If a work problem has you stumped, or you’re struggling with writer’s block, you probably need to rethink how you’re thinking. Seriously. There are two main modes of thinking, and one — known as diffuse thinking — is better for creative work.
If the human brain were a car, it would have two basic gears: focused and diffuse. Focused thinking is pretty self-explanatory. It’s sort of like thinking in close-up — you’re zoomed in on a specific problem, blocking out the rest of the world. This mode is extremely useful for mastering technical skills, like shooting free throws or reducing fractions.
Focused thought is also what you default to when you’re under stress. If your house is burning down, you focus on the immediate tasks (escape, calling 911), rather than how the fire relates to public policy issues or Billy Joel’s oeuvre.
Diffuse thinking, meanwhile, works in the opposite way. Rather than focusing tightly on a specific issue, diffuse thinking zooms out, allowing you to see the big picture and make loose, general connections. Diffuse thought is key to innovating, reframing intractable problems, and collaborating across departments or disciplines.
Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a catch-22 that creative problems are best solved by diffuse thought. In school and the workplace, we often have to solve creative problems on a deadline, which puts us under stress and triggers focused thought. When it’s not suited to the task at hand, focused thinking can feel like a rut, or thinking in circles … or writer’s block.
So, how can you shift gears?
Three Tips for Diffuse Thinking
1. Make failure impossible. You think more diffusely when you’re calm, so it can help to tweak the way you think about your project. Instead of thinking, “I have to figure this out” or “I must have this done by tomorrow,” think in more exploratory terms. Try “I’m going to see if this works,” or “I’m throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks.” And voilà — you can’t fail! (Or, in more technical terms, you’ve established “psychological safety.”)
2. Take a break. You can also think of diffuse thinking as “letting your mind wander.” This is the opposite of ceaseless work and hyper-efficiency, and yet it’s essential to creative problem-solving. Changing what you’re doing helps your brain change what it’s doing and break free of its focused-thought patterns.
Naps and walks both make great breaks. It might sound a little lazy, but it’s true: Nothing resets your brain like sleep. (The moments right before and after a nap can be especially fruitful for creativity.) Walking, too, can help shake up your thinking, and the mild distraction of basic walking tasks — moving your legs, not running into walls — frees up your brain.
3. Change locations. If you’re stuck in a mental rut and you’re able, walk to a place that makes you happy, whether that’s a wild nature preserve or an ultra-clean coffee shop. Some spaces are just more conducive to diffuse thought than others.
Check out my related post: How to Make It Stick?