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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles   |   Mar 3, 2024

Thinking creatively about tough problems: the power of diffuse thinking (for you and your students)

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Thinking creatively about tough problems: the power of diffuse thinking (for you and your students)

By Angela Watson

Have you ever noticed how breakthroughs often come when you’re not actively trying to find a solution?

That’s diffuse thinking at work: a relaxed state in which creativity flourishes.

On this episode of the Truth for Teachers Podcast, I’ll share how stepping back can lead us forward. It turns out that intense concentration isn’t always the best approach to problem-solving, and we can instead let our minds wander through the meandering paths of diffuse thinking.

Focused thinking is a bit like a flashlight — intense & concentrated. Diffuse thinking is like ambient room lighting — gentle & expansive. When you (or students) can’t concentrate, you can harness the power of diffuse thinking. This shift in mindset from focused to diffuse can spark innovation and creativity.

Read or listen to discover how to use diffuse thinking when you’ve pushed your limits in focused thinking, and harness the power of diffuse thinking overnight during sleep. (Your dreams can be a powerful tool for problem-solving, too!)

You’ll also learn how you can teach your students to tap into the power of diffuse thinking. I’ll share how to incorporate “thinking walks” into your instruction, try sky gazing with students as a productive mental break, prime students for their next lesson with a question that requires diffuse thinking.

Listen to the audio below,
or subscribe in your podcast app

Sponsored by Erikson Institute

Focused thinking vs. diffuse thinking

Think about a time you had to solve a challenging problem and figure out your best course of action. Maybe you needed to figure out a scheduling conflict in your day, such as how you’d make time for a family obligation AND your second job or side hustle. Maybe you had to decide which job openings to apply to, or which online classes to take for continuing education credits. Maybe you had to figure out how to make a limited budget cover all the things you wanted or needed to buy, and prioritize them.

How quickly did you make your decision, and what were you doing while you tried to decide?

When faced with a challenging problem, most people try to concentrate on it until they find a solution. They might make a pros/cons list, or talk it over with other people. Many people feel like they can’t relax until the problem is solved. They might even wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and their mind might wander to the problem throughout the day.

Brain science suggests that when we don’t know the solution to a problem, concentrating on it for too long might not be the best approach.

Instead, we can utilize two models of thinking that were popularized by an author and college professor named Barbara Oakley.

The first is focused thinking, which is the type of highly concentrated effort toward problem-solving that most of us try to use. It’s intense, and very much like a bright spotlight or flashlight shining only on the problem we need to solve, with everything else in darkness.

The second type is diffuse thinking, which is a more relaxed way of thinking. Diffuse means to spread out or dispersed in different directions. If focused thinking is like a spotlight, diffuse thinking is like ambient room lighting that isn’t focused on anything in particular. Diffused light is soft: there’s no glare, scattered. Diffuse light comes from all directions.

Diffuse thinking works in much the same way: we’re not sitting down and concentrating deeply like we do during focused thinking. We’re allowing our minds to wander, and our thoughts to drift softly in many different directions.

Focused thinking is a conscious practice: something we do intentionally. Diffuse thinking occurs largely on the subconscious level, and that can enable us to make surprising connections and come up with creative solutions.

You may have experienced diffuse thinking while driving or riding on a long open road. Your brain is partially focused on the drive but it may also wander to song lyrics, memories of earlier experiences, or anticipation of the future. This is how diffuse thinking works: you’re not telling your brain to concentrate on reading a text or solve a problem or get a task done: you’re letting your thoughts come and go from many different directions.

This is why so many of our most creative ideas, profound insights, important questions, and useful solutions come when we’re in the car. We’re using diffuse thinking.

And, you’ve probably experienced diffuse thinking naturally when taking a shower or bath, walking in nature, while cooking or cleaning around the house, while listening to music, while staring out the window, or even just while laying in bed and staring at the ceiling.

The critical mindset shift to make here is this:

When a person appears to be staring off into space or daydreaming, they’re not necessarily “doing nothing” or “wasting time.” They might not be doing focused thinking, but diffuse thinking is happening, and that can be just as valuable.

The key is to know when to use each type of thinking.

Focused thinking is great for studying and solving familiar problems. That’s because when you’re using focused thinking, you’re dependent on your established neural pathways and existing thought patterns. Focused thinking is most of what’s necessary for daily work in schools, both for educators and for students.

Diffuse thinking is great for solving unfamiliar problems and coming up with new ideas. During diffuse thinking times, your subconscious mind is able to make unexpected connections instead of just traveling down the same established thought patterns. New neural pathways are created and you think in more innovative ways and connect unfamiliar ideas for more familiar ones.

