The difference between productive people and those who spin their wheels has a lot to do with what has been coined focus vs diffuse thinking.
Thanks to advancements in neuroscience, we are able to understand how our brains work best. It helps to understand that first, we don’t multitask well. In fact, we suck at it. According to Daniel J. Levitin in his article “Why it’s so hard to pay attention, explained by science”, we only process at about 120 bits per second which means we can barely understand two conversations at the same time. Yet, we live in a world that includes 300 exabytes of information available to us – that’s 3 plus 20 zeroes!
Our brains have evolved over millennia to constantly monitor our environment. It has this governor-like attentional filter (remember when your dad put a governor on the accelerator of your beat-up hand-me down of a car when you were sixteen and learning to drive? Yeah, that kind of thing.) This attention filter protects us by ignoring the unimportant so that we can focus on — threats or opportunities for survival.
Understanding that our ability to pay attention is limited, what is an up-and-comer to do? Filter. Learn to set aside time to do the mundane, but necessary items. For me? I don’t want to think about what to wear in the morning when I’m the most productive in creating. So, on the weekend as I’m doing laundry, I set up my clothes for the week right down to socks and belts. I know it sounds a little nerdy, but this keeps me from frittering away that precious time for what I’d rather be doing.
But there’s one more, very important thing you should be doing.
Using procrastination to your advantage. If you are a natural procrastinator, I’m sorry to tell you, but even your procrastination has to be used intentionally. That is, IF you want to be successful.
I teach Humanities part-time as my part-time retirement gig. I love helping my students get to the “ah-ha”. I get my high from their successes, so one thing I do is a little coaching about personal habits of success which include not only what to do, but also what attitudes to develop. And, this trick has netted the most benefit for my students.
The idea is using diffuse thinking to enable our focused thinking to be more fruitful. The idea isn’t new. I first heard of it in an unlikely book for me to pick up: A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. She states that “We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable.” (Math makes me uncomfortable.) How true that is for a developing writer in my writing courses! You want me to write a 2-page paper about what??? Then the anxiety kicks in as well as the stinkin’ thinkin” (A nod to Zig Ziglar.) Sound familiar?
What if I told you that using procrastination helps you when you have something to do that you are not sure you can be successful with?
Step 1: Read carefully through your notes (or the teacher’s description of the assignment or your boss’s request). Note what must be accomplished.
Step 2: Write down questions you have after reading it.
Step 3: Write down everything you know about the topic or the thing you must do. These three steps are critical steps and cannot be skipped.
Step 4: Go take a walk, fold a load of laundry, feed the dog, play with your kids, play another video game, take a nap or whatever that allows you to NOT to think about this project. Yes. You read that correctly. Go daydream away!
Step 5: After some time (overnight, next day, or in an hour or two), come back to the project and add to Steps 1-3. This time go a little further. Get answers to your questions. Attempt to write a paragraph that complies with the assignment. Read resources if there are any. In other words, add to what you did in steps 2 and 3.
Repeat as long as necessary until completion of the project.
Why does this work? We know that our brains begin to be less focused the longer we force ourselves to work, or even when we continually ruminate and fuss over what needs to be done. You actually make it harder to get the job done just by worrying about it!
Thams Oppong in “For a More Creative Brain, Take Breaks”, notes that when you stay too long on a project, you not only lose focus, but what focus you have is fixated on previous thoughts and solutions. So, in essence you aren’t moving forward!
Your subconscious brain is constantly working in the background while you perform these diffuse-thinking tasks! That’s why you often come back to the project with fresh ideas.
When I was young, my father used this tactic successfully to solve problems. He was an engineer at a time in our history when computers were still as big as rooms and his idea of a calculator was a slide-rule. No googling for ideas for that guy! He told me to write down what the problem was to be solved. Writing it in black and white gives it clarity. Now, go to bed for the night. Somehow in the morning, he either had the complete solution, or he had at least the next step to take. It always worked. This is an example of using your subconscious in a diffuse way to figure out what to do.
My students who have taken this advice to heart and used this method have found that writing is actually more enjoyable. And, of course, their scores improve as well. This is true for anybody with a deadline looming, a project that seems a bit out of their lane, or well…that research paper that you have no idea how to write.