Jane Birkenhead, June 17 2020

Take a break if you're studying for TOEFL. It will help.

Do you wonder if you are studying enough for TOEFL? Or, do you struggle to fit studying for TOEFL around your work and family commitments, and get frustrated because you always run out of time? If so, this post is for you! I’m going to explain why it’s important to take breaks from studying, and why studying less is sometimes a very good idea.

First, let me tell you a story. A few years ago, when I was first teaching TOEFL students, a new student told me that he studied for “8 to 10 hours a day, every day, even at weekends”. He did this all week, every week and he had studied like that for months. Also, he told me he was really struggling with TOEFL. He had attempted the exam many, many times and he had worked with a lot of different teachers but, he couldn’t understand why, with all the studying he was doing, he couldn’t get his target scores.

My first task with this student was to change his studying habits. To understand more about this and why it was necessary, first we need to jump in and learn a little bit of the psychology behind how our brains work when we’re studying.

The networks in our brains

Psychologists know that we have 2 different networks in our brains that are important when we’re studying. They control the flow of information in our brains. I’m going to call them Network A and Network B. We use Network A when we’re in a concentrating and attentive state, and we use Network B when we are in a resting, relaxed state. 

Network A => concentrating, attentive state 
Network B => resting, relaxed state

Okay, so we’ve got these two different networks in our brains. This explains how the information travels around. But now, we need to understand the different thinking processes that our brains use.

Thinking processes in our brains

There are two different thinking processes.

The thinking process associated with Network A is called focused thinking.
The thinking process associated with Network B is called diffused thinking.

Don’t worry about the meaning of these terms. We’re going to explore them a bit more in a minute. Both of these thinking processes are important in learning. You can switch between them but you can only be in one at a time.

Here’s a handy table to summarize what we’ve learnt so far:

Before we explore what each thinking process means and why each one is important for studying, let’s create a picture.

Imagine a flashlight shining into the darkness. It has two settings. If you switch on the first setting, you see a very narrow, very bright beam of light shining straight ahead. You can only see objects in that light,  but you can see them really clearly. 

This is the focused setting or mode. 

This is how the focused thinking process works.


The second setting on the flashlight shows a wider, softer beam of light. You can see straight ahead of you and also out to the side. But the light is softer and it’s hard to see things clearly. 

This is the diffused setting or mode. 

This is how the diffused thinking process works.

 Now we can match up these concepts:

Network A = focused thinking = flashlight setting 1 = focused mode of thinking 
Network B = diffused thinking = flashlight setting 2 = diffused mode of thinking

 The focused mode of thinking

The focused mode of thinking is associated with concentrating hard and problem solving. This is the kind of thinking that you do when you’re clearly focused on something. You might be reading a passage and answering questions, learning a new grammar construction, working on your pronunciation or practicing speaking responses – anything where you are actively studying. You will use the focused mode of thinking to do these tasks.

In this mode of thinking, the thought connections in your brain are very close together. There really isn’t space to do anything else.

And here’s the really important point – we naturally want to stay in focused thinking mode because it’s familiar and comfortable. It makes us feel busy. It’s what we associate with studying so, when we’re in focused thinking mode, we think we’re doing something useful.

The diffused mode of thinking

The diffused mode of thinking is what happens in the background while you’re doing something else. It’s what happens when you relax and let your attention wander. You know that feeling when you don’t mean to think about something, but suddenly you do and the understanding flows? That’s diffused thinking!

In this mode of thinking, the thought connections in your brain are much further apart. So this means the information isn’t constrained to one place. It can flow more freely.

The diffused mode of thinking is ESSENTIAL for learning and understanding. 

What does this mean for your TOEFL studying?

You need to spend time in focused thinking mode, but you also need to give your brain the opportunity to be in diffused thinking mode so that you can learn.  It's important to use both modes.

If you are always in focused thinking mode, you aren’t giving yourself the chance to absorb and reflect. Language learning works best when your brain can make connections between new material and what it already knows. It needs to be able to go into diffused thinking mode to do that.

Remember that we naturally want to stay in focused thinking mode because it’s familiar. This is why we keep studying. We keep practicing past exam questions or recording speaking responses, over and over again. Even if we keep getting answers wrong or we forget important grammar points or pronunciation, we keep doing it because we think that we should. It feels safe to stay in focused thinking mode.

So this means, sometimes, stopping studying and going to do something else completely unrelated to TOEFL is much better for your brain, and therefore more effective for your studying, than doing another set of exam style questions.

My student, from my story, never gave himself the opportunity to let his brain absorb what he had learnt. He was always in the focused thinking mode and that’s why he found TOEFL so hard and why he was so frustrated.

How to switch between focused thinking mode and diffused thinking mode

In order to study better, you need to be able to switch between focused thinking mode and diffused thinking mode.

You might need to practice this and to give yourself permission to stop studying. A studying schedule can help. Allocate a certain amount of time for studying. Keep focused while you are studying, but then, take a break.

During your break (which can be just a few minutes or much longer timeframe like a whole evening), relax and distract yourself. Do something completely different. Don’t actively think about TOEFL. Maybe go for a walk, take a nap, do some exercise, clean the bathroom, listen to music, do yoga, cook a meal, dance…anything that means you relax.

Give your brain the chance to go into diffused thinking mode. I do my best diffused thinking either when I’m running or when I’m in the shower! You’ll find, as you practice this switch between focused thinking and diffused thinking, that you will get better at it.

Why you must do this

It’s a little bit like exercising. If you constantly exercise but don’t rest, you won’t improve and you may even hurt yourself. But if you exercise, then rest, you’ll improve. During the break, your body repairs itself and becomes stronger. Taking a break is better for your overall improvement.

It’s exactly the same for TOEFL studying. If you keep consciously thinking about TOEFL, your brain will be prevented from going into the diffused mode of thinking.  And the diffused mode of thinking is essential for making connections, learning and improving.

So, take a break, don't feel guilty about it, and know that you are helping yourself to study better.

A happy ending

I taught my student about focused and diffused thinking and a few months after we started working together, he was successful in TOEFL.

“Relaxation is an important part of hard work – and good work, for that matter.”


The information in this post about focused and diffused thinking, the explanations and the end quote, are taken from A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley, PhD (tarcherperigee, 2014).

Header photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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