Why Successful Leaders Should Find Time to Doodle
A brain scientist explains how doodling helps the brain switch modes and remember more, predict the future and become a more powerful version of itself.
According to the Alternative Board’s 2017 Small Business Pulse Survey, 85 percent of entrepreneurs surveyed said they work 40-plus hours a week, and the majority felt that they were "too busy" to develop strategic plans for their businesses.
The reason is that, entrepreneurs, feeling panicked, scramble to tune out all distractions and devote their undivided attention to each task on their list. But what if I told you this isn't the best thing you could do? What if I said you should instead doodle pictures of faces, geometric shapes, letters or some form of art -- gorgeous or obscure -- while you complete your tasks?
When you were in school, doodling was precisely the reason your teachers would throw a fit to command you back to attention. On paper (quite literally), the activity provides others with the illusion that your mind has slipped away into oblivion.
But it might surprise you to learn that the scientific community recently proved your teachers wrong. In fact, doodling activates the default mode network (DMN) -- the brain’s unfocus circuit. And, don’t let the word “unfocus” fool you, either, because the DMN is all action. When turned on, it becomes one of the greatest consumers of energy in the brain, eating up a whopping 20 percent of the body’s energy at rest.
It is constantly shuttling memories back and forth and making connections that lead to creative insights and more accurate predictions -- all things an entrepreneur can cherish.
Furthermore, when the DMN is activated, your "self" metaphorically assumes center stage in the brain. In this state of self-connectedness, you become a far superior mirror of others’ perspectives, allowing you to better empathize with your clients and cohorts. Ultimately, with these deeper insights about yourself and others, your brain becomes a master predictor. It is better prepared to make clear, heartfelt, high-level decisions in the spur of the moment.
Throughout the course of the workday, doodling can actually help you overcome common blocks and stresses that derail you from strategic thinking. Here are three particular situations in which it can be particularly useful:
1. You’re feeling fragmented.
When you have 10 different tasks on your plate, it's easy to feel that you're being pulled in 10 different directions. In this situation, rather than allow yourself to become fragmented, take a few minutes off to doodle.
According to Dr. Robert Burns, former director of the Seattle Institute of Human Development, doodles are not just random scribbles; they actually reveal what is going on in your unconscious. Like the way an EEG transmits brain activity to a piece of paper, doodles, says Burns, communicate via your hand what is going on in your brain.
By reaching the deeper recesses of your brain through doodling, you get back in touch with the big picture. You reintegrate lost parts of yourself and your deeper thinking, making yourself whole again.
2. You’re facing a difficult decision.
The DMN is the brain’s resident futurist. Consider it a crystal ball -- your telescope into the future. So, whenever the stakes are high and you're faced with a major decision, don't be afraid to doodle. It can clear your mind, help you assess the situation and guide you toward the proper solution.
According to historian David Greenberg, doodling was a favorite habit of many U.S. presidents -- likely for this very reason. Theodore Roosevelt sketched children and animals, while Dwight Eisenhower drew self-portraits and weapons. Franklin D. Roosevelt doodled gunboats, and John F. Kennedy drew sailboats.
These leaders were subject to a constant deluge of information and asked to make high-stakes decisions every single day, and doodling helped them remain level-headed and flexible.
3. Your memory is fading fast.
Scientific studies show that busy brains struggle to store and recall important information, which could explain why, within moments, recent phone conversations can easily turn into distant, hazy memories.
In 2009, a psychologist named Jackie Andrade found that doodling actually helps people retain information. In her study, she asked 40 individuals to listen to a long, boring voicemail message in which the speaker mentioned eight different names over a 2.5-minute period. Half of the group doodled while they listened; the other half did not. And guess what? The people who doodled ended up recalling 29 percent more information.
The DMN can support your short-term memory, and vice versa. They work together. So, why not have them both contribute to an average day’s work? By activating the DMN while doodling, you can improve your memory, and, as Andrade showed, this can happen even when the task at hand is incredibly boring.
Doodling isn't just a "hand on the run"; it's a brain briefly switching modes so it can remember more, better predict the future and be a more powerful version of itself. Rather than chastise yourself for lacking focus, embrace unfocus and doodle yourself through your duties.