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. Even if relaxing, Netflix occupies your full attention and leaves little room for other thoughts.

In contrast, diffuse mode 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.

But how do you enter diffuse mode? Here's a list of activities that may help you access diffuse mode thinking, most of which I've tried myself. Many of them you can even do within working hours.

  1. Exercise: go jogging, to the gym, etc
  2. Take a walk: in the city, in a park, or (ideally) in the nature
  3. Take a nap: 20 minutes is enough
  4. Work on a jigsaw puzzle – but one that doesn't require too much concentration
  5. Take a hot bath or shower (or go to a spa!)
  6. Meditate (in any tradition you prefer, e.g. breathing meditation)
  7. Do yoga or tai chi
  8. Doodle, draw, paint, or sculpt
  9. Listen to music (without doing anything else in parallel)
  10. Play a musical instrument (idly, without too much concentration)
  11. Journal: open a text document and start dumping the contents of your brain
  12. Get a massage
  13. Dance!

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 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 permission to take this time and see for yourself.