The Two Types of Thinking: Focused vs. Diffused Thinking

two types of thinking

Whenever I take a shower my brain starts coming up with so many different ideas and new creative ways to attack my problems. I always jump out of the shower super excited to continue my work. All the new ideas, I feel like a freaking genius!

But then when I sit down to work and try to brainstorm more creative ideas, I’m not even able to think of one and my brain just shuts off. I try to focus on getting new solutions or thinking of new ways to tackle a problem, but nope, my brain is not on my side.

And then when I go to sleep, my brain starts firing up again with all these new ideas and solutions. And I’m laying there like WTF brain? Now you have the capacity to create new ideas huh?.

It wasn’t until recently when I took the course ‘Mindshift’ at Coursera that I’ve learned there are two types of thinking in our brains.

The Focused Thinking.

The first of the two types of thinking is what’s called ‘’The Focused Thinking”. It’s probably the thinking style that is most-known to you.

This type of thinking is the type we use when we are trying to concentrate on something. Our mind zooms in on a particular problem that we’re dealing with and it disables distractions that want to get inside our brain.

Our brain really tries to utilize its prefrontal cortex to use it’s best concentration skills to really focus on the matter at hand. With focused thinking, you are actively using all the mental power that is in your brain to understand the problem you are facing.

Also, when you’re solving a problem with the focused thinking, your brain tries to understand the problem or the concept with something that it’s already familiar with. So it uses concepts that you have thought of before and sees how it can use these ‘’familiar concepts’’ to solve the problem at hand.

But what happens if we need to solve a problem that we’re totally not familiar with?

The Diffused Thinking

Here is where the interesting part of our thinking starts, the diffused thinking it somewhat less known by most people, including me before I took the course. However, it’s a thinking strategy that actually every one of us subconsciously uses.

Diffused thinking happens when you don’t think about anything in particular. You’re just in a relaxed state and your brain wanders off into a thousand different directions, you’re not really focused on one particular thing.

Two Types of Thinking

In diffused thinking, your brain looks at things very broadly and thinks from a big-picture perspective. It makes different neural connections in your brain allowing you to understand new and abstract concepts. It basically looks at the problem from different angles.

To access the diffused thinking you can do the following things:

  • Taking a shower (My recommendation haha!)
  • Meditating
  • Sitting on your couch
  • Going for a walk
  • Going to sleep or taking a nap
  • Just take a break

You won’t really be able to concentrate really hard on something, as you sometimes need to when you’re solving a problem or need to understand the details of a concept. But diffused thinking will help you with coming up with a creative solution to the problem. Afterward, you can use your focused thinking to go deeper into the concept.

Which mode is the best for learning?

If you want to maximize your learning, you should use both. These two types of thinking are different but they complement each other really nicely if you’re trying to learn new things.

One thing I should note here is that you can’t use them both at the same time. You’re either in the focused mode on in the diffused mode. It’s like two sides of one coin, you can only ever see one side of the coin, not both sides.

Don’t think that only one way of thinking works for you. Some teachers might say that you need to be focused and concentrated all the time to solve a situation but that’s far from the truth.

First, you use focused thinking to understand the base of the information by gathering knowledge and then you use diffused thinking to dig deeper into the information and make more complex connections in your brain. Afterward, you can go back and comprehend the connections you made with the knowledge you’ve gained.

How do you use your two types of thinking?

Our brain actually utilizes the two types of thinking already almost every day without you even knowing. At least I’m guessing you take showers frequently and go to sleep every day right…?

But let’s have a look at how you can consciously use the two types of thinking to improve your learning.  This technique that I will show you below here is called the ping-pong technique. Because You ping-pong from the focused thinking to the diffused thinking, back and forth.

Two Types of Thinking
  1. First, focus all your attention on one particular thing you want to learn or the problem you want to solve. Get rid of all distractions and remove other noises.

  2. Use a timer to get you out of the focused mode, like a Pomodoro timer (from the Pomodoro technique). This technique suggests you set your focus-timer on 25-minutes and work without distractions like in step one, and after those 25-minutes, take a break for 5-10 minutes.

  3. When the timer hits, you deliberately will take a break and stop focusing on the problem at hand and just relax and let your mind freely wander. Now your brain can make new connections with the information you just got and will think more creatively.

two types of thinking
two types of thinking – Salvador Dali Drawing

There is a story about the painter Salvador Dali who also used this ping-pong technique. After a good portion of focused work, Dali always went to his chair and took a nap. While he was doing that he was holding a key in his hand. Whenever he fell asleep, his muscles relaxed and the key fell on the ground and made a sound that would wake him up. That is when he would go back to his focused work.

This short nap let him have enough time in the diffused-thinking mode so that he could make new connections in his brain to get back to work.

Now make use of this thinking!

You’ve learned the difference between the two types of thinking and you know why you need them both and how to use them. I hope by explaining this all to you I made it clear why it’s important to use both of the thinking styles to maximize your learning strategy.

If you use this technique to let your mind go back and forth from focused- to diffused thinking, you will learn way more effectively.

But remember, this is also a skill you need to learn, don’t give up on the first time you try it. Take one of the Pomodoro apps out there and just try it out the next time you will learn, and remember to use your diffused thinking.

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Nick Colo

I’m a 23 year old psychology dropout currently living in Antwerp, Belgium. I’ve started a couple of companies all from scratch from my desk at home by the power of self-education. I have a mission to share my knowledge about self-education and help people create their desired life through the power of self-education.


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