Diffuse mode: thinking by relaxing

Diffuse mode: thinking by relaxing
Photo by Thom Holmes / Unsplash

I recently started drinking coffee again. Caffeine has always had the effect of narrowing my focus and reducing mind-wandering. The downside is, caffeine makes me less likely to get into diffuse mode, the other main mode of thinking.

Focused mode means taking a direct, head-on approach to work: writing an email on your laptop, reading an article, or cooking from a recipe. Even leisure activities can be focused: playing an engaging video game can make you focus more than anything you do at work. Netflix, even if relaxing, also occupies your full attention and leaves little room for other thoughts.

In contrast, diffuse mode is what happens when you relax and let your mind wander. It tends to happen during a nature walk, a long shower, meditation, or before sleep. If you imagine your mind as a plot of land, then focused mode carefully cultivates every part of it. Diffuse mode leaves it clear so that wildlife can arise in its unpredictable complexity.

Since I re-started my coffee habit, I noticed I rarely enter diffuse mode. That's the downside of caffeine: it helps with focus but makes it harder to step back and look at the big picture and connect different ideas.

It feels like diffuse mode thoughts force themselves into your mind even if you spend all your time in focused mode. They bubble up before you fall asleep. They're important enough not to ignore, but it's hard to act on anything in the bed, in the dark. Often you end up thinking intensely for hours before finally falling asleep.

It's better to weave diffuse mode into your schedule: a short walk before lunch, a brief meditation in the afternoon, or even a time-block in your calendar for sitting with no particular goal and writing down whatever comes to mind. It might not feel like real work. It might seem like wasting your working hours. But it is real and more impactful than any other 15 minutes in the day.

You now have the permission to take this time and see for yourself.