Idea in short

In the realm of cognitive processes, two distinct modes of thinking, focused and diffuse thinking, play a crucial role in problem-solving, learning, and creativity. These modes, popularized by Barbara Oakley, offer unique approaches that tap into different aspects of our cognitive abilities.

Focused Thinking

Focused thinking is a concentrated, conscious, and sequential mode of thought that relies on established neural pathways and existing thought patterns. It enables us to analyze and solve problems methodically, understand familiar concepts, and engage in focused study. It relies on established neural pathways and existing thought patterns to analyze information, make logical connections, and generate solutions. Focused thinking is often employed when tackling familiar problems or studying specific concepts in depth. Focused thinking is like a directed jet of water, powerful and aimed in a single, predictable direction.

A software development team faced a complex programming challenge. They engaged in focused thinking to break down the problem, analyze it logically, and identify potential solutions. Through step-by-step analysis and rigorous testing, they successfully resolved the issue, leveraging their established knowledge and problem-solving skills.

Key Characteristics

  • Concentration: Focused thinking requires sustained attention and concentration on a particular task or problem. It involves directing cognitive resources toward a specific goal or objective, blocking out distractions, and immersing oneself in the subject matter
  • Sequential and Analytical: Focused thinking involves a step-by-step, systematic approach to problem-solving. It breaks down complex issues into smaller, manageable components, enabling individuals to analyze each part and identify potential solutions. This mode of thinking follows a logical progression and relies on established rules, procedures, and knowledge
  • Rational and Objective: Focused thinking is driven by logical reasoning and objective analysis. It emphasizes gathering relevant information, evaluating evidence, and drawing conclusions based on evidence and sound judgment. Emotions and biases are generally minimized during focused thinking to ensure a more objective and rational approach.


  • Methodical Problem-Solving: Focused thinking allows individuals to tackle complex problems by breaking them down into manageable parts. It enables systematic analysis, identification of root causes, and the formulation of effective solutions
  • Understanding Familiar Concepts: Focused thinking is instrumental in comprehending and internalizing familiar concepts. It enables individuals to apply their existing knowledge and thought patterns to understand and make sense of new information
  • Sequential Learning: Focused thinking is effective for sequential learning, where information is presented in a logical and progressive manner. It allows individuals to follow a structured curriculum or study plan, acquiring knowledge and skills in a step-by-step manner
  • Critical Thinking and Decision Making: Focused thinking facilitates critical thinking skills by encouraging individuals to evaluate evidence, weigh pros and cons, and make informed decisions based on logical reasoning. It helps in identifying potential biases and errors in thinking


  • Scientific Research: Scientists and researchers engage in focused thinking to design experiments, collect data, analyze results, and draw conclusions. They follow a systematic approach, adhering to established methodologies and principles to generate reliable and valid findings
  • Problem-Solving in Engineering: Engineers utilize focused thinking to analyze complex engineering problems, design solutions, and troubleshoot issues. They apply their knowledge of physics, mathematics, and engineering principles to devise effective and efficient solutions
  • Studying for exams: Students employ focused thinking when preparing for exams. They concentrate on specific subjects, review textbooks, take notes, and engage in focused study sessions to acquire and retain knowledge for examinations
  • Financial Analysis: Financial analysts use focused thinking to assess financial data, analyze market trends, and make investment recommendations. They apply analytical techniques, such as ratio analysis and financial modeling, to interpret data and inform decision-making


  • Narrow Focus: Focused thinking may result in a narrow perspective, limiting the ability to see alternative solutions or consider unconventional approaches to problems. It can hinder creativity and innovation when addressing complex or unfamiliar challenges
  • Overlooking Connections: Focused thinking may overlook potential connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts. It may miss opportunities for interdisciplinary insights and cross-pollination of ideas
  • Emotional Bias: Focused thinking can sometimes be influenced by emotional biases or preconceived notions, leading to subjective judgments and decision-making. It is essential to recognize and mitigate biases during the focused thinking process

Diffuse Thinking

Diffuse thinking is a cognitive mode characterized by a relaxed and subconscious mental state, allowing the mind to wander, daydream, and make unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. It is a divergent thinking process that enables innovative and creative problem-solving. Diffuse thinking is essential for learning new and unfamiliar concepts, as well as for fostering creativity and generating novel solutions to complex problems. It provides space for creativity, innovation, and the development of novel solutions. Diffuse thinking is comparable to a sprinkler system, showering mists of water in all directions, covering more ground in a lighter and unpredictable pattern.

A marketing team faced the challenge of creating a unique advertising campaign for a new product. They engaged in diffuse thinking by taking a break from structured brainstorming sessions and engaging in activities like going for walks, playing golf, or simply staring out of the window. During these moments, their minds wandered, and unexpected connections were made. Ultimately, they developed a groundbreaking campaign by merging ideas from unrelated industries, resulting in unprecedented success.

