How often do you get burnt out on studying Spanish? Today, let’s explore how you can use research-based strategies, including the Pomodoro Technique, to learn Spanish better by balancing your focused study with plenty of healthy unfocused time.
Being able to sit down and focus while studying is essential to your success in Spanish. But believe it or not, contrary to what we’ve been taught our whole lives, too much focus can actually be BAD for our learning.
As I’m sure you’ve discovered, sometimes our best breakthroughs happen when we’re not focused. You might be struck with a creative insight in the shower, suddenly realize the answer to a problem while walking the dog, or find yourself spontaneously inventing brilliant Spanish sentences in the middle of the night. Why would your mind be doing this work when you’re FAR from focused on the task?
The answer lies in a strange trick about the way the brain works. Spanish study shouldn’t constantly frustrate you if it’s actually effective, and sometimes unfocusing is the most productive thing you can do for your studies. Let’s talk about why, and how we can use this mental quirk to help us design a Spanish-learning lifestyle that won’t burn you out.
It all starts with hacking your brain’s focused and unfocused modes.
The Two Ways We Think
It turns out that there are two separate ways that our conscious minds think and solve problems.
• Focused mode is used for intense, step-by-step problem solving, such as for multiplying large numbers, memorizing an acquaintance’s first and last name, or trying to come up with the correct pronoun or verb conjugation in a Spanish sentence.
• Diffuse mode is used when you’re not actively thinking about something specific. Your thoughts drift between topics in spontaneous, unexpected ways.
The focused mode is that familiar “think harder!” mode of thought we all used in school. When our brain uses this mode, it operates in predictable ways to try to solve a problem. For example, when you concentrate on which conjugation of Venir to use in a sentence, your mind sharply follows a specific neural pathway to try to access the information. This is what the focused mode looks like, and you’re probably familiar with what it feels like, too.
Diffuse mode is what you might notice your mind doing when you lie down to sleep at night. Your conscious thoughts float around between different parts of the brain, not working particularly hard on any specific area, and drawing large connections — often very odd ones! — between unrelated material. One second you’re remembering how you felt buying gardening tools today, and the next second you unexpectedly imagine a famous actor giving you gardening advice. If we were trying to study, thoughts like this might seem “distracting”, but in these situations there’s no main thought process to distract you from. While you’re in diffuse mode, your thoughts can drift around wherever they want, with no strict agenda.
We all know that the focused mode is important for learning. When you focus your attention exclusively on a task, you can efficiently train your brain to learn how to do that task. When you learned the difference between direct and indirect pronouns in Spanish, you probably had to concentrate pretty hard on the different sentence contexts in which they’re used, as well as how to use le instead of either lo or la when using an indirect rather than a direct object.
But what’s less-known is that the diffuse mode is also important for learning. In fact, the diffuse mode is just as important as the focused mode. Most students make the tragic mistake of neglecting the diffuse mode in favor of focused mode, because focused mode feels more productive. But without the diffuse mode, all your work in the focused mode is likely to be a waste of time.
What’s Wrong with Focusing Too Much
One of the problems with focusing too much is something we call Einstellung.
Einstellung is a German word that roughly means “roadblock”. It’s what happens when your brain is stuck spinning in circles on a task but is going down the wrong track. And we’ve all experienced it.
As a common, relatable example, imagine that you’re talking with a friend who wants restaurant recommendations. You recently visited a new restaurant with incredible food and wonderful service, so you want to recommend it. The only problem is that you can’t remember the name of the restaurant! You’re convinced it started with the letter R, but no matter how hard you rack your brain, you can’t think of the name. You end up having to give up.
Later, long after the conversation is over, you’ve stopped thinking about it and are contemplating other, unrelated things — and suddenly the name of the restaurant occurs to you. It doesn’t start with R at all. How silly of you! Your brain was stuck going down the wrong path (“Ra… Ree… Ro…”), so of course it never found its destination. The correct name of the restaurant (“Murrays Curry”) occurred to you out of the blue when you WEREN’T in focused mode.
And that’s because you had been trapped in Einstellung. Your mind was focused in a tiny neural area, trying to find a restaurant that starts with R. You were only able to think of the restaurant when you broke out of that roadblock and went back to the diffuse mode.
Imagine using a flashlight that has two settings: A sharp, penetrating beam where all the light is concentrated in one small area, versus a “diffuse” setting where the light is scattered broadly but dimly. The “focused” setting is good for looking very hard at one tiny area. The “diffuse” setting is better for scanning broadly.
If you’re in a dark attic and need to find a box of Christmas ornaments, you might find yourself switching between the two settings: Use the diffuse setting to scan around until you see a stack of boxes, and then switch to the focused setting to look intently at those boxes and determine which one is correct. If you’re focused on a stack of boxes but can’t seem to find the right one, there’s a chance you’re looking in the wrong place. You might need to switch back to the diffuse setting to scan around some more for a different pile.
