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Harness your mind’s innate tendency to wander, stall, rest, and unfocus and become more productive—in the boardroom, living room, or classroom.
To finish tasks and achieve goals, most people believe that more focus is the solution. We rely on to-do lists, calendar reminders, noise-blocking headphones, and sometimes medication to help us concentrate—even though these tactics often fail to substantially improve productivity. Drawing on the latest brain research, compelling stories from his psychological practice, and colorful examples of counterintuitive success from sports, business, education, and the arts, neuroscientist Srini Pillay, M.D., challenges traditional ideas about productivity, revealing the lasting, positive benefits of adding deliberate and regular unfocus to your repertoire. A fascinating tour through brain wavelengths and rhythm, mindsets, and mental relaxation, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try demonstrates how specific kinds of planned unfocus stimulate cognitive calmness, jumpstart productivity, enhance innovation, inspire creativity, improve long-term memory, and, of course, help you stay on target.
Tinkering with ideas and with things releases your mind to wander from a state of stuckness into a possibility frame of mind, triggering neural connections and new insights.
Dabbling in a new endeavor—whether a hobby or fantasy—disrupts your habitual and reactive thinking, helping you find new solutions to old problems.
Doodling can help you tap into another brain frequency to remove obstacles and create opportunities and inspiration.
With techniques for training the brain to unfocus, concepts for scheduling busy lives, and ideas for controlling this new cognitive-toggling capability, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try will change how you think about daydreaming, relaxing, leaving work unfinished, and even multitasking. What you’ll discover is a greater freedom, a deeper intelligence, and a more profound joy in your life.
Advance praise for Tinker Dabble Doodle Try
“Pillay’s effortless writing style, combined with an excellent balance of popular psychology and self-help, makes this a helpful read for those who enjoy a light dive into psychology with practical applications.”—Library Journal
“Pillay cites an intriguing range of brain studies to support his argument, and his case studies of individuals with whom he has worked provide useful insights.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Dr. Srini Pillay offers a brilliant, deeply researched, and even more deeply imagined blueprint for using one’s full mental armamentarium, conscious, unconscious, and all the undiscovered rest! A fantastic book!”—Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., co-author of Delivered from Distraction
“Dr. Pillay’s new book will help you create a new, fun, more playful destiny and unlock your brain’s inner potential.”—Daniel G. Amen, M.D., co-author of The Brain Warrior’s Way
“This book not only gives you license to step off the hamster wheel of focus, focus, focus, but it will show you how to strategically and productively do so.”—JJ Virgin, author of JJ Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet
“This brilliant book shows how to manipulate your brain to alternate between intense concentration and deliberate mind-wandering.”—Mark Robert Waldman, co-author of How God Changes Your Brain
“Great medicine for those who have long suspected that multitasking and always being on the go aren’t all they are cracked up to be.”—Sara Gottfried M.D., author of The Hormone Cure
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Tinker Dabble Doodle Try
The Beat of Your Brain
Thought is the labor of the intellect, reverie its pleasure. To replace thought with reverie is to confound poison with nourishment.
I was a straight-A student prior to my second year at medical school, but during that year, in the context of an escalating workload, my grades suddenly slumped.
Even though I burned the midnight oil, I wasn’t able to make headway. I sat for hours studying human anatomy, trying to memorize where muscles attached, and where in the body nerves and blood vessels traveled. On more than one occasion, I ran myself ragged, only to wake up with my head buried in a pile of bones.
Nobody could have spent more time than I did studying and working, yet the harder I focused, the worse I seemed to do. Little did I know that I was operating my brain like a teenager driving a car for the first time, taking off at breakneck speed, then jerkily screeching to an abrupt halt. The result: too much wear and tear on the brake pads and gears!
I struggled to wrap my head around what was happening. And I didn’t even register that I was physically exhausted until the penny eventually dropped during the vacation between my second and third years. That’s when I decided to make a few changes.
Desperate, I determined to start working smarter instead of just harder. I saw my failings as a code I had to crack, so I tinkered with habit and lifestyle changes. Even though it went against my work ethic, I took short breaks every forty-five minutes while studying. I made an effort to spend more time away from work and with my friends. I committed to sleeping well before undertaking any big stretches of studying. And because I had always heard such great things about its restorative power, I began meditating for twenty minutes twice a day.
My grades improved. My energy level rose. Eventually, I was at the top of my class again. I had no idea exactly how my lifestyle hacks had worked, but I was certainly happy with the results, so I strove to include these strategies throughout the rest of medical school—with great results.
But I didn’t really learn the lesson I should have from that episode. My subsequent residency in psychiatry started off with a bang as I burned the proverbial midnight oil anew. Eager to immerse myself in my cases, I spent hours with patients in the hospital. And when I got home, I threw off my work clothes, ate dinner, and read books and psychiatric journals voraciously. After my first clinical rotation, I looked forward to my feedback session with my supervisor.
But the meeting went very differently than I thought it would. “You are a really dedicated doctor,” he said. “It must be a little frustrating that your knowledge base is far more developed than your peers’. You probably can’t have the conversations that you want to, right?”
