🧠 Focused Mode and Diffuse Mode
You probably know that you need to focus on a task to produce high-quality work. But did you know that you actually need plenty of unfocused time for high-quality work as well?
In another post, I wrote about two modes that the brain has: focused mode and diffuse mode. The focused mode is when your brain is focused on a task, and the diffuse mode is when your brain is relaxed.
For learning and generating innovative ideas, you need to cycle through these modes. The Pomodoro Technique utilizes a cycle of 25 minutes of focused time followed by 5 minutes of relaxed time. If you are stuck trying to solve a problem, it’s better to stop and do something else rather than trying to power through. When your brain is relaxed and in its diffuse mode, it can make unexpected connections and often come up with a solution.
There are strategic ways to use your brain’s wonderful diffuse mode to your advantage.
📝 Take Advantage of Diffuse Mode in Test Taking: The “Hard-Start” Approach
When you took tests as a student, you probably worked on the easy questions first and left the toughest questions to the end.
If you have spent quality time studying before the test, tackling the toughest questions first is much more effective. That’s the “Hard-Start Approach to Test-Taking.”
🧠 How the “Hard-Start Approach” Works
As soon as you get a test, scan it and identify the toughest questions. Then start working on those questions first. As soon as you get stuck, you stop there and force yourself to switch to easy questions. After you spend some time on easy questions, go back to the tough question you were working on before. When you go back, you can probably make some more progress.
💡 Why the Hard-Start Technique Works
As soon as you tackle a tough question, your brain starts working on it. You kick-start your brain. This “Hard-Start Technique for Test Taking” takes advantage of the diffuse mode. Even after you switch your focus to easy questions, your brain keeps working on the tough question in its diffuse mode. Barbara Oakley, Beth Rogowsky, and Terrence Sejnowski describe this situation as using “the brain as a sort of dual processor.”
If you leave the toughest questions until the end, you are mentally exhausted and feel time pressure. You’re not in a position to start tackling the tough questions. It’s equivalent to waiting until the night before the deadline to start working on a writing project.
✍️ Use Diffuse Mode to Break Through Writer’s Block
Anyone who has tried to write something has experienced writer’s block. You don’t know what to say, and you freeze. The writer, John McPhee wrote how to break through writer’s block in the New Yorker in 2013. McPhee says to start writing with “Dear Mother” and write an “awful” first draft.
“You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.”
Just like the “Hard-Start Technique to Test Taking,” start with the toughest task, which is getting ideas down on a blank page. Once you start the process, your brain’s diffuse mode kicks in and does the trick.
💤 Sleep Can Make You Feel Better and Be Creative
As I wrote in another post, even while you sleep, your brain is working. It tries to connect new information you got during the day to all your past experiences. This helps you to build a new model of the world and gives you new innovative insights. You might as well take advantage of this wonderful benefit that sleep can give you.
🎯 Use Diffuse Mode to Produce High-Quality Work
The book “Invent & Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos with an introduction by Walter Isaacson,” shares the practice that Jeff Bezos used for meetings at Amazon. Instead of slide-oriented presentations, they used six-page memos. At the beginning of each meeting, everyone quietly read those memos.
The quality of memos varied widely.
“Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more!” “The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope—that a great memo probably should take a week or more.”
To write great memos, you need to cycle through focused mode and diffuse mode. This same principle applies to other projects. To produce high-quality work, have reasonable expectations, start working on them early, focus on the task at hand, and give yourself time to take advantage of your brain’s diffuse mode.
🚀 Do This Now
Do you have a tough mental work you’ve been dreading? Instead of waiting till you’re “ready,” just get some ideas down on paper. Don’t discount your brain’s wonderful diffuse mode and use it to your advantage!