Doodling seems like the ultimate aimless activity, but it may serve very practical purposes. In my case, as a journalist, I spend a lot of time on the phone talking to sources. When I'm not scrawling notes, I'm doodling eyes and flowers. Rather than distracting me from the conversation, the act of doodling seems to help me stay more focused.
The doodler's edge
There's hard evidence to back up this benefit. In a study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, participants listened to a phone message containing the names of several people and places, and they were instructed to write down certain ones. Half were also asked to doodle while they listened. Afterward, there was a pop quiz to see how many names the participants could recall. The doodlers remembered 29% more than the non-doodlers.
In the study, the phone message was intentionally designed to be boring. One possibility is that doodling distracted participants from their boredom. Yet it demanded less concentration than drifting off into a daydream, so the doodlers may actually have been more focused than non-doodlers.
For me, I think doodling serves a slightly different purpose. It offers just enough distraction to lower my stress without wrecking my concentration when I'm interviewing a journalistic source on the phone. Such phone calls may be far from boring, but they're also packed with information that I'm trying to digest quickly. That could quickly lead to mental overload without a mild diversion. I've noticed that the more complex the interview, the more squiggles wind up decorating my notes.
How to doodle
Other people have made similar observations. Two-time breast cancer survivor Carol Edmonston stumbled upon the relaxing effect of doodling more than a decade ago, while she was sitting in a doctor's office nervously awaiting test results. She has since developed an innovative Create While You Wait program for hospitals to encourage doodling by patients and family members.
"It's such a simple thing to do," Edmonston says. "Anyone can do it; you don't need artistic talent. It's very inexpensive; all you need is a pen and paper. And you can take it anywhere."
If you're the type who craves how-to specifics, Edmonston suggests a three-step doodling technique:
- Start with a simple outline. Without lifting pen from paper, spend 5 to 7 seconds drawing a line that begins and ends at the same point.
- Fill in the outline with whatever you want: stripes, dots, geometric shapes, shading. "Let your imagination guide you," Edmonston says.
- Focus on the process, not the result. "Don't worry about what you create. Just have fun creating it," says Edmonston.
Life is a squiggly line
Ultimately, Edmonston began to view doodling not only as a coping mechanism, but also as a metaphor for life as a cancer survivor. "If I could create something like this without having any idea of what the end result was going to look like, I began to believe that I could also create my life that way," Edmonston says. "Now, 14 years out from the second breast cancer diagnosis, I realize that the doodles were actually redesigning me in a profound way. I am much more at ease with my life and ready to embrace the unexpected twists and turns along the way."
Linda Wasmer Andrews is a journalist who specializes in writing about health, medicine, and psychology. Follow her on Twitter. Visit her online.