Focused vs Diffused Thinking: What are they and can they help you be more productive?

Timespace
6 min readJan 11, 2019

Ever needed to crank out some creative writing but there’s no juice left in the tank? Ever get really stuck on something while studying something new?

While we’re learning, thinking, and doing, we have three main modes we use: focused (deep), shallow and diffused thinking.

Find out how you can increase your productivity by optimising these modes of thinking.

What is focused (deep) thinking?

Focused thinking is pretty much what it says on the tin. It’s a focused, concentrated and deliberate form of thinking. We use focused thinking when we are doing something important such as trying to learn something brand new, solve problems or perform special tasks.

Also known as “being in the zone,” focused thinking means that you’re concentrating deeply on a topic and you’re not easily distracted or disturbed. You can power through tasks in bursts with great short-term memory retention, increased creativity and good decision-making. You can zoom directly in on what’s important and readily process it to help you achieve your goals.

Find out more how Timespace helped people get into this type of focus and state of flow here.

What is diffused thinking?

Unsurprisingly, diffused thinking is the opposite to focused thinking. It’s much more relaxed and helps you to recover from the heavy impact focused/deep thinking has on your brain.

Have you ever been taking a shower or doing the dishes when you suddenly get that breakthrough lightbulb moment of inspiration? That’s diffused thinking in practice.

Diffused thinking is about letting your mind wander freely and allowing your brain to make new connections at random and form new and creative solutions to those tricky problems — much like an app running in the background on your phone.

Diffused thinking is especially important for creativity and creative problem-solving. While resting your brain from focused work, your brain neurons are still firing in every direction trying to find and piece different ideas together. That’s why you get that lightbulb moment of inspiration while you’re doing something completely random.

What is shallow thinking?

Replying to emails, filling out paperwork, paying bills — these are examples of shallow thinking. It’s like being on autopilot, your brain just slugs through the work without much need for creative or deep thought. The tasks are very repetitive, but we all have to do them.

Which is better for productivity?

The truth is, we need all three! They all need to be balanced to achieve your optimum productivity.

We all know that too much focus is a bad thing — we get stuck, we get tunnel vision, frustrated and lose sight of the big picture and wider details. Many people today feel stressed out at work or school, and this can prohibit our productivity. Some stress can actually help us kick on and perform better, but when we’re over-stressed we stop thinking clearly and lose the ability to gather and analyse relevant ideas.

That’s why we need diffused thinking. Our brains need time to take a beat, relax and gather the information. Even though this seems counterproductive at first, it’s actually complementary to our overall productivity. It can help us jump over those roadblocks and get your brain moving again. However, the danger is that with too much diffused thinking, you may not be able to get your facts straight.

Shallow thinking is important for completing those menial and dull tasks that we all need to get through. Don’t waste valuable creative energy writing emails or doing paperwork. Set aside time for these tasks later in the day when you’re tired and have no creative juice left.

Ultimately, we need to balance all the modes of thinking to boost productivity and get better results.

Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

E=MC²

“That secular cloister, where I hatched my most beautiful ideas and where we had such good times together.” — Albert Einstein.

Sound familiar? This famous equation, also known as Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, changed the scientific world. His radical work regarding the connection between space and time and the nature of light can be credited to his tenure at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern, otherwise known as the patent office.

Einstein performed menial tasks and duties during his time at the patent office. From this shallow thinking, his mind was able to sew together connections he saw forming between the patents and his own scientific work. Never-mind the fact that he’s also a genius.

Diffused thinking in practice

Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison employed diffused thinking to spark their creativity and inspiration. Dali would sit in a chair, key in hand and start to fall asleep. While drifting off, his mind would wander with new thoughts and ideas. When he finally fell asleep, the key would fall to the floor, make a loud noise and wake him up. Upon waking, he would often have a brand new insight ready. Edison would often do the same using marbles.

On a more modern note, there’s a whole bunch of modern entrepreneurs and business people who practice diffused thinking activities. For example, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson often starts his day by swimming or going kitesurfing. Bill Gates starts his day with an hour of running on a treadmill. Getting the most out of your day doesn’t just happen between 9–5.

Examples of how to utilise each way of thinking:

#1. Sleep

Sleep on it. When’s the last time you got a proper kip and felt truly rested? In today’s digital world, we’re constantly connected and sleep becomes very hard to come by, but it’s essential for our brains.

Dreams are great for diffused thinking. When our brains switch off for the night, it sifts through the whole day’s information and reorganises it. Through deep sleep, our brain defragments and moves the information we’ve learnt that day to the long-term storage parts of our brain. Through REM sleep, that new info is thrown amongst all of our life experiences and starts to build new connections. This is why when you wake up in the middle of a dream you suddenly have a brand new insight on something.

Point your mind in the right direction by gently pondering something while you’re going to sleep and let your mind drift off. Spend the first 5–10 mins after you wake up to write down any of the memories you have from your dreams.

#2. Plan your day

Many of us plan our days, but we don’t plan our breaks or rests. Use an activity planner to schedule time for focused and creative work, monotonous work, and time for rest to see your productivity rise.

#3. 50/10 work balance

Take a 10-minute break every hour to let your mind relax and process all the information you just absorbed. Fifty minutes is a manageable enough time for focused and uninterrupted work while ten minutes is enough to reboot your system.

(Plus it also gives your eyes a much-needed rest from the computer screen!)

Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

#4. Take a walk

Can’t beat a classic. Stretch your legs, get some fresh air, and let your mind drift off. It’s best not to walk in places that are too crowded or in unfamiliar locations. You need your brain to wonder, not constantly be planning your route or moving out the way of busy people.

#5. Mindfulness

“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” — Mindful.org

Stop worrying about your future problems. Let your thoughts drift to the here and now. Let go of that ridiculously complicated maths problem, de-stress, and practice some mindfulness techniques. Only then try the same problem again to see if you’ve developed any new insights.

Wrapping up

Balancing focused, diffused, and shallow thinking is important to avoid burning out and maximising your productivity. Alternate between them and you’ll find yourself one step closer on the way to better productivity.

Whether you’re burning the midnight oil to write that essay paper or just contemplating the meaning of life, you can record all your activities and ponderings with Timespace.

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Timespace

Timespace is the ultimate productivity planner that incorporates elements of mindfulness so you can maintain a healthy balance between work and play.