in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: August 22, 2023

Podcast #918: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind

There are tons of podcasts, blog posts, and books about how to get more focused. Focus is seen as the key to greater productivity and success.

While focus is important, my guest says there are also amazing powers to be found in something that gets a lot less attention: the unfocused mind.

Dr. Srini Pillay is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, a brain-imaging researcher, and the author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. Today on the show, Srini explains the downsides of excessive focus, the importance of tapping into the unfocused mind, especially in the age of A.I., and the benefits of doing so, including how mind wandering can help you be more productive and creative, allow you to see greater possibilities for your life, and offer important insights that will get you unstuck from problems. He shares strategies to incorporate unfocused time into your lifestyle, including how to make daydreaming more beneficial and why you should let yourself doodle without guilt. Srini also makes a case for multitasking in the sense of switching back and forth between different tasks.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. There are tons of books, blog posts and podcasts about how to get more focused. Focus is seen as the key to greater productivity and success. While focus is important, my guest says there are also amazing powers to be found in something that gets a lot less attention: The unfocused mind. Dr. Srini Pillay is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, a brain-imaging researcher, and the author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. Today on the show, Srini explains the downsides of excessive focus, the importance of tapping into the unfocused mind, especially in the age of AI, and the benefits of doing so, including how mind wandering can help you be more productive and creative, allow you to see greater possibilities for your life, and offer important insights that will get you unstuck from problems. He shares strategies to incorporate unfocused time into your lifestyle, including how to make daydreaming more beneficial and why you should let yourself doodle without guilt.

Srini also makes the case for multitasking in the sense of switching back and forth between different tasks. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

Alright. Dr. Srini Pillay. Welcome to the show.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Thanks so much for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you are a Harvard-trained psychiatrist. You’ve also taught at the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Business School. You’re a CEO of a consultant group, it’s called NeuroBusiness Group. It’s executive coaching where you implement some of the things from your academic background in your medical practice as a psychiatrist. I wanted to bring you on the show ’cause you wrote a really great book called Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. And that unfocused mind thing really caught my attention ’cause I think a lot of books, podcast, blog post articles are all about how to get more focused, we all wanna be more focused because we feel distracted with our smart phones and the internet. But one of the things you start off with your book is you argue that focus can be good, but being too focused comes with some downsides, what happens when we focus too much?

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yeah, so I do think that focus is good, I think we all need to focus to be able to make it to appointments on time and to be able to get tasks done, but when we focus too much, there are several things that can happen in the brain that could be problematic. The first is that when you focus, you can create what we call pre-frontal cortex depletion, and really what that is, is the thinking part of the brain loses energy. And one experiment, for example, showed that if you just… They took two groups of people, one group is focusing on the video really intensely, the other group was just looking at it normally. And then they gave them a problem to solve at the end of that, and what they found was that in cases where they could have saved people’s lives, the people who focused too much couldn’t care less until they were fed glucose.

And what this tells us is that when you deplete the thinking brain, it also depletes your capacity to care. Which is why sometimes you come home really exhausted from work, and someone tells you something that sounds like you should react to it, but you just don’t have the energy to react to it. So the first piece is about energy depletion. Also, if you are too focused, you’re not really paying attention to what’s going on around you, and as a result, if you’re someone who has a business and there are new, there are other competitors who are working in a particular way, you may not be aware of them. If you are focused with your nose to the grindstone, it’s really difficult to know about upcoming trends. If you were just looking at what you were looking at, you would not know about what’s going on with AI and how this could change your business.

Also, when you focus, you’re looking at one point, and when you look at just one point, it’s difficult to innovate because innovation and creativity often require making connections across two or more points. And finally, what we know about the unfocused circuit in the brain, and there actually is a circuit like that, what we know about the unfocused circuit is that when you unfocus, you actually activate the part of your brain that codes for self, the part that is involved in self-awareness, self-regulation. And so it’s really only when you go off a focus that you can more deeply connect with yourself. I like to say to people that when you focus, it’s a little bit like your brain operates with a version of you that’s more like your LinkedIn profile.

