Focused and Diffuse Modes of thinking

3 min readApr 11, 2022
Focused and Diffuse Modes of thinking. Zuperly.

When we are faced with a problem, our approach to coming up with a solution varies. There are several models proposed which depict different ways of thinking. One popular model, described by Barbara Oakley, is the focused and diffuse thinking model. As the name suggests, this model presents two counterposed methods. The author speaks of how distinct these two methods are and how regularly we shift between these two methods when going through our daily activities. Oakley uses biology to describe why vertebrates need both these methods to survive and lead a life.

We will talk about Focused Thinking first. What is Focused Thinking?

This is a predictive method of thinking. It derives its basis from approaching problems sequentially and properly to arrive at a reasonable solution. It is a concentrated and conscious method. Several times, we are involved in deep work which requires utmost focus and concentration to be productive and get results.

In terms of evolution, focused thinking has helped us in vital tasks such as hunting or caring for the family. This kind of thinking is particularly useful in learning subjects that require a sequential approach, such as science and mathematics. It takes on a more analytical road towards learning which assists in solving familiar problems or studying a new concept.

The focused mode of thinking can be activated by:

  1. Planning and visualising your goals: it is important to know what to focus on
  2. Avoiding Multitasking: this goal-oriented method stresses one task at a time
  3. Practice makes Perfect: this method stresses practising and achieving perfection through repetition
  4. Building Discipline: this mode of thinking is based on training your brain to hyper-focus when needed

It is considered the heavy-lifting mode which forms connections between familiar topics when trying to learn a new concept. This is an active form of thinking wherein your brain is actively working to come up with the answer.

Now, let’s talk about Diffuse Thinking.

Like focused thinking, this method also draws connections. However, as compared to the tunnel vision focus of the above method, diffuse thinking takes on a more creative and broad-minded approach. The main difference lies in how focused thinking draws connections between familiar concepts, whereas diffuse thinking draws connections between different concepts to come up with an innovative solution. This method would require you to properly grasp the concepts instead of rote-learning or cramming the material.

In simple words, diffuse thinking focuses on the bigger picture. It works in the background and allows you to think more creatively to arrive at the solution. Although focused thinking allows you to understand concepts in more depth, diffuse thinking can clear concepts in an overall manner. It is a passive method of thinking wherein your brain can suddenly come up with a solution; the famous ‘Eureka’ moments of sudden creativity would be a good example.

So, which is the better mode of thinking?

The answer is that we need both these modes to work simultaneously to achieve our best result. Learning the basics of any topic or concept and then understanding the concept by drawing connections with other topics will help you truly grasp it. Only then will that concept reach your long-term memory and be embedded in it. Therefore, we need to practice both these forms to achieve maximum productivity and quality of work.




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