How to Learn Effectively: Understanding the Power of Focused and Diffuse Thinking, Chunking, and Sleep

As a Designer-Engineer, I have always been passionate about learning and acquiring new skills. However, I have come to realise that my approach to learning in the past has been more of a brute-force method than an efficient one. I am now on a journey to discover how to learn more effectively. Whether to hone my skills better or maybe pursue a degree in the future. 

One of the biggest challenges I face when it comes to learning is my wandering mind. Even during a dedicated study session, my thoughts often stray to other topics, making it difficult for me to stay focused. This has led me to seek out research and learning techniques that can help me stay on track and increase my ability to retain information.

Then, I came across this course from Coursera—Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Upon learning modules from the course, I think I get a more clear idea on how to learn the proper way. Here are some topics that are the most interesting for me.


Essentially, there are two primary modes of thinking: focused and diffuse. To help understand the differences between the two modes, a pinball analogy was used. Focused mode has tightly spaced rubber bumpers that keep thoughts concentrated, whereas the diffuse mode has widely spaced bumpers that allow for more broad-ranging ways of thinking.

Introduction to the Focused and Diffuse Modes (Credit: Deep Teaching Solution / Coursera)

The prefrontal cortex is the centre of the focused mode and is typically engaged when thinking about something familiar, such as solving multiplication problems or finding a word that rhymes with another word. On the other hand, when trying to solve or figure out something new, it is more effective to use the diffuse mode, which is representative of the brain’s many neural resting states. Creative thinkers throughout history have found ways to access the diffuse mode quickly and directly, and we all naturally access it when we do things like taking a walk or shower or just drifting off to sleep.

When we find ourselves stuck on a problem, it is advisable to let things settle back and take more time, allowing for more neural processing to take place. It often takes time for neural processing to build new neural structures and learn something new. 


Chunks are an important concept in learning. They are compact packages of information that your mind can easily access. By organising information into chunks, your brain can more easily process and remember it. For example, if you’re learning a new language, breaking down the vocabulary into smaller, related groups can make it easier to remember them.

What is a Chunk? (Credit: Deep Teaching Solution / Coursera)

“Transfer” is another important concept. It refers to the idea that a chunk of knowledge that you’ve mastered in one area can often help you learn new chunks of information in different areas. For example, if you’ve mastered the use of a particular software program, let’s say Microsoft Word. Then the skills you’ve developed can often transfer to learning a similar program like Google Docs or LibreOffice Write. This transfer of knowledge can save time and effort in the learning process.

Finally, understanding is crucial in retaining knowledge. It’s like a superglue that helps hold the underlying memory traces together. When you understand the concepts and ideas behind the information you’re learning, you’re more likely to remember it in the long term. It’s important to take the time to truly understand the material you’re learning, rather than just memorising it. This deeper understanding will help you to transfer your knowledge to new areas and continue to build your skills over time.


Last but not least, what fascinates me is the importance of sleep. When I was in my teenage years or early 20s, I (and many of my peers) might have thought that “sleep is for the weak”. So we slept later and for an hour or two then just went to class. On some occasions, some straight up sleeping in class. Yet in fact, a proper sleep makes our mind and body stronger that positively affects our learning or any other aspects in life. 

It turns out that when you sleep, your brain cells actually shrink, creating more space between them. This allows fluid to flow past the cells and wash away any toxins that have built up. So, even though it might seem like a waste of time, sleep is actually your brain’s way of keeping itself clean and healthy.

If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain won’t function properly and you won’t be able to think clearly. Not only that, but prolonged lack of sleep can lead to a range of nasty health conditions, such as headaches, depression, heart disease, diabetes, and even a shorter life expectancy. So, it’s important to prioritise getting enough quality sleep.

But sleep does more than just wash away toxins. It’s also a crucial part of the memory and learning process. While you sleep, your brain tidies up ideas and concepts, erasing less important memories while strengthening those that are more important. Additionally, your brain rehearses tougher parts of what you’re trying to learn, deepening and strengthening the neural connections. It’s as if your brain is solving problems and putting together solutions while you’re sleeping.

If you want to make the most of your sleep, it’s important to prime your brain before you doze off. Going over what you’re learning right before you take a nap or go to sleep can increase your chances of dreaming about it, which can substantially enhance your ability to understand and consolidate memories into easier-to-grasp chunks. So, if you’re studying hard, don’t forget to get enough quality sleep to help you retain all that knowledge.

In conclusion, by understanding the different modes of thinking, the concept of chunking, and the importance of sleep, we can enhance our ability to learn and retain knowledge. Whether we’re trying to solve a problem or simply remember new information, taking the time to engage both the focused and diffuse modes of thinking, organising information into manageable chunks, and getting enough quality sleep are all crucial elements of effective learning.

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