And everybody knows your LinkedIn profile doesn’t really describe what is particular about you. Whereas when you turn on the unfocused circuit, this actually metaphorically invites other utensils to the table. The focused circuit is more like just having a fork that picks up sort of big elements about who you are, but the unfocused circuit will invite things like a spoon to express the delicious melange of flavors of your actual identity. It will also invite chopsticks to the table so that you can make connections across your brain, and it will invite sort of anything that can dig into nooks and crannies to be able to reveal details that your focussed brain cannot reveal.

So all in all, the problems with excessive focus, are that it depletes your thinking brain of energy and makes you care less, it also prevents you from seeing what’s going on around you, it prevents you from seeing what’s coming up ahead, it prevents you from being creative, and it prevents you from expressing the fullness of who you are. And as a result of that, being able to not just live through the day with focus, focus, focus, fatigue, but to build in periods of unfocus can be particularly helpful.

Brett McKay: I imagine everyone has experienced the fatigue that comes with just focusing all day. They’re at work and they have to focus on a task or maybe multiple tasks. They’re shifting their focus from one task to the next and by the time they get home, they’re just exhausted. I just experienced this, the focus fatigue. Recently, I was driving home on a back road here in Oklahoma, and there was a big storm and it was raining and you can’t really see, and so I had to pay a lot of attention to get my family home safely ’cause I got to watch the road ’cause visibility was low. And when I got done with that trip, it was only an hour, but I was tired, I was tired as I needed a break for about an hour to recoup myself from just all the hyper-vigilance I was in in that hour long period. And that idea of when you focus too much, you might miss things in your periphery. I know that fighter pilots have to deal with this, there’s this idea with fighter pilots, it’s target lock where they get so keyed in on a target that they stop paying attention to their environment and then they might get hit by an enemy that was behind them that they weren’t paying attention to because they’re so focused on the target ahead of them.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yeah, in fact, and there are also examples in the business literature. You know, An Wang who invented the word processor was so intent on inventing Version 2 that he didn’t notice that the PC was actually being invented. Had he known that he might have thought differently. But if you’re only focused on what you’re doing and you’re not paying attention to competitors, you can really lose out in business as well. So it’s not just the physical focus, but also in terms of a lifestyle, being able to take time out to unfocus can have huge consequences.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned when we focus or unfocus, we use two different systems in our brain. What system do we use when we focus?

Dr. Srini Pillay: So first of all, and I mean this an over-simplification, but when you focus, you’re mostly using what we call the central executive network, or sometimes simplified as the prefrontal cortex, which is really the thinking brain. When you unfocus, you are using a network called the default mode network, which actually requires a lot of energy, which is why a lot of people just avoid using that circuit. For example, if I said to you, “What’s your next task?” That’s pretty much using your focused brain and you’ll tell me what that is. But if I ask you what is the greatest possibility for you in your life, suddenly you’re plunged into this kind of unfocused space where you’ve gotta search for answers. Part of the reason I think this is such a timely conversation for us to be having is I believe that in terms of what we can do with our focused brains, AI, artificial intelligence is gonna be very, very, very good at that. And what we have is this capability in the DMN or default mode network, and I think the more we can learn how to exercise those capabilities, the more we’ll be able to work with the advances in technology as well.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it was interesting about the default mode network. For a long time in psychology and psychiatry and cognitive science, they didn’t really know what that was about. They just thought, well, there’s this thing that your brain does when it’s not focused, but they didn’t really think about, well, it’s actually doing something productive and useful. And it wasn’t until, I think in the past 20 years where they just finally figured out, wait, this is actually really important.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yeah, in fact, I used to joke that we used to think of the DMN as the do mostly nothing network, because we used to think, you know, this thing that’s just active when you’re idle, so maybe it’s like just idling the way an engine would idle. But then when you take a look at what the default mode network can do, it’s really quite a magnificent network. There are three things that perhaps I could highlight about that network. The first is that it turns the brain into a crystal ball. Meaning the default mode network is wired for prediction. So if you’re trying to predict more effectively. Like when I’ve worked with fund managers, for example, who’ve built these unfocused times into their lives, they’re able to make calls on the proper investments in much more effective ways when they activate this network by changing their lifestyles.

