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

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Do you view doodling as dilly-dallying or time-wasting? It may surprise you to learn that scientists now believe there are very good reasons why you should doodle.

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.)

Sadly, this talent skipped a generation. My daughter, Alison, likes to draw and 487-doodlespaint and is rather good at both. But I can’t do either. My drawings look like something a 6-year-old might produce. Square houses with triangle shaped roofs. Stick figures with triangles for dresses or two rectangles for pants. 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.

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 a ….well, anyone, really… you should doodle.

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

Here are five reasons why we should all should doodle:

  1. It improves our memory.2009 study conducted by Professor Jackie Andrade found that 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 were able to 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 down the names, no doodling allowed.  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. It helps us pay attention and focus better. 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 gas 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 the really important stuff.
  3. It’s 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, harms no one, not even ourselves. It’s something we can do without thinking and with the right tools — just paper and coloured pens or pencils — is even fun and relaxing.
  4. It gets us unstuck. I frequently suggest that writers walk more often. It’s one of the best ways I know of breaking through writing-related log-jams and having fresh ideas. Turns out doodling can do some of the same thing. Cartoonist Lynda Barry says that when she’s stuck she knows it’s time to start moving 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. It helps us see the forest as well as 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 small details. Instead, we tend to 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.

Doodling is not about drawing; it’s about thinking. Or, more precisely, leaving 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 try to make your doodles pretty or beautiful. Instead, simply keep your pencil-holding hand moving.

Remember this trick when you’re mindmapping.  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.

You don’t need to be an artist to doodle. In fact, there is likely a style of doodling that comes naturally to you. Here are some examples:

  • Word doodles: you write or print a word and then re-trace it many times.
  • 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 recognizable images such as pencils, cups, tables, cars.
  • People and face doodles: drawn to the human form, you like to do 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. 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. 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?)

One of the reasons doodling gets such a bad rap is that 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.

But for writers, doodling should be a no-brainer. It will relax you, help you think more effectively and increase your focus. Not only that, but it’s really easy to do.

Why are you waiting? Start doodling!

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 July 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.

Posted July 14th, 2015 in Power Writing

  • Emma Jarrett

    Hi Daphne – I have always doodled flowers and faces, and got rather bored of the same old output.

    But recently I have started playing with colours in my left (non-dominant) hand. I feel I access a different depth in my creativity. It’s a lot of fun!

    • Great idea to use your non-dominant hand. I’ll try that the next time I doodle. Thanks!

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Okay – the Universe is clearly sending me a message to take up doodling.

    In the last 24 hours, I have stumbled upon 5-6 articles about doodling! LOL

    Yours ranks at the top – thank you, Daphne #HUGS

    • Yes, take up doodling. Funny you should come across 5-6 articles on the subject in less than 24 hours. Remarkable, really!

  • Lynda

    Doodling is also a great way to cultivate serenity when distress interferes with my ability to create. Often I start at a center point and design a mandala. When done, I am refreshed, centered and serene.

  • Acasia Olson

    As a child, I noticed my mom doodled every time she talked on the phone. She would produce random geometric patterns or retrace words. I loved to watch her do it but didn’t realize it was anything other than her keeping her hands busy as she talked.
    Several years ago, I was a member of a work team that held weekly business meetings. One of my co-workers would doodle the most gorgeous images and mandala patterns throughout the meeting. At first I thought she was bored and killing time, but I later learned that a) she recalled the information from the meeting and responded without missing a beat as she doodled, and b) she shared that she doodled to keep her from falling asleep, as others may knit for the same reasons.
    I recently purchased a coloring book ($2.99 cartoon one) and a set of colored pencils to help with my mindfulness and meditation practice. I find my mind is more quiet and I feel less anxious while I’m coloring.

  • Jill O’Mahony Stewart

    Good one, Daphne. And your mom’s a real talent!

    • Yes, I always thought so, too… I just wished she’d had the chance to start earlier..

  • Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

    That’s great! I was looking for a low cost bridle for my brain. what is even greater is that I am a natural doodler. I’ve doodled flowers shapes and striped patterns, and retraced during long telephone conversations and I felt it was foolish. It is time to extend this habit to other occasions as well.

  • Love this! At age 65, I have been working hard for several years to counteract the notion that I am not creative, just because I’m not inclined to draw or paint or throw pots. Picking up pens and colored pencils seemed silly and a waste of time. But one day, someone asked me what I would do if someone did put a blank sheet of paper in front of me. Instantly, I realized that what I would do would be to put words on it, and in the same instant I realized that this WAS creative and that creativity can manifest itself in so many different and wonderful ways. Since then, I have made a point to doodle and fill blank pages with color and lines and shapes and…yes…words.

    Winston Churchill didn’t take up painting until he had retired, and he wrote a delightful book about it called Painting As A Pastime. He talked about the true joy he got from it and realized it made a beautiful counterpoint to the other things he used his brain for.

    Thank you for this delightful piece.

