Ever had that moment when you have been stuck trying to think of a certain word, and then it comes to you as soon as you stop thinking about it? It can be so frustrating.
There’s actually a scientific reason to why this happens, and it all comes down to taking breaks.
Many of us (myself included) don’t take breaks when we work. We are either too busy or feel uncomfortable stopping, especially in a professional setting. There is an expectation to be working from start to finish in the eight hours we are in the office, not walking around talking to people. And I think many office environments make people feel guilty if they don’t share the 24/7 hour work mentality.
When our brains are working hard, breaks are more important than ever and the science backs it up.
Focused vs. Diffused Thinking
Our brains have two types of modes: focused and diffused thinking. Focused thinking is fairly clear – it’s when you’re totally focused on the problem. We put on blinders to the rest of the world and concentrate only on one thing at a time. All of our energy goes towards the matter at hand and we ignore any extraneous information. It allows us to zoom in on the most valuable information.
Diffused thinking is the exact opposite, where we take a step back and look at the big picture. Instead of following one track, our brain is allowed to wander freely and make connections at random. It’s when our creativity can come out to play (and usually the best solutions are a bit creative).
Diffused thinking happens while our bodies are doing something else. Ever found the perfect solution while you were in the shower or out on a run? That’s the diffused mind at work. Tech companies like Google and Netflix have lounges that focus on “play time.” You’ll find games like foosball and ping pong, where employees can enjoy a game and give their mind the free space it needs to enter into diffused mode. To many employers, this may seem counterintuitive, but by allowing the mind to run free while playing a friendly game of foosball, employees are able to make connections they otherwise may not make. The can zoom out on the problem and subconsciously view it from all levels.
The Flashlight Analogy
In focused thinking, your brain looks at one thing very deeply, while in diffused thinking, your brain looks at many things on a surface level. Think of a bright flashlight. You have a concentrated beam of light that illuminates one small area very clearly, but the rest is dark (that’s focused thinking). A dim lamp that illuminates much more, but with less light, would be diffused thinking. Both are valuable and necessary to see what’s around you.
The Importance of Using Both Types of Thinking
It’s important we utilize both forms of thinking when problem solving. Extended periods of focused thinking blocks our creativity and keeps us from thinking differently (called the Einstellung effect). Only using diffused thinking prevents us from ever seeing anything clearly.
We tend to think that focused thinking is the best, and only way, to solve problems. Have you ever felt guilty for chatting with a friend at work? Or taking a walk around the building in the middle of the day to clear your mind? Our society has the impression that taking breaks is the opposite of working hard, when in fact, it’s an important factor in solving problems.
Even Einstein Took Breaks
Even Einstein, one of the most brilliant men to ever walk the planet, understood the power of breaks. His wife often caught him taking down a few notes of study, then going to the piano of violin and playing for a while, and then going back to his study to write something down. He was a master of power napping. Sometimes, he would sit in his chair and do absolutely nothing. I have no doubt that he would be ridiculed as a slacker by today’s standards for practicing such a relaxed “work ethic.” And yet, by making a choice to let his mind wander, his discoveries paved the way for modern science and his intellectual capabilities will be renowned for centuries to come.
“I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.” — Albert Einstein
Next time you’re stuck on a problem, let your mind go blank for a bit. Take a walk, play a mindless game, or doodle for a few minutes. Taking breaks and allowing our mind to go into diffused mode is essential to our productivity and problem solving skills.
If you want to learn more, there’s an awesome Coursera Course on the topic. Coursera is like an online college, with courses taught by instructors from well known universities on any subject you can think of. The course that covers this topic is called Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects, and it’s a gold mine. Talk about brain hacks. Whether you work or you’re in school, the course gives you access to invaluable learning techniques to change the way you think and the way you learn. If you don’t want to pay for the certification, the course is completely free. Either way, it’s a great investment in yourself.
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