30 minutes).

This technique uses to the maximum the advantages of both modes. You can track your efficiency by counting the number of pomodoros. You can make your pomodoros longer or shorter. Make it work best for you.


The Pomodoro technique requires self-discipline, but is also very powerful. If you don’t use it, remember about taking effective breaks. Also, if you need to solve a problem, try to look at the void or take a short walk - it helps a lot. Use the power of both the focused and diffused modes.

Further reading

What do you think about the article?
Marcin The author of the Effective Kotlin and Android Development in Kotlin books, founder of the Kt. Academy and Learning-Driven, programming trainer, speaker at international conferences, experienced developer.
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