• Joumana Elomar

Diffused Thinking: The Simplest Decision-Making Hack

Whenever we make decisions, the temptation is to throw all of our attention at it. To think it through until we reach a conclusion. Yet, how many of us have wrestled with a situation only to have the solution present itself in the shower? Or on a walk? Or after we sleep?

Turns out that even when we're not actively thinking, we're still thinking. Our minds are constantly moving between two modes: focused thinking and diffused thinking. With some practical strategies, we can learn to hack the process and make better decisions in less time.

Diffused vs Focused thinking

Coined by Professor Barbara Oakley in her book 'A Mind For Numbers', diffused and focused thinking are the brains' two modes of thinking. While our brains are enormously complex, we can simplify these processes into:

  • Focused thinking: When we focus on the problem we're solving

  • Diffused thinking: When we relax and let our minds wander

Whenever we're presented with new information—whether we're making a decision, solving a problem, or learning something new—we go back and forth between these modes. So let's find out more about how and why it works.

How it works

When we're focused, our brains tend to zoom in on the information we know and look at how we've solved the problem in the past. For simple situations and decisions this is a fantastic way to make calls. However, by focusing on what we know it can limit the creativity essential in solving complex problems. In contrast, when we're relaxed it gives our brains a chance to create new neural connections between old ideas. We might have heard of this as mind wandering or daydreaming.

It's the difference between walking from destination A to B, and just going for a walk with no destination in mind. You never know where you might end up! In fact, in studies exploring creative thinking, mind-wandering is linked to higher creativity. Or as the researchers summarised:

It was found that taking a break from consciously working on a creative problem and engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a phenomenon termed incubation.

Hacking the process

There's quite a history of famous thinkers and creators that hack the system. Steve Jobs was known for his long walks. Salvador Dali was known to paint, then sleep with a pair of scissors in his hands, only to wake up to the sound of scissors dropping. With scheduling, we won't need scissors.

To optimise your thinking:

  1. Schedule focused mode: Here we want to remove all distractions and deliberately stop to focus on the decision or problem. It's important to set a timer. Timing will depend on the task. Start with 20mins if you're unsure how much time you'll need! After you've set a timer, put your phone on silent and place it far away. Minimise all tabs unrelated to your task.

  2. Break into diffused mode: Once the timer goes off, stop. Turn your attention away from the problem and let your resting state do the work for you. Taking a conscious break here could include anything from a long walk, a nap, a gym session, a stretch break etc. Anything that lets your mind truly wander! Scrolling on social media isn't the best option here as while it gives our brains a break, it doesn't truly let our minds wander.

  3. Return to focused mode: After your break, go back to focused mode and try to solve the problem. You should find it easier to connect the dots once you let your brain work in the background. You might not even have to wait until after diffused mode is over. Sometimes the solution will present itself while we're resting!

Practical tips

Here are some practical tips for getting started:

  • Use a timer: Depending on the situation you're switching modes for, you can set different amounts of time. You might opt to use the Pomodoro method, where you set a 25min-timer to do focused work and then take a 5min break. Or you could stretch this to a 55min timer, 5min break. The more you play with it, the more you'll find something that works for you.

  • Take a walk: Research shows that taking a walk increases your creativity. In one experiment, they asked participants to come up with alternatives uses for everyday objects e.g. A button, cardboard box. They placed some participants on a treadmill, and some at a desk. Their results demonstrated that walking improved idea generation!

  • Sleep on it: One of the best ways to use the diffused mode is to quite literally sleep on it. This means reviewing a problem or information before bed, and then letting your subconscious process the new information overnight. This way, you'll wake up with newfound insights. However, if you find it difficult to mentally switch off, this tip might not be suitable for you!

Switching between focused thinking and diffused thinking is the simplest hack to optimising our decision-making. It increases our creativity, deepens our understanding and efficiently welcomes better options to emerge with time.

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