Also, the default mode network is really wired to provide a level of detail that the prefrontal cortex cannot. The focused brain can pick up large amounts of information and can pick up large chunks of information, but for the real subtle things, you need to activate the default mode network. The other thing is that the default mode network is super important when it comes to abstract and complex thinking. One of my pet peeves in the way we’re communicating medical information these days, we’re communicating information as if there’s only one size-fits-all. People will say you should lower your LDL cholesterol.

Well, there have been a lot of studies in prominent medical journals that show that it’s really important to lower your LDL cholesterol. But studies also show that in certain instances, you might increase your chances of dying if you lower that. Similarly, people will say antioxidants are really important in food, but we also know that there’s a literature that shows that antioxidants can increase the rate of malignant progression. So how do you put all of this together? Well, you actually can’t look at each recommendation separately. Ideally, you wanna be able to create a complexity of thinking that applies to you. If you just listen to one set of recommendations with your focused brain, you might go ahead and follow that set of recommendations. But over time, you learn about the abstraction of who you are as a subjective human, and you begin to group these variables and ideally this will be done by AI for us in the near future, but what AI can do is then represent this kind of complexity.

And the reason I’m even talking about artificial intelligence is because I think that we’re at a point where we really need to focus on what we want to hone in human intelligence, and I believe that learning strategic ways to unfocus can be super helpful.

Brett McKay: When you talk about… Yeah, what we’re seeing now is, I think you said earlier, is that artificial intelligence is starting to be able to do some of the stuff that are prefrontal cortex, the central executive network is able to do. The thing it can’t do very well yet, and maybe could never do very well, is that default mode network stuff.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yes, absolutely. In fact, that’s something that I’m actively working on right now. Trying to understand how we can help people hone their intuition, hone empathy, mentalize, understand other people’s points of view. We have some amazing capabilities as humans, and we have these networks that are geared to actually operate at levels that it’s difficult to make machines operate at. For example, when artificial intelligence is working, it’s mostly through associations and speed. Whereas there are phenomena that have yet to be explained in human existence that have to do with things like what Carl Jung called Meaningful Coincidence, where we seem to have the ability to not just make associations, but to feel our way into the future to be able to make things happen.

And so I think our capacity to feel is remarkable, and there are extensive connections between the default mode network and some of the feeling centers in the brain. So I do think that honing our skills in the realm of what we can do like intuition, imagination… Artificial intelligence can imagine something upon instruction. We have a certain freedom to be able to create, and I think that what’s exciting about this next phase of life is that we can work on these more human capabilities, allowing us to accentuate our humanity as well.

Brett McKay: One of the points you make in the book when you’re taking about these two systems, the CEN and the DMN, is that they work together naturally. If we just left things alone and try not to manipulate, you know try to focus more, there would be a rhythm. What does that rhythm look like typically, and then how do we mess it up?

Dr. Srini Pillay: So yeah, the central executive Network, the focused network and the unfocused network, the default mode network, do work together well, but we have to figure out how to change our days. I’ll give you an example of just from a personal example, and then I’ll give you some ideas of strategically how you can accentuate this cognitive rhythm. When I went to Harvard, I was sort of very ambitious. I wanted to really go to… I went to 100% of my didactics. I stayed in the hospital units until late at night. I read every single thing that was given to me, and at the end of my first quarter, I expected to get really amazing feedback, and I thought I’d done really well. And when I spoke with my supervisors, one of the things they said was, “You know, you clearly know the most information in the class, but we’re really worried about you. We don’t see you sitting on park benches during the day. You go to 100% of your didactics, shows no discernment. If you wanted to train like that, this is probably not the place for you.”