Key Characteristics

  • Relaxed State: Diffuse thinking occurs when the mind is in a relaxed state, free from the constraints of focused concentration. It is often associated with activities such as taking a walk, engaging in a leisurely activity, or simply daydreaming
  • Subconscious Processing: In diffuse thinking, the brain continues to process information and make connections subconsciously, even when the conscious mind is not actively engaged in a task. This subconscious processing allows for the integration of diverse information and the generation of unique insights
  • Unpredictable Associations: Diffuse thinking enables the mind to make unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated concepts or ideas. It allows for the exploration of tangential and unconventional paths, fostering innovative thinking and creative problem-solving


  • Creativity and Innovation: Diffuse thinking is closely linked to creative thinking. By allowing the mind to wander and make unconventional associations, it opens up new possibilities and fuels the generation of innovative ideas. It enables individuals to think outside the box and approach problems from different angles
  • Integration of Knowledge: Diffuse thinking facilitates the integration of new information with existing knowledge. It allows for the formation of connections between unfamiliar concepts and previously learned material, leading to a deeper understanding and synthesis of ideas
  • Problem-Solving: Diffuse thinking is particularly effective in tackling complex problems that require a fresh perspective. By exploring diverse avenues of thought and allowing the subconscious mind to process information, diffuse thinking can lead to breakthrough solutions that may not be immediately apparent through focused thinking alone


  • Design and Innovation: Diffuse thinking plays a crucial role in design processes and innovation. Designers often engage in activities that promote diffuse thinking, such as sketching, mind mapping, and exploring unrelated domains. These practices help them generate new ideas and push the boundaries of conventional design thinking
  • Scientific Discovery: Diffuse thinking is instrumental in scientific discovery. Researchers often experience “Eureka” moments when insights or breakthroughs occur during moments of relaxation or leisure. These moments of diffuse thinking allow for the integration of disparate information and the emergence of new theories or hypotheses
  • Creative Industries: Diffuse thinking is central to the creative industries, including fields such as art, music, and writing. Artists and musicians often engage in activities that promote diffuse thinking, such as immersing themselves in nature, visiting art exhibitions, or engaging in free-form improvisation. These practices stimulate creative thinking and help artists develop unique and original works


While diffuse thinking is a powerful cognitive mode, it also has its limitations:

  • Lack of Control: Diffuse thinking is subconscious and undirected by nature. While one can create conditions that are conducive to diffuse thinking, such as engaging in relaxing activities, it is challenging to consciously direct the specific thoughts or connections that may arise during diffuse thinking
  • Need for Focused Thinking: Diffuse thinking is most effective when combined with focused thinking. Focused thinking provides the necessary foundation of knowledge and analytical skills that diffuse thinking can build upon. Without a solid understanding of the problem or subject matter, diffuse thinking may lead to unfocused and unproductive wandering of the mind.

Power Of Both Modes

While focused and diffuse thinking operate in different ways, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the real power lies in harnessing both modes and cycling between them for optimal results.

A design team in an automotive company was tasked with creating a revolutionary concept car. They initially employed focused thinking to research and understand the current market, customer preferences, and technical limitations. Once armed with this knowledge, they transitioned to diffuse thinking by engaging in open-ended discussions, creative brainstorming sessions, and exposure to unrelated industries. This combination allowed them to generate groundbreaking design ideas that merged cutting-edge technology with futuristic aesthetics, leading to a highly successful concept car that received international acclaim.

Story Of The Legends

Have you ever experienced a moment of brilliance right before falling asleep, only to have it vanish from your mind by the time you wake up?

Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison faced the same dilemma, but instead of being frustrated, they found a way to leverage this phenomenon.

Dali and Edison recognized the transition from a wakeful conscious state to deep slumber as a rich creative space. They would engage in Focused Thinking, deliberately framing a challenge or holding an idea in their minds, and then allow themselves to drift into the realm of Diffuse Thinking as they started to fall asleep.

However, rather than fully surrendering to sleep, Dali and Edison employed techniques to jolt themselves back into wakefulness and regain Focused Thinking. Dali used a heavy key, while Edison relied on a handful of ball bearings. This unique combination enabled them to capture the memories and connections formed in their subconscious minds. Please note that while Dali openly discussed this approach, the story about Edison is more of a legend and lacks verification.

Case Study – Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar Animation Studios, renowned for their creativity and innovation, provides a compelling case study on the application of focused and diffuse thinking in the entertainment industry. Pixar embraces a culture that encourages employees to shift between intense focus and relaxed exploration, fueling their creative process.

During the production of the film Toy Story, the team encountered numerous challenges and creative roadblocks. They applied focused thinking to address technical and narrative issues by meticulously refining the script and animating scenes.

However, they also recognized the importance of diffuse thinking in fostering creativity. The team engaged in plussing sessions, where they openly shared ideas, encouraged wild suggestions, and explored uncharted territories. This allowed them to tap into their diffuse thinking mode, enabling unexpected connections and breakthrough solutions. The outcome was a groundbreaking film that revolutionized the animation industry and became a global success.

Case Study – Google’s 20% Time

Google, known for its innovation-driven culture, introduced the concept of 20% Time, allowing employees to dedicate a portion of their work hours to personal projects unrelated to their assigned tasks. This initiative reflects the integration of focused and diffuse thinking in a corporate setting.

By providing dedicated time for employees to explore their passions and pursue personal projects, Google taps into the power of diffuse thinking. During this time, employees engage in unstructured exploration, collaborate with colleagues from different departments, and experiment with new ideas. As a result, significant innovations such as Gmail and Google News have emerged from these personal projects, demonstrating the power of diffuse thinking in fostering groundbreaking ideas within a corporate environment.

Focused and diffuse thinking offer distinct yet complementary approaches to problem-solving, learning, and creativity. While focused thinking provides the structure and analytical prowess necessary for tackling familiar challenges, diffuse thinking unleashes the power of the subconscious mind, leading to unexpected connections and innovative solutions. By integrating both modes and cycling between them, individuals and organizations can unlock their full potential and drive meaningful progress. Real-world case studies from companies like Pixar and Google demonstrate how embracing these thinking modes has fueled innovation and propelled success. So, whether you’re facing a complex problem or seeking creative inspiration, remember to leverage the power of both focused and diffuse thinking to unleash your full cognitive potential.

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