I didn’t really feel that way, but I thought I heard positive feedback and took it gladly. Then came a comment that I will never forget for the rest of my life.
“We’re a little concerned that you spend as much time as you do on the inpatient units. If you keep this up, I’m afraid you’ll have a ton of information in your head, but you won’t receive a superior education. I presume that’s why you wanted to come to Harvard in the first place?”
The question was ironic and chilling, to say the least. I realized I had reverted to my old bad habits. I was trapped by the wrong assumptions about ambition, exhausting myself both physically and mentally all over again.
My supervisor explained that taking breaks to allow thoughts to congeal is one of the most important aspects of a true education. He prescribed walking through the woods in the middle of the day, spending more time on park benches with my colleagues, and even going into therapy to see if I could develop insights that could help me unpack my days.
Now, having studied how our brains manage focus and unfocus, I understand what my supervisor already knew: there was no nuance to my cognitive rhythm.
When you think of great rhythm, you likely think first of music—say, Michael Jackson’s or Elvis Presley’s dancing—or you conjure the amazing riffs of a guitarist like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, or Keith Richards. In all those instances, a run of notes or movement repeats with regularity—a defining beat with on and off moments. Play “Voodoo Child,” “Come as You Are,” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and you’ll connect instantly with an extraordinary rhythm.
But rhythm is not only a musical concept. It’s essential in your body as well. Your heart has to expand and contract on time. You have to breathe in and out with great regularity. And you can’t escape the circadian rhythm of sleep-wake cycles. Cognitive rhythm is the ability to intermingle focus and unfocus (the on and off moments) in the most effective way.
On any given day, you have to be prepared for and respond accordingly to the tumult of life: the constant starting, stopping, negotiating of “bumps,” and changing direction. As I discovered in medical school, if the only tool that you have in your thinking toolkit is focus, you will quickly become fatigued. Your brain will shut down prematurely. That’s far from optimal. It’s far better if you proactively learn to prevent it before it crashes. Furthermore, even though you aren’t aware of it, studies show that you spend close to half of your day in mini–mental journeys away from the task at hand. This kind of spontaneous fluctuation is no more an effective use of brainpower than the switching off that happens when you’re completely exhausted.
Like the difference between a light bulb blowing a fuse and dimming the lights to save energy, there’s a huge difference between running out of steam and putting your brain on one of its dimmer modes. In the latter case, you can metaphorically turn the light back on to bright again when you need or want it. In the former, you’re finished for the time being!
Surfing Your Brainwaves
Although a brain cell’s resting voltage is less than that of an AA battery, electricity passing across the cell membrane generates a massive force—about fourteen million volts per meter, more than four times the force required to produce lightning during a thunderstorm. Multiply that by 100 billion brain cells, and that’s the magnitude of your brainpower! It’s impressive, to say the least.
From the moment of birth, your brain is generating these electrical impulses across its complex landscape. The impulses occur as waves, and every thought, feeling, and behavior corresponds with a different combination of such waves. Attention is no exception. It’s useful to think of waves of attention as musical notes—the low-pitched notes of a trombone, the high-pitched notes of a flute, and everything in between. Even at baseline, your brain’s attention fluctuates, aiming for a harmony among these different notes with astounding speed, power, and accuracy. Doctors can detect these “notes” with an EEG (electroencephalogram) much as they can capture your heart’s rhythm with an EKG (electrocardiogram). When we look at all the waves that people can generate, they appear on a continuum from more to less frequent and, therefore, from faster to slower.
Beta waves are the “focus” waves. They would appear on your EEG when your eyes are glued to whatever task you’re doing. Following beta down the “musical scale” are alpha, theta, and delta waves, each respectively slower, reflecting states of unfocus ranging from pure relaxation to meditation and deep sleep. Gamma waves are the odd ones out. Faster than beta waves, they nonetheless come on when you’re either focused or unfocused, suggesting that focus and unfocus are not as separate as we might think.
Each of these brainwave “settings” correlates with a different brain function. Being a peak performer at anything—a homemaker, a teacher, a CEO, a chess player, a researcher—requires knowing when and how to switch between the different settings. And, most important, it requires understanding that these waves work together to create the best brain states to perform the task at hand.
Your Circuits in Sync
Some people have astounding lucidity. They impress us with their seemingly tireless productivity and razor-sharp clarity. Georg Philipp Telemann, for example, composed two hundred overtures in a two-year period, and Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, a flexible catheter, bifocal eyeglasses, and umpteen other things. They were masters of the frontoparietal cortex, or what I call the focus circuit. Always on task, they have focus on demand.
Part of a larger central executive network (CEN), the focus circuit keeps you on task even when you’re not as extreme as Telemann or Franklin. Whether you’re following a recipe or performing a complex procedure, filling out your tax forms or listening carefully to your GPS as you make your way through unknown territory, your focus networks are like a flashlight, lighting up the path just ahead.