“What we want you to do is develop the fullness of your intelligence. And we recognize that off time is as important to your creative ideation as is on time.” And that really sort of woke me in a certain way because I realized…

Initially, I thought, well, what do you mean? Isn’t it just important to just be working all the time and absorbing all that information? But I realized that in the same way that people get their best ideas in the shower, creating these off times gives your brain a time to sort this out. So one of the questions you asked was, how do you then establish this cognitive rhythm? I would say principle number one is build frequent times during your day when you can actually take a break, but take a break strategically. And here are some things that you can do. The first thing is, and there are caveats with each of these, but the first thing is napping, 5-10 minutes of napping can give you one to three hours of clarity.

Brett McKay: Now, sometimes in the middle of your afternoon, you might be dragging through the day and you’ve got five more things on your list, and you just say, “I’m just gonna get this finished.” Well, if you just 5-15 minutes to nap, you would be able to then come back to that task with a much clearer brain. Now, you might ask, well, is napping always good? But it actually isn’t always good. So if you nap too much so that it disrupts your sleep, this can affect your cardiac function. So you really want to think about what you’re napping for and how often you’re napping. So I would say once or twice a week when you’re exhausted, take those 5-15 minutes if you want greater clarity.

Dr. Srini Pillay: For greater creativity, you actually need 90 minutes of napping, and most people don’t have 90 minutes to nap during the day. But if you’re taking the weekend off and you have a creative problem at hand, try going back to that problem after taking 90 minutes off. And then see if that improves your performance. The other thing you can do is take booster breaks of just 15 minutes. 15 minutes of physical activity each day can actually completely clear up your mind, it can even improve the relationships with people around you and decrease your stress. So taking booster breaks can be super helpful. Then there’s doodling. It’s just scribbling on a piece of paper. Jackie Andrade and her colleagues found that doodling improves memory by 29%, and that’s because your brain is less like a stiff sponge and is much more absorbent of information. Now, more recent studies have shown that you actually should be doodling something that’s relevant to the conversation, so I would add that to that as well. So there’s napping, there’s doodling, there’s booster breaks…

Then there’s a concept called psychological Halloweenism. It’s a term that I coined, and it refers to a study that showed that if the same person takes on the identity of an eccentric poet, that person is more likely to be creative statistically significantly, than if they took on the identity of a rigid librarian.

Now, this to me is a pretty profound study because what it tells us is that when we’re not able to solve problems in our lives, whether it’s a day-to-day problem or a relationship problem or a work-related problem, it tells us the problem is not how we think, it’s who we think we are. And if you embody the personality of someone who is different from you, it will change your pattern of thinking to be more like that person. So napping, doodling, psychological Halloweenism are all really important ways in which you can help your brain to unfocus.

The key is to do this regularly throughout the day. Now, most people will say, “Well, I don’t have time to actually do this.” What I would say is, I completely understand that. And if you wanna start small then start with maybe two 15-20 minute breaks. But consider the following, consider the fact that McKinsey has a study showing that CEOs who are in a flow state, meaning they are locked into their work, are five times more productive than CEOs who are not in a flow state. That means you can do five days of work if you are locked in, in one day. And so it’s not that there’s not enough time, it’s about the quality of focus that we can help by preparing the brain with unfocused.

Brett McKay: Okay, so help me make sure I’m on the same page. When we focus, we take in information, we read a text, we’re writing things, making lists, maybe even just thinking about things intentionally, like a problem. When we do that, does our DMN, the default mode network kind of soak that in, and then when we let the DMN do its thing, it sort of takes the things that we’ve input into our brain with our executive function and starts going down different roads where we can get these new insights that we otherwise wouldn’t have if we just stayed in focus mode.

Dr. Srini Pillay: So yeah, the moment you focus and again, this is a slight over-simplification, but it’s a good overall principle and overall, this is true. The moment you focus, the DMN is turned off, and so it’s your central executive network and your prefrontal cortex that is turned on. When you unfocus, this information is handed over to the DMN for processing, and the DMN can then come up with these insights. It can then feed this information and these insights back to your prefrontal cortex or central executive network to then execute on the task logically. You know, a good example of this is Albert Einstein, who said that his discovery was a musical perception. Now, the theory of relativity obviously has a lot of logical steps connected to it, but what he’s saying is that to source information, you actually have to be in this unfocused state, so you activate the default mode network.