So before getting into the specific Spanish study routines that I recommend, let’s talk a little bit more about the brain’s diffuse mode and how to balance it against the focused mode.
Welcome to the Diffuse Mode
There’s an unfortunate problem with the flashlight analogy that I just used.
If the brain were a flashlight, you could simply flip a switch and go back and forth between “focused” and “diffuse” instantly. But unfortunately, the human mind doesn’t work that way.
In particular, it can be very tricky to go from focused mode to diffuse mode, especially when you’re very focused or frustrated over a particular mental task. In fact, the more focused you are, the more difficult it can be to switch into diffuse mode. If you try hard enough, you can usually get your mind to focus on a task… but how do you unfocus yourself?
Fortunately there are several hacks that seem to work well. Activities in the following categories are likely to switch you into the diffuse mode:
• Doing some sort of physical activity.
• Moving to a new environment.
In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin talks about how young chess players can get out of Einstellung during chess competitions. These are high-stress situations where it’s easy to get stuck in a mental downward spiral, so forcing a quick switch from focused mode to diffuse mode can easily determine the outcome of the game. “Sometimes all the kids needed was to take two or three deep breaths, or splash cold water on their faces, to snap out of bad states of mind. Other times, more dramatic actions were called for. If I felt dull during a difficult struggle, I’d occasionally leave the playing hall and sprint 50 yards outside. This may have seemed strange to spectators, but it served as a complete physiological flushing, and I returned, albeit sweaty, in a brand-new state of mind.”
If nothing else works… take a shower! Apparently, for some reason, bathing is particularly good at triggering diffuse mode insights. Maybe it’s because it’s a low-stress physical activity in a new environment (which satisfies two of the criteria I listed above). I can personally testify that I DEFINITELY have many of my best creative insights in the shower, especially if I shower right after exercising.
One warning: If you’re trying to get into diffuse thinking, don’t use distracting web tools. Notification-based input, such as email alerts and social media notifications, has a tendency to snap your mind back into focused mode in an instant. This is deceptive, because when our attention glances around among the bright shiny objects of our digital world, it may SEEM like we’re doing diffuse thinking. After all, our thoughts are bouncing around wildly from object to object, right? However, in digital life, each object demands your focused attention, albeit in a superficial way. This is actually demonstrably very bad for our ability to think critically or to focus for long periods of time, and it’s basically the opposite of true diffuse thinking.
When possible, see if you can take a walk in nature. The sights, sounds, and other beautiful stimulations seem to have the opposite effect to the distracting signals online: They help calm our minds and unfocus us. Many of the greatest creative figures in history swore by long walks for inspiring their diffuse-mode creative breakthroughs.
But there’s more to the diffuse mode than just creative breakthroughs.
Using the diffuse mode to break out of Einstellung and into broader creativity is a great benefit, but that’s not all. Yes, in the short term, the idea of getting unstuck and breaking into higher-level creativity should motivate you to jump into diffuse mode every day. But in the long term, the diffuse mode also makes your learning more solid. When you switch to diffuse mode, your mind starts filing things in long-term storage, something it doesn’t have the energy to do when you’re in focused mode. Sleep is the ultimate diffuse mode; as most of us already know, when you sleep, your brain puts the things you focused on during the day into long-term storage. But some level of this will happen even during 5-minute study breaks. Making the most of these breaks will take your long-term learning to the next level.
Ultimately, taking breaks can be just as productive as working. For language learners, it’s imperative.
Another warning: Now that you can see the value of getting unfocused, there’s a natural temptation to do it as much as possible. But that’s a trap! Focus is every bit as valuable as diffuse insights, and most of your best work will be done while you’re in focused mode. Once the roadblocks are gone, it’s time to forge ahead, not sit around in the diffuse mode doing nothing.
So, ideally, how long should you be focused, and how long should you be distracted?
Let’s talk about creating an optimal study pattern for learning Spanish as quickly, deeply, and effectively as possible, balancing the focused and diffuse modes of thinking.
My Pomodoro Technique for Spanish Study
As we’ve now established, focusing and unfocusing are equally important for language learning. Fortunately, if you establish patterns of doing both, they both get easier and easier. The more regularly you give your brain time to unfocus, the more effectively you’ll be able to refocus. Let’s set ourselves up for success in both modes of thinking for accelerated language learning.
An ideal Spanish routine has three elements:
(1) Consistency: Doing it at the same time every day.
(2) Productivity: Doing Spanish study that actually gets long-term results.
(3) Mode balance: Using the focused and diffuse modes to best effect.
