Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the power of the unfocused mind
A lot of emphases is placed on the ability to focus. To be good at work or in sports one must have a singular focus. Focus keeps you on target to achieve results. A jack of all trades is a master of none. This can present a major hurdle if your brain is wired in a way that makes dedicated focus hard.
Scott Adams of Dibert frame has a different approach. He has a concept of skill stacking which he has discussed on the Art of Charm Podcast. Being in the top 25% in multiple skills is easier to achieve than top 5/2/1% in a single niche.
Too much focus can cause inattentional blindness. A bright spotlight has no peripheral vision. Tinker Dabble Doodle Try explores this concept over 300 pages (or 7 1/2 hours for those of us who prefer audio books).
I’ve experienced this lack of peripheral vision, quite literally, while learning to scuba dive. I had a simple drill to complete – 15 fin strokes, 90 degrees and repeat 4 times to hopefully return to the start. I managed to complete a passable square but failed to notice I was doing a lap of a submerged statue.
I’m sure you would not suffer from the same inattentional blindness. Have a go at the selective attention test and see how you get on.
If focus means you can’t see a guy in a gorilla suit dancing across a basketball court what else do you miss?
It is important to have a mix of both deep focus and unfocus. We want our mind to be like an adjustable flashlight. Capable of close and narrow focus for reading a map and also a wide beam to take in surroundings.
A tennis player might have very deep intentional focus during training. Focusing on tiny aspects of specific movements. In a game, they can’t over think it, they have to go with the flow and rely on something called the default mode network (DMN).
Working harder is not always effective. It can lead to physical and or mental exhaustion. Mini breaks, taking walks and meditation can make us more effective
When a scientist was taking a late night journey his mind was piecing things together resulting in a DNA breakthrough. I’ve experienced similar experiences on a less grand scale while out cycling.
Tinker Dabble Doodle Try strikes a great balance of covering some of the science without overwhelming readers. The science in the book is interesting and supportive of the text rather than a confusing distraction. For example, it explains how brainwave settings (observable in an EEG) have different uses. The frontal-parietal cortex is the focus circuit. It is part of the brains central executive network (CEN). It is a focused flashlight illuminating the path ahead. Nuance and depth require a wider beam. This is provided with by the default mode network (DMN). This is the unfocus circuit. The DMN and the CEN work together to provide the cognitive adjustable flashlight.
Holidays and productivity.
I’ve blogged about how it is possible to get a massive amount of work done to clear the desks before going on leave. Often the same is required when we return.
The relaxed unfocused state you enjoy on holiday can soon be shattered when you return. Returning to a huge pile of work is likely to cause you to plunge in, skip lunch and over focus. When this does not get you caught up, you work late and come in early the next day. Sound familiar? This ends us with you feeling depleted with the holiday a distant memory. What good was the holiday? It is important to cultivate a habit of unfocusing the reap the holiday benefits. Unfocus allows the joining of disparate ideas and often this is at the heart of innovation.
When trying to change a habit we are often caught in cognitive dissonance. We want to change but change leads to discomfort. Change has a switch cost of fear and uncertainty. Uncertainty registers in the brain as a threat. Simply evaluating the options and the outcomes can help overcome cognitive dissonance.
Alternative a – stay where you are
Alternative b – do something different
Why does this always happen to me is a question that has limited value. This can be reframed as: What do others in my situation do to overcome these setbacks.
The epiphany in the shower
In an unfocused state the brain resting, but in the background, it is moving puzzle pieces around. Reverie is a form of unfocusing which successful entrepreneurs often engage in. When the mind wonders it unearths tangible and intangible memories. If we invoke our imagination and suspend disbelief about the possibility we can consider the options we might rationally dismiss.
Mind-pops are ideas that appear seemingly randomly like eg while mowing the lawn or in the shower.
Creating time to unfocus
Thinking has a rhythm and like learning an instrument you need to start simple before adding complexity. You can use an alarm or a schedule to act as a coach. Scheduling unfocused time for a particular duration. There are many types of meditation: box breathing, transcendental, mindfulness etc research confirms the positive benefits. This can be a useful way of creating space and time for the mind to unfocus.
You can schedule your work in a tinker table; scheduling the time to focus and unfocus. One way of doing this it to take 15 minutes off after every 45 minutes to balance focus and unfocus and this can be linked into a task management approach like **LINK Pomodoro**
Work is about outcomes not hours spent. Use scheduled ”felxi time” this is scheduled time but with no task to complete. When the time comes it can be used for focus or unfocused work as the need tasks. This can create a useful buffer to prevent getting overwhelmed
Stop over thinking and practice letting go. Dance through life. Good dancing does not happen when you carefully think about every move. You have to let go, follow the music and respond to the surroundings.
Use cognitive rhythm to avoid fatigue.
Involuntary mind wondering can make us feel guilty and unproductive. Mind wondering is most productive when you are disciplined about it. Mind wondering mid-task incurs a context switching overhead and can be a sign of cognitive drain. Intentional daydreaming between tasks can help recharge the brain.
Sleep allows the unconscious mind to work its magic in the dark. Paul McCartney composed the melody for Yesterday in a dream.
