Ever get really stuck on something while you're meant to be studying? Like YouTube videos, Wordle, a "debate" with your partner, or literally everything but what we're meant to be focusing on? It happens to every student from time to time, even the top ones. And when we hit that point, taking a positive step towards focusing can be extraodinarily hard; so much so, that we just end up chasing the next squirrel that distracts us because it feels easier.

What's the solution? Well, there are two approaches recommended by learning experts, the first being to push through the distraction and give your full concentration to a subject, and the second, to actually embrace the distraction. In this article, we're going to tell you about both so that you can leverage your unique cognitive hardwiring to expedite your way back to productive studying!

(Speaking of which, check out Brainscape's (free) ultimate guide to studying effectively!)

Optimal thinking patterns for optimal learning

Thinking: focused vs diffuse thinking

As it turns out, the two approaches to overcoming distraction I just told you about line up with the two modes our brains use to process information: focused and diffuse thinking. One isn't better than the other; they're just different and undertstanding them can give you a pathway back to becoming productive again when you feel stuck in a rut. So let's take a closer look at each ...

What is focused thought?

Focused thinking is, well, focused! In other words, zeroed in like a laser on a singular task, like studying. We use focused thinking when we are really concentrating on doing something, whether it's solving a math problem, working through flashcards in Brainscape, or having an important conversation with a loved one.

Focused thinking is a highly attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities in the prefrontal cortex to ignore all extraneous information. And because of this, it's the preferred method for studying (and memorizing) knowledge-intensive subjects. Makes sense, right?

When we are in our focused mode of thinking, it’s like we have a one-track mind for the matter at hand. And whether we are practicing a specific skill like playing guitar chords or slogging through a specific math problem, focused thinking allows us to zoom directly in on the most pertinent information.

(If you need help sharpening your brain's ability to focus, particularly while studying, check out our Academy guide: 'I can't concentrate!' How to focus better when studying.)

Now, let's turn our attention to the brain's other mode of thought...

What is diffuse thought?

What is diffuse thinking

Diffuse thinking, on the other hand, doesn't zoom in on one particular thing. Rather, it looks at the "big picture"... that 30,000-foot view of a task, topic, or problem. Diffuse thinking happens when you let your mind wander freely, making those random connections that are essential for creativity.

Now, this isn't restricted to any particular region of the brain, but rather it happens all over. In fact, that's the beauty of diffuse thinking: your brain has the opportunity to consider all information (and therefore connect the dots) outside of that limited, hyper-focused view.

Usually, we employ diffuse thinking when we do non-work tasks like taking a shower or going for a run. But—and here's the interesting thing—while focused thinking is most often employed when we work or study, our greatest creativity and problem-solving happen when we are thinking diffusely!

This is why taking a break from studying or "sleeping on it" can actually lead to important breakthroughs. While your conscious mind is relaxed, your brain is able to form a creative solution to a problem or finally link ideas that have been eluding you.

Flashlight shining a light; diffuse thinking

Both types of thinking can be used to train the brain on a topic; they simply do so differently. To illustrate this point, consider a flashlight. You can have a concentrated beam of light that only illuminates a small area very brightly or you can have a less concentrated beam that illuminates a much broader area with more diffuse light.

With focused thinking, your brain processes very specific information deeply; with diffuse thinking, the brain analyzes much more information at once but in less depth. Just like both flashlights will take you out of the dark, both modes of thinking will help you understand a subject better. Which one will work better for you simply depends on whether you want to see the big picture or the small details.

I love a good metaphor!

(Spaced repetition is also a fundamental principle for more efficient learning: here's the science behind one of the most important cognitive learning tools you could ever employ.)

So, now the question is ...

Which is more important: focused vs. diffuse thinking?

Which mode of thinking is better for learning: focused vs. diffuse thinking? As it turns out, neither is better than the other; they're just different.

While these two modes of thinking appear to work in opposition to each other, both are required to master a topic or make progress on a difficult project. After all, when you are learning something new, you need to understand both the context for the information (diffuse) and the specifics of the subject (focused).

What this means is that alternating between focused and diffuse thinking is the best way to master a subject or solve a difficult problem. First, we use the focused mode of thinking to understand the basics of a topic without any distractions. Then we use the diffuse mode to passively internalize what we have learned and make connections to other things we already knew. Afterward, we go back into focused mode and pare down the connections that we made to the best, most helpful ones.

Once you have repeated this process a few times, you'll find the information really stick in your memory!

In fact, too much focus really can be a bad thing when it comes to problem-solving. The longer we keep our brains in focused mode, the more we experience tunnel vision, and outside-the-box thinking becomes impossible.

This phenomenon (known as the Einstellung effect) hampers our ability to reset the parameters or premise of the problem and, in doing so, blocks creativity. That’s why when you’re feeling stuck or frustrated with a topic, it’s best to step back and take a break to let the diffuse mode run for a while. Too much diffuse thinking, on the other hand, will prevent you from truly understanding and memorizing the details.

Our brain has two modes for good reasons: we need them both in order to really understand and process information and file it away in our memories. So, take advantage of them both when you’re learning to see better results. And if nothing else, you finally have a scientific excuse to take that nap you want!

(Read: 'How to build strong study habits' to eliminate the inertia you feel when you need to get work done.)

Learn more efficiently with Brainscape

Brainscape laptop and mobile

The brain's constant switching between focused and diffuse thinking is just one of the many reasons why Brainscape—the world's smartest study and flashcard app—is such an effective study tool: it makes it easy for you to switch between focused learning in any free time you might have and then return to your daily activities, where you can then process what you learn.

We also have an extensive Knowledge Genome of pre-made flashcards curated by millions of experts, educators, and top students all over the world for just about every subject under the sun; or you can make your own simple flashcards at absolutely no cost to you! (There's no reason to not take advantage of the power of spaced repetition in your hands wherever you are.)

And remember that we don't only offer study tools, but also study wisdom. Since the Brainscape team has decades of experience working and building a successful learning platform, we bring to you, for free, the best learn tools, tips, and tricks in our Academy and YouTube channel so be sure to check those out.

Best of luck in your learning endeavors!