There are other people as well, Kary Banks Mullis who discovered a way of making synthetic DNA called PCR. Kary Banks Mullis was actually… His lab mates didn’t like him at all ’cause he didn’t follow a strict protocol, he discovered this while he was driving from Berkeley to Mendocino with his girlfriend in his car, where he had a bottle of wine in the car that he was taking home. He stopped, he scribbled on a cave face, then went to their little place, and then suddenly things started coming to him. Sara Blakely, who founded Spanx, she founded Spanx while she was preparing for a party. So there are a lot of different examples of how unfocus can truly help. And I think Steve Jobs really captured this well in his quote in his Stanford Commencement speech when he said, “In life, you cannot join the dots moving forward. You can join them looking backwards, but to move forward, you have to have something.” And he called it, gut, karma, life destiny, whatever. And I’m calling it the default mode network, and I’m saying that in order to move forward into the black box that life often is, because things change so much, building unfocus into our lives will help us to join those dots.

Brett McKay: Another person or a group of people that comes to mind where they use the power of unfocus to make an important insight or discovery, Watson and Crick with the double helix DNA. They spent so much time focused on the problem trying to figure out what does DNA look like, and it wasn’t until they just took a break that the insight finally came to them. I think it might… One of them might them have been a dream or it was like it was sleep or a nap, where they finally got the insight. Charles Darwin, he spent maybe just a few hours a day focused, thinking and writing, but then he’d just spend the rest of the day just walking. And that’s where he got the insights for natural selection.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yeah, I’m so glad you point out those different examples ’cause I think that part of it is that particular element of taking time out to unfocus, and part of it is also thinking about the way you can structure your life, because people who have more hobbies, for example, often do better than people with fewer hobbies. So the unfocus pertains to that as well.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so there’s different ways we can wander into this default mode network, you mentioned a few, taking naps, taking breaks, moving your body, you also talk about just letting your mind wander. I think we’ve all had those moments where you zone out, where you’re just staring at a wall and you think, “Oh my gosh, why did I zone out what’s wrong with me?” But I’ve actually… It feels good ’cause you’ve probably taken a break from all that focus that you’ve been engaging in, but you also start thinking weird things that maybe, not all the time, but maybe might provide an insight, so don’t be afraid of mind wandering as well.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yeah, when it comes to mind wandering, studies have shown that mind wandering can be associated with depression, because a lot of times, and also with anxiety, ’cause your mind starts wandering to all those bad things, the stuff that’s worrying you. So part of what you wanna do when you’re thinking about mind wandering is say to yourself, how can I actually do this in a way that’s strategically positive? One type of mind wandering is called positive constructive daydreaming, and this was studied by Jerome Singer in the 1950s. And what Singer said was that daydreaming at your desk and looking out the window is not that helpful. Daydreaming when you’re thinking about just the prior nights indiscretions, “What did I say at the party?” That’s not that helpful. But positive constructive daydreaming is helpful. And this is the way you do this. You set aside 20 minutes, you do something low key like knitting, gardening or walking, obviously needs to be something that is truly low key for you, and then you just let your mind go to something that is positive or wishful, like running through the woods with your dog or lying on a yacht.

And by doing this, your perception becomes decoupled from the environment and like a torch that swings inwards, your mind starts paying attention to what’s inside you. And so mind wandering can result in feelings of distress, but if you wanna counter this, use this technique of positive constructive daydreaming, because that then immediately sets the tone that what you’re gonna be thinking about is positive.

Brett McKay: Can journaling or just sort of, just free write journaling could that help as well?

