There are basically two ways to think about things:

  • Focused thinking – for intellectual challenges that are somewhat familiar. Your brain understands the challenge and is able to travel down established pathways to find the answer. It is the sort of thinking we do when playing chess, repairing engines, and even analyzing poems.
  • Diffused thinking – for challenges that are new. It is more intuitive, allowing for random associations. It includes daydreaming and the kind of thinking you do in the shower when “brilliant” ideas seem to pop into your head.

The biggest challenges – like finding cures for cancer and solving political disputes and negotiating successful divorces – usually require a combination of focused and diffused thinking. Not simultaneously. (The brain cannot do both simultaneously.) But sequentially over time.

If you consider how those modes of thinking feel, you’ll probably agree that focused thinking feels “hard.” Even intense when the challenge is great. As for diffused thinking, it feels quite easy. In fact, it doesn’t feel like thinking at all.

Focused thinking exists in a world of exactitude and rigorously observed protocols. Diffused thinking exists in a malleable, ephemeral world without boundaries.

In terms of contraction and expansion, the difference is obvious: Focused thinking is heavy and tight. Diffused thinking is light and loose.