Assuming that you’ve already made a consistent study habit and that you’re studying Spanish effectively, let’s talk about how to study even MORE effectively by using your focused and diffuse modes in balance.
One of my favorite techniques for balancing the focused and diffuse modes is the Pomodoro Technique. This is a simple method for focusing and unfocusing, simply by setting a timer. While the timer is going, you focus hard and don’t allow yourself to be distracted from your study. When the timer ends, you do the opposite: Abandon your study material and do anything that gets you into the diffuse mode.
A good pattern for a Pomodoro is 25 minutes of focused work followed by a break. Below is a sample study pattern, based on how I currently structure my work mornings:
8:00: 25-minute Pomodoro timer to focus; 5-minute “diffuse mode” break
8:30: 25-minute Pomodoro timer to focus; 5-minute “diffuse mode” break
9:00: Diffuse mode: Work out and shower
10:00: 25-minute Pomodoro timer to focus; 5-minute “diffuse mode” break
10:30: 25-minute Pomodoro timer to focus; 5-minute “diffuse mode” break
11:00: Connect to the Internet
Personally, I use my mornings, from 8am to 11am, to maximize my focused and diffuse modes. I do all of this before ever going online, because I find that I get completely derailed if I see any emails, messages, or other notifications during this ritual. When I can start the day fresh, with a blank slate, I can focus on getting the most out of my brain during those precious 3 hours of solitude.
Of course, not everyone is able to spend their entire morning offline. But you can still follow a similar pattern if you carve out some 1-hour or half-hour chunks from your day during which you can switch between focused and diffuse modes.
When creating and following your own study routines, here is a particularly helpful set of guidelines I recommend following. This is adapted from a study pattern Barbara Oakley lays out in “A Mind for Numbers”.
Guideline 1: During your first Pomodoro of the day, try to be as uber-focused as you can be. If at all possible, shut yourself up in a room with no internet connection for 25 minutes.
Guideline 2: Use your first Pomodoro to focus on a difficult task, such as a particularly tricky sentence structure that you want to internalize. Concentrate and try to work through it systematically, without any distraction.
Guideline 3: Right after your first Pomodoro, find a way to distract yourself and trigger your diffuse mode. Taking a walk is probably the quickest, most universally reliable way to get into the diffuse mode at the drop of a hat. Spend at least 5 minutes away from your study material.
Guideline 4: During your first diffuse mode break, see if you can spend the first two minutes trying to forget about what you just studied. If you have trouble taking your mind off of Spanish, try talking to yourself out loud about the things you see on your walk. Only afterwards should you let your mind slowly drift back to Spanish, and only if your brain feels like it.
Guideline 5: While you’re on your break, if a Spanish insight happens to strike, take a note, either on your smart phone or on a scrap of paper. (Since I always avoid looking at a digital screen while on my diffuse mode breaks, I often take a pocket full of index cards on a walk.) However, don’t expect this sort of “inspiration” to strike every single time; it may only happen one out of five times that you follow this method. Remember that the main benefit is the break itself, not the specific insights you may or may not gain during the break.
Guideline 6: Right after your first break, return to your studies with a refreshed mind. Refocus on the problem that you were previously working on, and see if you find it any easier now that you’ve had a diffuse mode break. Even if it’s still difficult, you’ll be refreshed and ready for another Pomodoro session, either with this difficult task or with a new one.
Guideline 7: If possible, give yourself a focused study session first thing in the morning and another one late at night. If you can sandwich your sleep with focused study, the sleep itself serves as the best diffuse mode you can possibly hope for.
Bottom line: Use the Pomodoro Technique (25-minute focusing timers) to help you focus for an optimal amount of time, and design study routines that switch between that and the diffuse mode. The best routines are designed to keep us focused just long enough to make significant progress, but not so long that we get stuck in Einstellung.
And remember that the best routines keep these two modes of thinking — focused and diffuse — as different from each other as possible.
That means that when you focus, you REALLY focus, with no distractions allowed. No email in the background, no notifications, no distracting music, no phone (if possible). In a truly focused study session of 25 minutes, you can accomplish more than most people can in 2 hours of distracted study.
Then, when you switch to diffuse mode, you relax in the most productive way possible. Take a walk, take a shower, improvise at the piano. Do whatever helps your mind lose itself in diffuse thought.
Once again, I recommend taking your breaks completely offline. Physical activities, such as brisk walks, housecleaning chores, or taking a shower, seem to trigger the diffuse mode almost magically.
Who knew that a walk in the park could be so beneficial for language learning?
In the next article, we’ll talk about another surprising phenomenon in language learning: The power of frequently changing up your study rather than working hard on just one thing.
Are you ready to see how the Pomodoro Technique can move you towards Spanish fluency? Start the Accelerated Spanish course for free.