So, the next time you’re trying to solve a big problem and focused thinking isn’t bringing you to the solution, try diffuse thinking.

2 regular opportunities you have to try diffuse thinking

#1 Use diffuse thinking when you’ve pushed your limits in focused thinking

One approach for incorporating diffuse thinking in problem-solving is to focus your thinking just until you “hit a wall” and feel like you’re not coming up with any more good ideas, then switch to diffuse thinking.

When you know you’re not getting closer to the solution and just getting frustrated, take a break. Go for a walk or bike ride, or even a drive if that’s possible. Do something creative, like painting, or something playful that allows you to have fun and feel like a little kid again. When you’re doing these activities, allow your mind to drift in different directions.

You may find that the solution comes to you naturally, but don’t feel discouraged if it doesn’t. You’re still opening your mind up to new and creative possibilities by practicing diffuse thinking.

The following day after you’ve had some diffuse thinking and sleep, try some focused thinking again. You may very well find that your brain is able to get much closer to the solution and consider new possibilities during your focused thinking now that you’ve had some diffuse thinking time.

#2 Use the power of diffuse thinking while sleeping

Another way to tap into the power of diffuse thinking is really fun because you get to utilize time that you don’t otherwise think of as productive, and that’s when you’re sleeping.

Sleep is often considered a mysterious state where our bodies and minds temporarily shut down. But being in a sleep state is not a waste of time in terms of problem-solving, as the brain is highly active in many ways when we’re asleep.

One of the primary functions of sleep, especially during the deep stages of non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, is memory consolidation. Throughout the day, your brain processes and stores information in the short-term memory. While you sleep, these memories are transferred to long-term storage. This process helps you retain what you’ve learned during the day, which is essential for problem-solving when you‘re awake.

When you’re asleep, your brain continues to work on unresolved problems and may even provide you with solutions in the form of dreams or creative insights when you wake up. If you’ve been trying to figure out something while awake that day, your brain will continue  to process and consolidate these skills during sleep by replaying and reinforcing neural connections formed during the day,

Dreaming is an important part of this. Dreams allow your brain to process emotions and experiences, helping you make sense of your daily life. So to tap into the power of diffuse thinking, you can tap into the power of sleep!

Some people like to think about the problem they want to solve right before taking a nap or going to bed at night, and intentionally prime their subconscious to focus on the problem while they’re sleeping. They might uncover the answer in a dream or suddenly know what to do when they wake up.

One word of caution that’s probably occurred to you: thinking about a tough problem right before sleeping could keep you awake, especially if you have anxiety. I’ve found that this works best when it’s a creative problem to solve and not something that’s stressing me out.

For example, thinking about a problem before sleep has been helpful when it’s something related to organization or decoration (like pondering how to rearrange furniture or what style of new curtains to buy). This also works well for me. I need to find possibilities beyond what I’ve considered, such as selecting ideas for writing a new book; coming up with a good gift idea for a person who’s difficult to buy for; brainstorming fun activities to do when visiting family, and so on.

I do not intentionally think about financial issues, interpersonal conflicts, health problems, or other stressful problems right before bed. But, I still find sleep can give me helpful insights on these things because they run in the background of my mind throughout the day, and therefore can be addressed by my brain when I’m asleep through the dreaming process.

I often wake after a strange dream and try to recall its significance. With practice, it becomes easier to see how my brain is trying to sort through intense feelings and anxieties, and a piece of wisdom often surfaces.

One recurring dream I’ve had over the years is that I’m in college again and show up for the first day of classes and realize I’ve forgotten to enroll, and it’s too late to do so and I’ll have to miss the entire semester, putting me half a year behind my planned schedule for graduation. When I have this dream, that’s an indicator to me that I have an important task on my plate that I’m afraid I’ll forget to handle, which will throw off my future plans in a domino effect. My brain processes this anxiety through the dream. I may not even be consciously aware that there’s a task hanging over my head, but when this dream occurs, I take a closer look and see if I’ve been procrastinating on something that I need to attend to.

That’s just a little aside–I could do an entire episode about tapping into the power of your subconscious mind through dreaming–but to return to our topic of diffuse thinking…just know that dreams are an effortless way to experience diffuse thinking and see problems in a whole new light.

If you’ve ever found it worthwhile to  “sleep on it” when you can’t make a decision, diffuse thinking is why it’s effective! We’re taking a break from focused thinking by letting our subconscious mind have a crack at it.

You can practice switching between focused thinking and diffuse thinking and notice how each one impacts the other. Diffuse thinking and daydreaming can help support your focused thinking, and vice versa.