Dr. Srini Pillay: Absolutely. There’s lots of examples in history, I think Eleanor Roosevelt might have been one of those people who actually used free writing to decrease and write their anxieties away. And I wrote about this in Harvard Health once, that the fact that any kind of freeform writing lets your mind go and lets your mind go into very special places. But as another personal example, another thing that I do is I’m a musician, and I decided that I wanted to write… I wanted to just write something, but I didn’t know what it was. And one day in the middle of a piano lesson I just said to my piano teacher, “I don’t feel like playing the piano, I just wanna sing.” And so he was a pretty regimented guy, and said, “Well, what would you like to sing about?”

I said, “I don’t know.” And said, “Well, what key do you want to sing in?” I said, “I don’t know, I just would like you to sit at the piano and I wanna see what’s gonna come out, and let’s see what happens.” And by using this technique, in just over a month, I had composed 42 songs with zero planning, zero decision, I didn’t even really know what story I was putting together. It was on a long trip back from the East somewhere where I once said, “Okay, I’m gonna listen to all of this, see what it is I’ve been wanting to say, and then backtrack and then fill in the gaps where those gaps need to be filled.” And I think what that really taught me was that initially he was quite alarmed and was like, “Why don’t you just plan this out and sketch it out?” And I said, “No, I do that the rest of my time.”

Just one hour a week. Why don’t I just meet myself in the moment and see what’s gonna come out, and I would recommend to people that this is not some special talent, everybody has this default mode network, everybody has a central executive network, why not see what’s waiting for you in your brain by waiting on yourself.

Brett McKay: Well you talk about yeah, be intentional about it. Set aside time in your schedule your day for this period, so you have… You call it a tinker table. Instead of a timetable, you set up a tinker table where it’s like, I’m gonna schedule the times where I’m just gonna let myself run free, whether that means I’m gonna use a music lesson just to improvise and come up with stuff. Or it could be, I’m just gonna use an hour where I’m just gonna draw and just see where it goes, you have to be intentional about it ’cause if you’re not there’s so many other things out there that can control your attention, that wants your attention, your focused attention, so if you want to create that default mode network time, you have to create it for yourself.

Dr. Srini Pillay: I really think so. And the reason I call it a tinker table is that in the same way that you schedule in actual appointments during the day, schedule this tinkering time into your day. I can’t tell you how many organizations I speak to about burnout and about what the different causes of burnout are, and about how they can approach this, and everybody understands what that is. But when push comes to shove and I say, “Who’s gonna implement this?” Most people say, “I don’t have the time to implement this, I don’t have the time to take time off, I don’t have the time to do this for myself.” And essentially, what I’ve said to them is that what we all need from time to time is some kind of reskilling for self-care. We need to realize that we’re taking care of ourselves in a way that makes life more enriching if we build these tinker tables. You’re not just rushing through your day and trying to get everything checked off and not really caring about taking these times off is doing a disservice to yourself.

Brett McKay: I think when sometimes when people… I know I do this when I have a break, when I wanna take a break. I’ll immediately go to the internet, so I’m taking a break from my focused work work, and then I’ll just, “Well I’m just gonna gonna browse the internet, see what’s on Instagram or see what’s on the news site. Is that detrimental or should people… Is that okay to let your mind wander the internet like that?

Dr. Srini Pillay: So I think studies in general show both sides of it, that sometimes if your mind’s wandering, you might be wandering only into negative information, so it depends on how much negative information versus positive information you’re allowing your mind to wander into. So in general, I think that that’s okay, but there is a void in your mind that’s an important place to reach so that you can become a creator of your new future. Wandering through the internet I think it’s a great way to take yourself off of super focused tasks, but what if you use this time to use what I call possibility thinking. A lot of people don’t realize that possibility, just the hope, the possibility of something actually changes your brain chemistry. It can increase your opioids, helping you to de-stress, and it could also, it can really help you calm down, and it can help you control your brain much more effectively.