Yet this faculty by itself is woefully insufficient, and on its own, razor-sharp clarity can feel shallow. It’s like a piano player playing all the right notes but without heart. To be sure, if you have ever played or heard the music of Telemann, you know that he relied on much more than focus to create his music. That said, this shallowness manifests in those who, unlike him, in so many other areas of life, stick only to focus: the bureaucratic boss, the one-dimensional bottom-liner, the workhorse colleague whose reports are precise yet lack depth. Their pronouncements are clear, yet they leave us wanting more nuance. To extend the GPS metaphor: You want to know what awaits you farther along your trip. You want to at least know the midterm future, or be able to anticipate the next hour, rather than see only the road immediately ahead.
Nuance and depth require diffusing the beam of the focus flashlight so that you can see important objects and details in your periphery as well. The brain circuit that allows for this broadening of vision is the default mode network, or what I refer to as the unfocus circuit. Before science understood its true function, the DMN was thought of as the “Do Mostly Nothing” circuit. But over time, we have come to see that it is one of the greatest consumers of energy in the brain. Moreover, it is extensively connected with the focus circuits, in a kind of brainwave overflow and integration. Focus and unfocus are like a good red sauce: it’s hard to tell if the meat is flavoring the sauce or the sauce is flavoring the meat. They simply work together.
In the brain, a mix of brainwaves enters and leaves each circuit with a preponderance of one type of wave for any particular function. For instance, at the peak of unfocus, alpha waves may appear in the DMN, but delta waves may also appear in certain unfocus regions, and they may be mixed with beta waves, because focus and unfocus circuits are constantly “talking” to each other. Similarly, more beta than delta waves may appear in the focus circuit, to orient your focused attention. But it’s rarely just one type of wave alone. Which is why talking about focused and unfocused circuits is a false dichotomy. They are acting at the same time and are designed to work together. It’s we who stop this natural connection in our brains when we overfocus.
The musician who is connected to a past tragedy while singing a sad song pulls on our heartstrings more effectively. It’s not just the technical execution of the voice that produces an amazing performance but also the convergence of technicality and precision with the diffuse past and future, with self and other. Unfocus circuits bring on this rich complexity and authenticity. And they can be trained too.
Fritz Reiner, a twentieth-century Hungarian-born conductor, is one of the greatest conductors of all time. Many attribute the world-class ascent of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) to his leadership. And it must have been entertaining to watch him at work: using his entire body, he would usher in the strings with his hands, then puff out his cheeks when it was the brass section’s turn, and when a section to his right had to stop while he was looking left, he would kick out a foot. As a testament to how great the CSO was under his direction, after hearing a performance in Boston, Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, said to the CSO, “You’re not men. You’re gods.”
As amazing a conductor as Reiner was, by most reports he was also tyrannical. He did not tolerate imperfections, and when he was rehearsing with the orchestra, he allowed nobody to be a slacker. When you were playing for him, you had to play perfectly. You had to attend to all of him. One slip, and you were in trouble. And when you were silent, you had to listen without distraction.
A musician playing for Reiner or any exacting conductor, as you can imagine, faces the cognitive challenge of being internally connected just enough to play deeply from the heart, but simultaneously of being exquisitely sensitive to what the others are playing and what the conductor is asking of him or her. A musician who becomes lost in the playing risks missing cues and really hearing what others are playing. A musician who focuses too intently on what others are doing or on what the conductor is prompting is likely to play with less heart and emotion. Somehow the brain has to manage the delicate balance between focus and unfocus.
But in our day-to-day lives, we sometimes forget this and behave like a musician who is paying attention only to Fritz Reiner and not to the other musicians. We may be so absorbed in a task that we notice nothing else. Leaders, parents, and sports team players face the same challenge: to be “in the zone,” yet also to be aware of their surroundings—to remember to focus and unfocus as well.
The Many Notes of Your DMN
When you understand the quality and extent of the DMN’s connections in the brain, the “working together” of focus and unfocus becomes more apparent.
It acts as a distraction filter: Paradoxically, unfocus circuits play an active and crucial role in keeping you focused; they act almost like sponges, absorbing distractions to keep you on a short-term task.
It builds mental flexibility: Unfocus circuits act as a pivot, helping you switch your attention from one task to the next. Engage your unfocus circuits enough, and your thinking becomes very flexible indeed.
It connects you more deeply with yourself and others: Unfocus circuits connect you with elements of your own story, stored in different parts of your brain. They are the chief writers of your autobiography. Your personal traits and self-reflections can all become part of the moment because your unfocus circuits can activate them at the same time. Unfocus circuits reach far back into your stored memories, letting your history inform every moment of focus. In this sense, they transport you toward yourself.
Srini Pillay, M.D., is a Harvard-trained practicing psychiatrist, a brain-imaging researcher, and a brain-based technology innovator. Currently a part-time assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, he is also an invited faculty member in the executive education programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education. He is the founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, an executive coaching, consulting, and technology business, which was named one of the top 20 leadership training Movers and Shakers in the world by Training Industry. His previous book, Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, won a Books for a Better Life Award. Born in Durban, South Africa, he now lives in Newton, Massachusetts.