Home » Education » Learning tough material? Take a break and do nothing for 15 minutes

Learning tough material? Take a break and do nothing for 15 minutes


Wordle: Seanog1982

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Focused thinking versus diffused thinking

Believe it or not, the best way to embed knowledge from study can be to take a break. Go to a quiet room and sit on the couch and do nothing for 10 to 15 minutes. Go outside and sit in the garden. Go for a walk. Make a cuppa. It’s up to you. The important thing is that you take a break from focus. Leave your smartphone in your pocket. Scrolling Facebook and Twitter requires focus and can interfere with embedding the new knowledge that you’ve just been learning.

When thinking about learning, consider that there are two basic modes of thinking – focused thinking and diffuse thinking.

Image credit: Dr. Barbara Oakley(https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn)

Focused mode is what happens when you concentrate. The brain actively zeros in on trying to come up with a solution to a problem or alternatively it might be trying to understand a concept or idea. Focused thinking is resource intensive, tiring and depending on successful you are at understanding the concept, it can be stressful.

The diffuse mode of thinking on the other hand, is when you’re not concentrating on anything. Instead, this is when your thoughts are firing randomly, like when you take a break, are in the shower or going for a walk.

The diffuse mode helps us to make connections between ideas that we might not have realised were connected. I like to call this symphonic thinking. The diffuse mode is the mode we fall into when we’re trying to consolidate and understand new information.

Note I used the words “fall into“. The diffuse mode only turns on when you aren’t thinking about anything in particular. It is a relaxed state when you aren’t actively thinking about anything else. It is the mode that does the background processing that helps us solve difficult problems and understand difficult concepts.

From a learning point of view, this is why when you’re concentrating on something and you just can’t work out the problem or understand the concept, the best thing you can do is to take a break and effectively stop concentrating on what you can’t understand. Why? Because taking a break and getting your attention off the difficult subject will trigger your diffuse mode of thinking and allow your brain to find new pathways for thinking about what you’re trying to understand. Later, when you return to focused thinking, you might find that you’ve actually made some progress.

This advice can seem counter intuitive, especially if you have a keynote coming up or an exam etc. If you are not convinced, I would encourage you to read this article which summarises some of the seminal research that indicates that a good way to boost memory retention is to take a break. It is well worth a read. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180208-an-effortless-way-to-strengthen-your-memory

My favourite quote from the article is: “In the age of information overload, it’s worth remembering that our smartphones aren’t the only thing that needs a regular recharge. Our minds clearly do too”.

Note: This article was first published on LinkedIn on 22nd February 2018.


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