And one of the things that I like to remind people of is that possibility thinking involves asking the question, “What if?” Some of the greatest things in the world that have been created have been created in what if time. And again, most people will say, “I don’t have what if time,” but if you think about some people who I think are just great examples of possibility thinkers Martine Rothblatt, for example, who is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company now, had no background in medicine, but two of her kids had lung diseases and it was pulmonary hypertension, I believe. And there were no drugs out at all for this, she did what any loving mother would probably wish they had done, she decided to start a pharmaceutical company. She gathered the expertise that she needed, and she now has five drugs that have been approved so that her kids can breathe and other kids with the same disease can breathe. But she didn’t stop there. She then said, “But what if I could actually make lungs and so she’s now started to make lungs, but she also didn’t stop there, she asked, “What if I could invest in helicopters that could efficiently transport these lungs to people when they needed them?”

And when I talked to her about this and I said, “This is such a remarkable thing. How can anyone live to this level of life?” And she said, “It’s really not that remarkable, I just give myself time to think of what’s possible, and then I gather the resources to make that happen.” Now, for most of us, we’re always wishing and dreaming and thinking, “I wish I had more money, I wish I was less lonely, I wish I could feel happier.” But what if we committed to this possibility, what if we set aside time for this possibility? If you think about it, when you’re building a building, in most cases if you’re building a house, it doesn’t happen without a blueprint. And the blueprint takes time to put together. And then you’ve gotta get builders to build a house, and then you’ve gotta find a way to put all the stuff together. In the same way that you build a house, to build a life without a blueprint I think is a crime. Because you can change the blueprint, you can build new houses, you can build new possibilities, but why would one live a life without creating time for this blueprint?

Brett McKay: Okay, so we can go into default mode network on a day-to-day basis, where we intentionally blocking time where we’re just gonna let our mind wander and explore, daydream, journal, we could play, we could do music, we could walk, run, exercise, showers have been known to put people in that default mode network, that’s why you get these great insights while you’re taking a shower. I wanna talk a bit about multitasking ’cause you have a chapter dedicated in the book about this, and multitasking gets a bad rep. We talk about how we actually don’t multitask, we just instead shift our attention back and forth between tasks and we shouldn’t do that ’cause it just wears our brains out, but you actually… In this book, you make a case for multitasking, what do you think the benefits of multitasking are?

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yeah, so in general, I would say the overwhelming number of studies have shown that multitasking in the way that people usually do it, I had an experience recently where someone was on a Zoom call with me off-screen while they were on two other calls at the same time. And I was sort of wondering, how are they doing this? And can you really absorb information? I don’t think you can multitask like that and take in information. However, there are a group of people who are called supertaskers who are like expert jugglers who can juggle a number of different things in the course of a day. Now, if you have a rigid mindset, you’re not gonna give in to the freedom of juggling, you’re gonna keep on thinking in a rigid way, it’s gonna be hard to juggle throughout your day. But what studies show is that for the small percentage of people who do allow themselves this kind of freedom and flexibility, they are able to multitask.

Bob Johansen from the Institute of the Future, who talks about what we’re gonna be seeing in workers of the future, says that the future is really gonna be about continuous partial attention. Someone’s gonna pay attention to what’s on their phone, they’re gonna pay attention to what’s in their email, they’re gonna pay attention to some other tasks that they have to do that suddenly comes in. For each of these phenomena, there’s obviously a point at which it’s not helpful, but before it’s not helpful, if we can grant ourselves that flexibility, if we can train our brains to be flexible our ability to do those multiple things will probably improve. So while I don’t wholeheartedly recommend multitasking, I will say that supertasking is possible by developing the flexibility of your brain, and the default mode network can be super helpful with that.

Brett McKay: What is productive supertasking look like? What would that look like in a practical, concrete example?

Dr. Srini Pillay: Well, there are couple of different ways. I think if I think about what practical supertasking is, when I put videos together for marketing, for example, I will allow myself to acknowledge when I feel bored. So I’ll collect images, and then when I get bored of that, I’ll collect B-roll. And when I get bored of that, I’ll think about text, and then I’ll put this all into an iMovie file, for example, and then I’ll realize that I really had the permission to go back to stuff when I was not bored rather than just sticking to one thing. But in the end, I had a high quality experience by putting that all together. So productive supertasking is about how in certain situations, you don’t have to do everything from start to finish, you can stop midway, take a break, do something else, come back to what you’re doing and then start that again. In that way, boredom does not become a rule in your life. Boredom I think for a lot of people, boredom is one of those toxic forces that makes them burn out far more easily. Whereas if you could do something until you stop being interested, you can actually allow yourself to feel excited more often than not.