    • So glad you enjoyed it, Elizabeth. There’s no risk of me ever taking up painting as a pastime…. But I think we’re all creative in a multitude of different ways. One of my things is cooking — I love to do it and find it very relaxing. Just another way to create!

  • Cindy Ramirez

    Thanks for this post — such an affirmation! I remember being scolded by teachers in high school for my doodling. Apparently it looked like I wasn’t paying attention. But doodling really helped me ‘hear’ the lectures better than staring at the teacher or the board. I haven’t been doodling as much these days, likely because of tablet/keyboard life, or I don’t want to “waste” paper in my moleskine. My journals from 20 years ago were very loose, mind mappy, doodle filled. Very different from today. I think overall my take away from your post is to just allow my expression to flow from the pen, however it comes out, and have some playfulness about it!

    • Interesting to hear the history you can trace in your journals, Cindy!

  • Sam Turner

    I spent 35 years teaching middle school art. Mandalas was one of my most popular subject (along with 16h century italics!) . I seldom had discipline problems. Classes were quiet (most of the time), relaxed. Students were enthusiastic and produced college-level pieces that were posted in the halls. I even had teachers asking to learn. Your article brings back memories. I’m retired since 1996.

  • Zaharenia Tsikopoulos

    Your blog has afforded me
    to reflect upon what our brain does for us as we engage it to develop new
    ideas. Remembering the space where we first grasped information allows us
    to enact upon those ideas. Since kindergarten I’ve always doodled and continued
    to practice doodling while earning my degree in architecture. It’s been such a powerful method for me, helping
    me organize thoughts, and soliciting modeling processes from a community of
    collaborators. In architecture, this is form of solicitation is known as the
    design “charrette”. Now, I am even more thrilled! As a graduate student studying health care, my writing has
    become dense with jargon filled concepts. Although interdisciplinary
    jargon is necessary to bridge perspectives and ideas, this poses a challenge for the reader. Doodles,
    so it seems, have once again come to the rescue. Why not include them as illustrations!! THANK

    • Glad this resonated with you, Zaharenia. I have a contract in the health care field and I certainly know what you mean by jargon!

  • Olena

    When I was at middle school, I was always doodling during my classes. I usually did it at boring classes. As the result, I did not really pay attention to what the teacher was explaining, and got not very good grades. At high school I decided to concentrate, and I never did doodling. I graduated high school with all “A”s. Doodling did not and is not working for me. Its a huge distraction and I like to be fully involved into what I am doing. Not for everybody.

    • Olena, you’ve just illustrated the principle that everyone is different. Of course, you should always do (or not do) what works best for you.

  • yehudit

    In class, I used to draw shapes, and then connect all the corners, adding extra corners and lines until it looked like something a compulsive spider might have spun. Until I read this column, I never realized that these dense drawings were connected to my good grades or my creativity.

    The workings of the brain are indeed mysterious and fascinating.

    • Until I wrote this column I never understood that these sorts of drawings were officially considered “doodles!” I’d seen them as more mindless than that!

  • paras batavia

    hi it’s well said and very unique idea about making mind creative and have focus on the present !!

    good job , keep it up !

  • Antonia

    This is fascinating. I am sure I used to doodle (a lot) when I was a teenager. I used to write a lot then too! Interesting to think there may be a connection. It’ll be back to the doodling board for me now! Thanks for giving me permission to do that.

  • Jennifer Swenson Teague

    Doodling helps me to relax. I draw abstract stuff so I do ‘t have to worry about messing it up 🙂

    • It seems we adopt the same strategy when it comes to doodling, Jennifer….

  • Hi Daphne,
    I found the section on types of doodles the most useful. MInd mapping + doodling = surefire winner. Thanks for another wonderful post.

  • Charles Cohen

    Any suggestions on how to learn to doodle? I’ve tried many times and am usually very disappointed, and would benefit from either a book or something online. Thanks in advance!

    • My suggestion is that you lower your standards! Doodling is not about doing something beautiful; it’s about leaving your brain free to wander. I felt enormously relieved after I learned that. I found reading the book The Doodle Revolution (cited above) very helpful.

      • Charles Cohen

        Trust me, they are pretty low. However, I’ll look at the book. Thanks!

  • I always was stopping myself from doodling during the meeting or lecture as i thought that my colleagues or lecturer would be offended. That i would be showing disrespect. Now i feel delighted to know the other point of view. Thank you!

  • melwriter

    I thought you would enjoy this article about another doodler! 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing the video. So glad to learn that artist had a supportive principal!

  • Joyce Chaves

    I loved this article. From now on, i’ll doodle more.

    I’ve used all your tips and noticed that my papers are better and better.

  • Vanaja

    I loved this article. I used to doodle a lot during lectures when I was in college and yes I used to remember every thing the lecturer spoke. At work, very rarely in some meeting, I used to doodle and then I would feel embarassed – people might think I am not serious so i avoided doodling. I now see how doodling is good for the brain. I am going to do it again.