Fidget toys rocketed in popularity over the last few years, but the original fidget is none other than doodling. Though often seen as a sign of distraction or disengagement, scribbling on the edges of your paper can actually help you pay attention in the moment and practice overall mindfulness or focus.
Why it can work
Doodling can be purposeful or spontaneous, and either way of doing it can be good for you. As to why doodling can help attention and memory, we know that our brains only have so much attention to give. Activating different parts of the brain, which a creative activity like doodling does, lets the other parts of the brain rest. When doodling is an intentional activity, it can help with stress management and serve as a source of enjoyment or satisfaction.
Multisensory learning is known to have significant educational benefits, according to Learning Liftoff, and doodling is a way to bring that benefit to school. Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution, points out: “Everyone is encouraged to write words and speak, whether or not one wants to be a writer or an orator. Why isn’t the same true with visual language?” We know that people learn in different ways, and doodling – whether built into the classroom or simply allowed as students feel compelled to fidget – can help particularly with complicated ideas.
Often doodling gets the reputation for being a sign that someone isn’t paying attention. If a student is drawing, they must be distracted from the classroom material, right? This is a valid concern, because people are actually very bad at multitasking. What we think of as “multitasking” is usually switching between tasks and doing neither of them well. When each activity has its own “task goal,” our brains have to work harder to switch from one to the other, and we’re likely to switch again before we can reach any real productivity or enjoyment.
This doesn’t mean that doodling or any other type of fidgeting is always a distraction. When you can set the same goal for both tasks (or one has a simple goal like shading in a square), you can enhance the whole experience.
How to make it work
Work it into the activity:
When you’re doodling while doing something that needs attention, doodle about the thing. Losing focus in English class? Try doodling a repetitive symbol or motif from the story. If you’re struggling with something science-y, do a simple doodle of the part you don’t get. Creating links between the stuff you’re trying to learn and the stuff you’re doodling can help it sink in.
Make it the activity:
Maybe you’ve heard of deep breathing exercises, but never knew how people could just sit there. Try mindful doodling, and work in deep breaths to boost the effect. Match the doodle to your breath cycle: draw a zig-zag as you breathe in and a squiggle as you breathe out. Do as many as it takes across the page, or just until you feel relaxed.