I do this sometimes with deadlines. Rather than setting one deadline for one project then going onto the next project, I’ll have three projects, and I’ll set a deadline that I have to meet, but I won’t have a rule about which task I’m gonna be working on at a particular point in the day. And what I find is that by giving myself permission to not be bored, by allowing myself to switch tasks when I need to, not only do I develop the ability to switch tasks, which has been shown by research, this capacity… It is possible to develop this capacity. What I also do is I give myself the opportunity to have a more excited and engaged life.

Brett McKay: Have you noticed when you do that task switching, so say you switch from one task to the next, you’re in a way, you’re giving your brain a chance to unfocus on that previous task and you’re focusing on this different task. Are you able to get the benefits of unfocus on that previous tasks, you know what I’m saying? So if you’re working on project B, do you get insights on project A while you’re working on project B?

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yes, I think a lot of the time you actually get insights. So task-switching can have a price in that if you completely lose connection with something and then you gotta come back to it and you gotta start all over again, that can be problematic, but if you can switch at a point where you can retain what you’ve been working on and then you move onto the next task, you often see… For me, I often see insights across both things. People will often ask me, how is it that you work at the intersection of science, art and technology? Well, I find them all… They’re all extremely exciting. I can design the art based on brain science, I can then ask actual digital artists to come work in our technology platform. I can work closely with a computer scientist to set up a machine learning algorithm that will match an experience to someone’s anxiety state, so that it’s individualized for them.

That only happens because I’m thinking in a cross-domain way, I’m thinking about the brain, I’m thinking about how might I design this video based on the brain, and then I’m thinking about how can I then create a machine learning algorithm that can deliver an experience that’s specific for an individual, that kind of thinking is not possible if you stick to one domain only.

Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned another way earlier how we multitask with probably not knowing that we’re multitasking, that’s doodling, like when we’re in a boring meeting and you might start doodling on a piece of paper. We talk about that actually can help you focus more, that multitasking is actually good for you.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yes, absolutely. So I think when you’re doodling, you’re actually giving yourself permission not to hyper-attend to something. Sometimes people will be so concerned about what they’re listening to that they don’t understand that letting your mind go can actually be extremely important.

Brett McKay: With the doodling, I know when you go back through some of the archives for the presidents, you look at their notes, they keep that stuff. A lot of them in these really big important meetings where they’re discussing battle plans, high level strategy, there’s doodles, like JFK has got doodles when he’s having meetings about nuclear arms negotiations, and you’re like, “Why… You should think, well, you should be focused man you should just be like… You shouldn’t be doodling. But it probably helped him.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Yeah, absolutely. And also, when you’re doodling, you’re also contemplating more deeply. You’re letting an idea sink into your mind. You’re listening, but you’re letting it sink into your mind and you’re also involving yourself in the listening. And I think that’s a pretty effective form of listening in many instances, and as you pointed out, there have been many notable presidents who’ve doodled as well.

Brett McKay: Okay, so don’t be afraid of doodling. If you’re at a meeting and you’re starting to feel antsy and bored and you start doodling, that’s okay. It can actually be helping you. Well Srini, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Dr. Srini Pillay: Well, thanks so much, Brett. Yeah, lovely talking to you. You can find me at You can also find me at, N as in Nancy and B as in boy, G as in girl, and you can follow me on Instagram at @drsrinipillay.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Srini Pillay, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Srini Pillay: Thanks so much, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Dr. Srini Pillay, he’s author of the book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, it’s available on You can find more information about his work at his website,, also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources and delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure check on our website at, where you’ll find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will got something out of it, as always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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