Focus Exhaustion? Try UNfocusing!

In Helpful Stuff, Latest Research by christine

Focus Exhaustion? Try UNfocusing!

Have you ever felt guilty for taking a break from a pressing task or work assignment?  I used to, even though I found taking what I thought were “sneaky” breaks from tasks rejuvenated me (I just used to think I was rejuvenated by being rebellious! ?)

  Turns outs, me feeling rejuvenated from taking breaks had more to do with brain science than from getting a rush from being rebellious.  Studies have evidenced that too much focus zaps us of our energy and contributes to a lack of self-control.  Excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in our brains, impeding our decision-making abilities and making us less collaborative when working with others (not great for team projects ☹).

Our brains optimally function when we can move between focus and unfocus; this fosters resiliency while enhancing creativity and better decision-making.     

When we unfocus, we engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network” (DMN).  Interestingly, this circuit uses 20% of our body’s energy (compared to the relatively small 5% that concerted effort will require). 

So, what’s the deal here?

Well, the DMN uses more energy because it widens our lens.  The DNM processes between past, present, and future, activates old memories, and conceptualizes new ideas.  Personally, I have always found that my best ideas come to me either in dreams or when I am falling asleep – this is an example of my DMN being activated and enhancing my creativity, internal knowingness (intuition), understanding of Self and others, and generating innovative solutions to things.

How to Stimulate the DMN

  • When feeling focus-exhaust, try a low-key activity. This might be playing a game on your electronic device, knitting, light reading, rearranging your office supplies, or cleaning out your fridge.  Allow your mind to wander and move between your low-key task and imagine something that brings you a sense of freedom or joy.  Mundane tasks like rearranging office supplies can foster us to think in metaphorical terms – this is desirable because it can access different regions of the brain that help us tap into our unconscious to see the bigger picture (this takes a whole new perspective on the oft-held belief that having a strong urge to clean our oven instead of writing a term paper may not be problematic procrastination after all – we are fostering creativity, dammit! ?) 
  • Tap a nap!  Now, here I am suggesting this, but I personally have a hard time doing this (I am more inclined to shift my excessive focus to something creative or cleaning and organizing).  However, research shows that naps can make you more alert and enhance critical-thinking skills.  The more onerous and creative the task you are trying to focus on, the longer you may need to nap – this can act as “brain exercise” making you stronger to tackle those big projects!

Akin to us needing to shift between focus and unfocus when working on an important task/assignment, after we have exhausted our focus circuits, we may need to shift to something that could be deemed “mindless”.  I find people’s “guilty pleasures” to be highly amusing (and let’s be honest: we ALL have ‘em).  Oftentimes the people who use their brains the most for work, are the ones who take delight in things like cartoons or cringe-worthy reality television.  This goes to show, that we are made up of a lot of different parts, and when one part is feeling overstimulated, another part may need to swoop in periodically and restore balance.



Pillay, S. (2017).  Tinker Dabber Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind.  New York, NY:  Penguin Random House.