Creativity and Unfocus
Creativity is not just a right brain activity. Creativity requires a merge of analytical and emotional thinking. The union of focus and unfocus thinking.
A creative brain is often in a state of tension between chaos and control. A creative brain wants to make extensive and disparate connections but not too many to avoid going off track. Creativity is controlled mental chaos.
Symbols & metaphors have the power to simplify thinking in these ways and can stimulate creativity.
Split thinking and lumping: taking the bird’s eye view. Splitting is focusing on the differences within a set. Lumping is looking wider past the boundaries of the set. Split thinking has delivered many medicines by spotting differences. However, this inward look can miss the bigger picture eg gut-brain communication and its significance for Parkinson’s disease and depression.
The generic parts technique is a creative tool to overcome functional fixedness. It is a structured way of looking past the obvious and considering other possibilities.
Predictive inference is a creativity technique where you formulate a hypothesis and then see if the data fits the hunch. This could be considered engineering things backwards however if you think back to school science lessons this is essentially how experiments were conducted. Lean Startup takes this structured approach it to the business world where rather than a fixed business plan you have a set of assumptions and set about proving or disproving them until you are sure you have a viable business proposition.
People who dabble are dilatants. Or at least this is how many perceive it. Steve Job dabbling with a font in his youth later gave rise to true type fonts on the mac. Dabbling gives you more experience to draw on and you never know what might be useful.
The art of strategic pausing: daydreaming has 3 distinct phases
1) The point you decide to stop focusing
2) The decoupling point (your mind is about to go)
3) The switch – where you drop your focus
A reminder or alarm can be a useful safety net to bring you back to focus
Dynamic learning in a brave new world
Why not schedule a Fck up night? Spend 7 minutes sharing stories of failure followed by beer to continue the conversation. Failure is common but often we don’t talk about it. Failure is a learning opportunity IF you fail fast, fail cheap, fail forward and recognise that done is better than perfect.
Brightworks schools create happy learners and team players who are above their peers in traditional schools. It relies on project-based learning. The book puts forward two modes of learning – forks and spoons. Old learning uses a fork. It is targeted and efficient. New learning uses a spoon. It can gather a mélange of flavour. Using both tools together you get the best of both worlds (if only there was a knife too then you could eat any meal :-). Doodling is unfocused spoon work.
We can offloading tasks (e.g. remembering phone numbers offloaded to a smartphone) to free up grey matter. This gives us the ability to manage the bandwidth of coupling focus and unfocus. We have come to live our lives by memorising yet we forget we were designed to figure things out. We didn’t have a manual to learn how to walk.
One laptop per child was a project to provide children in rural Ethiopia with computers. Within 4 minutes the first child had unpacked one and started it up. Within 5 days the children were comfortable using the installed educational apps. Within 5 months the children had hacked the operating system to customise the laptops. All this without any formal teaching.
The brain largely conditioned to identify errors: failures. Not everybody is able to learn from failure. The opposite of learning from failure is learned helplessness where repeated failures condition the thinking that success is not possible. The magnitude of failure matters less than mindset about it. Those with a fixed mindset will not try again. Compare this to Dyson or Eddison who took 1000s of attempts to make their ideas work. Neither was the first with the idea but they were the ones that stuck with it
Self-talk is an activating agent to bounce back, to fail forward intelligently
1) Fight the feedback. Feedback can be overwhelming. A stressed brain can think everything is important. Help it out by tagging information as helpful or unhelpful. In a Brightworks school, a child making a chair is told they are one step closer and asked what could fix this? Look at why it (failure) was happening. Ask yourself what dramatic feedback am I mistakenly treating as relevant
2) Remove resistance. Impedance control & resistance rebuttal. If you are learning new software then prepare to devote time to it. Chunk up small aims like log-on to the system and brake these up with 15 min unfocus time. This can help to overcome the aversion to learning. Ask what’s stopping me – people, places or things?
3) Use your predicting power – learn how to jump the gun intelligently with systematic forecasting. (An aside compare this to made to stick – breaking peoples guessing machine) Predicting is often based on subtle unconscious signs. Entrepreneur BHAG – big hairy audacious goal – makes the brain consider how to get there. Ask what can I infer from the information I have so far.
4) Balance brain equations. What is working? What is not? Think overtly about pros and cons – don’t assume they will be obvious. This keeps you out of mind traps like the sunk cost fallacy. Ask: if I keep doing what I am doing is the effort worth it?
5) Learn by feeling and doing. Sensory-motor learning. See one, do one, teach one. Learning by doing cements knowledge through concrete iterations rather than thought iterations. Ask what action can jump-start my brain.
Curate advice. The advice comes from everywhere. People are wired to want their advice to lead to success. There is a strong desire to want others to use our advice rather than to succeed. Expert advice causes the receiver to skip evaluation and therefore miss an opportunity to learn. Consider the coach asking questions rather than giving answers.
There was so much in the book and I got so excited by it that it was almost overwhelming. It is hard to draw out an overarching narrative or a set of key points as there were so many nuggets of information I wanted to capture. I’ve got another couple of pages of extracts from the book that didn’t make the blog but at the time if reading (listening) I wanted to keep. Like the book this blog bounces all over the palce. I’ve added links to make it easier to jump on an explore the topcis that interest you further.