To Try or Not to Try?

01.11.2017 |

Episode #3 of the course How to have breakthrough ideas by Eileen Purdy


Ever wonder why some of your best ideas or breakthrough solutions to your problems come when you’re taking a shower? Or out for a leisurely walk? Or while looking out the window and daydreaming? Well, it turns out these things aren’t random happenings, they are the fruitful expression of how our two major thinking modes work together.


Two Modes of Thinking

Scientists have found that we have two fundamental modes when thinking: task-positive network mode and default network mode. These two modes are also commonly referred to in terms of focused thinking and diffuse thinking, and that’s how I’ll refer to them going forward.

Focused thinking is just how it sounds. You are putting your attention and focus onto whatever you are doing. Focused thinking is activated when you’re working, learning, organizing, making decisions, or doing any conscious type of thinking. As a matter of fact, you are using your focused thinking to read and understand this lesson right now.

Diffused thinking, on the other hand, occurs when you aren’t occupied with explicit mental tasks. It is a neural resting state that allows the consolidation of your thoughts to occur. Far from resting, your brain is behind the scenes making connections, seeing patterns, extrapolating incongruities, and gearing up for insights. To you, it may seem like you are daydreaming, zoning out, mind-wandering, or anything along those lines. Diffuse thinking also includes those times you are taking a rest or doing things on autopilot, like showering or taking a leisurely walk.


How They Work Together

Most of us learn to highly value our focused thinking time. Maybe that’s when we “feel” like we are doing something, making gains, or succeeding.

But it’s important to note that diffused thinking is the essential partner to focused thinking for all inventions, innovations, and amazing ideas in general. The focused thinking creates the right environment of long periods of mental preparation and incubation, and then the diffuse thinking creates the right environment for a breakthrough moment to strike when the mind is relaxed. You simply won’t have the breakthroughs without toggling back and forth between your focused thinking mode and diffused thinking mode.


Strengthening Your Focused Thinking

The tool described below, when practiced regularly, can help strengthen your ability to get the most out of your focused thinking brain. This exercise or practice that has been shown to improve one’s ability to concentrate and focus is aptly named Focused Attention Meditation. Focused meditation is something everyone can do at home without an instructor or teacher. All you need is a few minutes of time, a quiet place, and something to focus on. Here are your six steps:

1. Choose a target for your focus. It can literally be anything. I suggest using your breath because you always have it with you!

2. Get into a comfortable position. Relax your body. Loosen your shoulders and breathe from your belly. I suggest sitting in a way that is comfortable where you can fully relax without falling asleep.

3. Focus on the sensation of your target. Allow your attention to fall totally on the experience of your target object. If it is your breath, continually feel the inhale and exhale through your nose.

4. Calm your inner voice. If your internal voice gets distracted from your target and starts to rehash stressful situations of the day, worry about the future, make a list for grocery shopping, or anything else, gently turn your attention back to your chosen target of focus.

5. Don’t worry about failure. If you find yourself distracted from your target, don’t let your inner perfectionist beat you up for doing it wrong. Simply congratulate yourself for noticing, and return back to the present moment and the sensations it has to offer.

6. Start small and set a timer. Start with the goal of doing your focused attention meditation for a short period of time, maybe two to five minutes. Work your way up to as many minutes as you want. Set a timer so you aren’t constantly interrupting your meditation to check the time. The benefits come from consistently doing this exercise, not by doing marathon sessions every once in awhile.

Tomorrow, you’ll learn how to activate and strengthen your diffused thinking brain.


Recommended reading

Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime


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