Focused and Diffuse Thinking: Why Your Brain Needs a Day Off


What a day. I can’t think. I can’t write. Even choosing something to watch on TV feels like a major effort. Playing solitaire on my phone is about all I can handle.

Have you had days like this? I don’t have them often, but when they come, there’s no resisting the lassitude, the profound laziness. Over time, I have learned not to fight it. Even to see these days as gifts.

You see, these days of mental emptiness are a sign from my brain: it’s saying ‘too much is happening, I need time to process it all, I need time to think.’ And then my brain makes sure that it gets that time. All of  the other activities that normally make me so productive shut down.

There’s science behind this, too.

We have two kinds of thinking: what Barbara Oakely and Terry Sejnowski, in their super-MOOC Learning How to Learn teach as focused thinking and diffuse thinking.

Focused Thinking

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

Focused thinking is the conscious, active work that we normally call thinking: Reading, writing, learning a new skill, writing up a new business strategy. This is done in the pre-frontal cortex, that part of your brain that’s right up front, behind your forehead. When you are studying for a class or researching a company to prep for a job interview, your pre-frontal cortex is the workhorse, pulling the heavy burden along. When I am deeply focused on a top, I can feel the wheels turning in my brain. Can you?

Diffuse Thinking

Image by Capri23auto from Pixabay

Diffuse thinking is a more relaxed, less conscious process. This is where the magic happens. your brain steps back and reviews all the facts, puts them in context, and considers them in light of what you already know. Have you ever given up on a problem, gone for a walk, and had the solution pop into your head? That’s diffuse thinking in action. Whether you start a different activity or go to sleep, giving your pre-frontal cortex a break lets the diffuse thinking happen. It doesn’t take place in any one part of the brain; as you would expect, it wanders around inside your head, each thought bouncing off another, looking for connections. I think of it as ideas driving bumper cars at the fair.

Your brain needs both

Your brain needs time for focused and diffuse thinking to do its best work.  So when my brain says ‘enough’ I think of it as a signal that I need to get out of the way, that a brilliant idea is just around the corner. It’s like knowing when to stop seasoning the soup, so the existing flavours can blend.

Maybe you think of taking  day off, what some people call a mental health day, as part of being kind to yourself. That’s true, and completely valid. We do need to be kind to ourselves, to let ourselves rest and be sometimes, instead of just doing, doing, doing. It’s also good brain care.

The next time you just can’t get motivated to start anything, consider whether your brain is trying to tell you to get out of the way. Indulge your brain. Play solitaire. Stare into space. Reorganize your shoes.

Your problems and projects will be here tomorrow – but you might have a completely different approach, and new kick*ss solution.

Marne Platt

Dr. Marne Platt is the President of Fundamental Capabilities and the author of 3 books (so far): Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way; Professional Presence; and PREP For Success. Originally a practicing veterinarian, she built a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. She founded Fundamental Capabilities to ‘pay it forward’ by providing career development workshops and coaching for women. ‘Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way’ is an ‘older sister in your pocket’ packed full of advice for young women on building their own independent and exciting life. 'Professional Presence' and PREP For Success' help you strengthen your spoken and unspoken communication and leadership presence.