Can’t write? Can’t draw? Here’s why you should doodle

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Scientists now believe there are excellent reasons you should doodle. Don’t view doodling as dilly-dallying or time-wasting…

My mother became an artist at the age of 65. She took up chalk pastels and almost immediately started producing beautiful, saleable work.

That’s a photo of one of my favourite pieces of hers, above. It now sits proudly on my diningroom wall.

Sadly, this talent skipped a generation. My daughters enjoyed drawing and painting when they were young. But I can’t do either. My drawings look like something a 6-year-old might produce on a bad day: why you should doodleThey feature square houses with triangle-shaped roofs. Stick figures with triangles for dresses or two rectangles for pants. Little Vs that are supposed to be birds.

Until recently, I’d even felt shame for my doodling, which has always seemed pathetic and banal to me. You can see some of what I used to call my lame-ass doodles, adjacent.

The benefits of doodling

But I’m embarrassed no longer. In fact, I’ve become a pro-doodling zealot after reading the book The Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown. If you’re a writer or a student or a business executive or … well, anyone, really … you should doodle.

Doodling is not dilly-dallying or wasting time. It’s not meaningless or something of little value or substance. Most of all, it’s not doing nothing.

Here are five reasons why all writers should doodle:

1-Doodling improves our memory

A 2009 study conducted by Professor Jackie Andrade found doodlers recalled facts significantly better than non-doodlers. In the study, participants had to listen to a (supremely boring) message about an upcoming party and then write down the names of all the people who could attend the party.

Researchers asked half of the participants to fill in the squares and circles on a piece of paper while listening. They told the other half to listen to the message and write the names. No doodling allowed.

But here was the surprising result: Those who doodled during the tape recalled 7.5 pieces of information (out of 16 total) on average, some 29% more than the average of 5.8 recalled by the control group.

2-Doodling helps us with focused thinking

People often think that doodlers are daydreamers but, in fact, the opposite is true. Daydreaming demands a lot of the brain’s processing power.

Begin thinking about your dream house, for example, and you might start pondering that new kitchen you really want. Before you know it you’re down the rabbit hole with a fancy induction stove, a Sub-Zero fridge and hand-made Italian tiling.

In other words, you’re thoroughly distracted.

Doodling actually shuts down these distractions and keeps us more focused on the task at hand. That’s because when we doodle, we don’t daydream. And we save our brain’s “executive functioning” for more important stuff.

3-Doodling is pleasurable

When we’re stressed, most of us have nervous habits we fall back upon. Perhaps we bite our nails, drink too much wine, crack our knuckles, or talk too much. These habits might calm us, but they seldom make us feel any better.

Doodling, however, feels great. It harms no one, not even ourselves. It’s something we can do without thinking and with the right tools — just paper and a pencil — is even fun and relaxing.

4-Doodling gets us unstuck

I frequently suggest that writers walk more often. It’s one of the best ways I know to have fresh ideas and break writing-related log-jams. Turns out doodling can do some of the same thing.

Cartoonist Lynda Barry says that when she’s stuck, she knows to move her hands. Doodling, she argues, helps us endure.

“It’s almost microscopic,” she says, “but without it, time feels like a cheese grater, and in doodling, it’s a little more bearable.

“If you start to think about the arts as a way of transforming time or transforming your experience, then it gets interesting, instead of being ‘this is a nice picture’ or ‘this is a picture that sucks’.”

5-Doodling helps us see the forest and the trees

Rather than relying on words, doodles allow us to hit the sweet spot in our brains where we are paying close attention but not overthinking. Sometimes, when we’re too focused, we overthink.

When doodling, however, we don’t pay as much attention to the minor details. Instead, we focus on fundamental ideas — otherwise known as the big picture.

If none of this convinces you, let me tell you about some of the famous doodlers of history: Steve Jobs. John Keats. Albert Einstein. Nikola Tesla. Leonardo da Vinci. And just about every American president ever. Yes, really!

But to get the benefits of doodling, you need to keep a couple of principles in mind.

You don’t need to be an artist to doodle

Doodling is not about drawing; it’s about thinking. Or, more precisely, giving your brain time to think. Doodling is what I’d call a “mindless” activity. You shouldn’t have to work hard at it. It’s simply something to keep your hands busy while your brain works.

For this reason, don’t make your doodles pretty or beautiful. Instead, simply keep your pencil-holding hand moving.

And remember this trick when you’re mind mapping. If your mind ever goes blank or you don’t know what to write next, do some doodling. This simple act will help your brain to come up with fresh ideas.

There is more than one style of doodling

There is likely a style of doodling that comes naturally to you. Here are some examples:why you should doodle

  • Word doodles: you write or print a word and then re-trace it many times. Perhaps you even sketch in some decorations around it, as I have here with the word “cool.”
  • Abstract doodles: you make geometric patterns that don’t result in a recognizable object or form.
  • Nature doodles: you draw flowers, trees, mountains, suns, stars, moons.
  • Picture doodles: you draw images such as pencils, cups, tables, cars.
  • People and face doodles: drawn to the human form, you draw cartoon-type images of real or imaginary people.

Like many non-artists, I had always attributed more value to the more recognizable images. This is incorrect! Doodling is not about making something look like “the real thing.” It’s about freeing your brain to think.

If you are an artist, of course, you can doodle recognizable objects. Knock yourself out! But this is not a requirement of doodling. Even people with two left hands — like me — can learn to doodle.

Find your own doodling style

Just as we’re all naturally inclined to write in a certain way (and can train ourselves to write in different ways) we’re also inclined to doodle in certain ways.

Start with whatever style of doodling feels most natural to you and go from there. Remember: it doesn’t matter if you can’t draw. Surely you can retrace a word many times. Or do an abstract doodle, right?

If you’re ever in the unlikely situation where you need to share your doodles with others (let’s say you need them for a meeting), do them with a yellow highlighter first.

When you’re happy with the result, retrace with a black Sharpie. When you photocopy the image, the yellow highlighter will disappear. (Neat trick, huh?)

The reason for doodling’s bad rap

Doodling sometimes gets a terrible reputation because many teachers (and bosses) take offense to it. They think the student or employee is distracted or failing to pay enough attention.

Ironically, the doodler may well be the most engaged person in the room.

Here, it’s worth mentioning Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), a disorder that causes people to have difficulty staying focused and controlling their own behavior.

While ADHD is more typically diagnosed in children (researchers believe that roughly 11% of children have it), it’s also apparent in adults. And the numbers are probably larger than the current 4% estimate.

The difference in prevalence between adults and children is likely because ADHD symptoms are often clear in children because they interfere with classroom performance and behavior. Adults, however, have more ways of hiding their attention problems or choosing jobs that are better suited to their temperaments.

Regardless of their age, people with ADHD can better focus their attention by using doodling to help themselves. (Listening to music is another excellent strategy.)

The positive aspects of doodling

Many of us have historically seen doodling as a “minor order” bad habit — a bit like resting our elbows on the dining-room table while eating.

But, in fact, doodling is a positive habit. It not only offers a creative outlet, but is also provides stress relief, helps you think more effectively and increases your focus.

Not only that, but it’s really easy to do.

Why are you waiting? Start doodling!

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on July 14/15.


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Do you ever doodle? What benefits do you get from it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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