Two ways of learning

Constant learning is of paramount importance for our success and personal growth. It is only natural then, if acknowledgment is prior to this, to crave the mental space to learn. But we often seem to be doing things the wrong way.

When mastering a subject, our brains actually use different types of processing. Barbara Oakley explains in A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (even if you flunked algebra) that our brain has two general modes of thinking. Those are focused and diffuse, and both of these are valuable and required in the learning process.

The focused mode is what we traditionally associate with learning. Read, dive deep, absorb. Eliminate distractions and get into the material. But we have grown to believe that this is the only way. We equate focusing and doing with learning.

But the focused mode is not the only one required for learning because we need time to process what we pick up, to get this new information integrated into our existing knowledge. We need time to make new connections. This is where the diffuse mode comes in.

Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. […] Diffuse-mode insights often flow from preliminary thinking that’s been done in the focused mode.

Relying solely on the focused mode to learn is a sure path to burnout. We need the diffuse mode to cement our ideas, put knowledge into memory and free up space for the next round of focused thinking. We need the diffuse mode to build wisdom.

Take time to think. Engage in thoughtful conversations. Don’t think about “free time” as lost time. And don’t ever be guilt-shamed if, in various circumstances, you decide your mind needs a break from mundane doings.

It might be the sole thing you need to achieve more.