How to teach students to tap into the power of diffuse thinking

Depending on their age level, you also teach your students the power of diffuse thinking.

Explain to them, “When you’ve been concentrating for a long time and feel like you’re not making any more progress, take a break from sitting and focusing. Have a drink of water or a snack, move around a little, stretch, gaze out the window. All of these things help you rest the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is the part that helps you concentrate.”

Incorporate “thinking walks” into your instruction

You can also provide students with opportunities to harness the power of diffuse thinking. For example, try a “thinking walk.” Take your class on a 5-10 minute walk outside around the track or field if your school has one, or around an outdoor hallway or other space you have access to. This should be a silent time in which students aren’t in a tight line or group but allowed to move their bodies, get fresh air and sunlight, look up at the sky, and activate a different part of their brain as a break from concentration.

You can prime students beforehand with a particular problem to solve, such as, “What topic would you like to select for your project? I’m going to give you a couple of minutes to brainstorm at your seat and write down your ideas, and then we’re going to do a 5-minute thinking walk where you consider the different possibilities and select one.”

Try sky gazing with students as a productive mental break

If a thinking walk isn’t practical for your classes, try a sky gaze instead. There’s actually an entire field of study called Skychology, which examines the benefits of looking up at the sky and its impacts on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Coaching psychologist Paul Conway says, “Looking up at the sky can have an immediate positive impact on our mood, helps us view problems from a new angle, and gives us the mental space to innovate. The sky is a big space, so you get a sense of perspective and a feeling of being a part of something bigger than oneself.”

In the classroom, this could look like simple window gazing. You’ve probably noticed that your students do this intuitively–they’re supposed to have their heads down and focused on the wire work, but some of them are staring up at the ceiling or gazing out the window. Looking up and out is a natural human way to tap into the power of diffuse thinking when focused thinking has become difficult. I frequently do this when I’m trying to think of the right word or recall a specific date, for example…I automatically look up and out toward the sky without even realizing it.

Now, you probably don’t want kids randomly walking over to a window and staring out in the middle of your lesson, but you can introduce window gazing as a learning strategy that taps into the power of diffuse thinking.

You might tell students, “When you’re stuck on a problem, it’s okay to take a break from focusing and let your mind wander. You can stand up and walk over to the window and look out for a minute or two to clear your head. Try to look upward toward the sky, which can help you get a bigger perspective on what you’ve been thinking about. Breathe in and out deeply while you’re window gazing. Then walk back to your seat. It’s okay to do this during stations or independent work as long as you’re not distracting or talking to anyone.” 

Set clear guidelines on what’s allowed and what’s not, maybe having students stay seated for the first week or two you implement this before gradually allowing permission to also stand, stretch, and hang out by the window.

Prime them for the next lesson with a question that requires diffuse thinking

Another way to help students use the power of diffuse thinking is by ending your class with a question that you want them to ponder.

You might say, “Tomorrow, we’re going to be learning about XYZ.  I want you to do some diffuse thinking between now and then, maybe while you’re on the bus this afternoon, or walking your dog this evening, or getting ready for school in the morning. See how many different ways you can think of for XYZ, brainstorm all the possibilities, and come back tomorrow ready to share some of them. Don’t sit down and think and write it down–that’s focused thinking. Tap into the part of your brain that solves problems creatively and thinks outside the box.”


Use the Finding Flow Solutions curriculum to teach kids about managing their attention

If you teach at the high school level, I have a 10-lesson unit of instruction on the topic of teaching kids to focus their attention. It includes a lesson on harnessing the power of diffuse thinking and unfocused attention. The lesson takes 15-20 minutes to implement and has slides you show to the class that explains everything for you and guides you through the activities together, including a student journal page that helps kids reflect on the topic.

The unit is called Finding Flow Solutions: Focused Attention, and it teaches students that it’s okay to struggle with focusing, how to take productive breaks from concentration, how to create healthy phone habits and manage distraction, how to use movement to do better focused work, build concentration stamina, tolerate and push through boredom and procrastination, and even introduces students to Cal Newport’s research on Deep Work vs. Shallow Work.

There’s a middle school version, as well, which doesn’t teach diffuse thinking explicitly but does scaffold students’ learning around that concept and focusing their attention.

Learn more at FindingFlowSolutions.com, or purchase at shop.truthforteachers.com.

It’s a really powerful curriculum unit and one of my favorite ones that I created. If you want a done-for-you unit that teaches secondary students everything I’ve shared here and more, go to shop.truthforteachers.com to purchase. We offer school licensing and accept purchase orders if you want to get funding from your district, and have a downloadable PDF brochure you can share with your administrators.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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