Drawing Can Help You Think and Focus Better — Even if You're Not Good at It

Sketching while you travel, or in a museum, helps create memories of important moments. (Photo: vladgphoto/Shutterstock)

Do you ever draw? Most of us don't, and the reason we usually leave drawing to the artists is because we're not very good at it. Who wants to do something they're bad at?

But maybe we should rethink this assumption, especially since drawing has so many benefits, artist or not.

Consider this idea: What if drawing was just a low-stakes thing we did because we enjoyed it and it helped us see the world better?

"We have misfiled the significance of drawing because we see it as a professional skill instead of a personal capacity," writes design historian D.B. Dowd in his book, "Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice." "This essential confusion has stunted our understanding of drawing and kept it from being seen as a tool for learning above all else."

Dowd suggests we reframe the act of drawing. It's just a life skill, not a measure of your essential self, or creativity. Just like writing a text to your friend is no big deal — certainly not the same as composing a poem — sketching should also been seen as a tool.

Here's another example: You might enjoy eating at a restaurant that boasts an incredible chef, and you may also enjoy a great pasta dish you make at home. One doesn't exclude the other; you can appreciate a meticulously assembled meal as much as a homemade one — they're just different.

The same is true for drawing. It's great for a few things that are in short supply of these days. Besides, you don't need special equipment to draw. The paper could be from a notebook dedicated to the purpose, or just what's sitting around waiting to be recycled. Don't be precious about putting pen to paper, and you'll get more out of the practice. Here are just a few reasons to pick up a pen or pencil of any kind.

It forces you to focus

Woman's hand makes notes in notebook on table with tea and croissants
Forget your preconceived notions about who can draw and who can't. (Photo: NazarBazar/Shutterstock)

Sitting (or standing!) with a pad and pencil, drawing something you see or imagine requires focus and a relatively quiet mind, something many of us are looking to cultivate. The first few minutes into the composition might be a bit frustrating and distracting, but keep going. I've found that once I settle into it, I get better at the actual drawing part, and it's more enjoyable. But especially if you aren't used to drawing, you might be itching to run away and do something — anything — else at the start. To deal with your restlessness, give yourself a time limit. Set a timer for 20 minutes; that should give you enough time to put in a genuine effort and get to the point where your mind will quiet down. You can always keep going if you want, but that timer will at the very least allow you to take your mind off outside distractions.

It makes memories stick

The reason I began to draw was to capture moments from my life; I'm not great at drawing, but that's not the point. Using my planner notebook, I started sketching one piece of art every time I went to a museum, since I felt like it was hard to remember what I'd seen (yet I love going to museums). It was revelatory. Not only do I remember certain pieces of art very well now (which makes sense; I spend at least 10-15 minutes sketching them), but I have the memories of the day in my notebook to look back on as well. It's just as Graham Shaw explains in the video above.

In fact, it worked so well that I started sketching when I travel, too. Sometimes I draw the view from the window of my hotel room — whether it's a great view or not. Remember, the idea is to grab the moment, not create a masterpiece. Other times I've drawn the mini-vista from my dinner table or coffee-shop perch. I might write a bit about what I can smell or the way the air feels to capture other senses in my sketch. Looking back on them years later never fails to bring me back to that moment.

Drawing doesn't just help me hold on to special memories from vacations. It can even be applied to everyday tasks and assignments that I may need to remember — and there's even science to back up this claim.

A 2016 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology found that a three-step approach to drawing compared to just writing words can help people retain information better. For example if you need to remember to give your dog a bath, it's better to picture the act in your mind, draw a picture of your dog in the bath followed by looking at the picture. If you just scribble down "give the dog a bath" on a piece of paper, you're less likely to remember to do it.

"Any time you add an additional form of processing to your learning, you’re going to get a benefit over and above what’s in the nature of the stimulus," Jeffrey Wammes, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Yale and co-author of the study, told The New York Times. "If you’re reading a list of things and trying to remember them, it’s going to be a lot more difficult than if you actively engage with each item on the list."

It pushes you to be patient

We're used to things happening fast these days. Drawing is not fast. It takes time to create something interesting (or in my case, something recognizable). That's OK, and as something comes together over time, you'll be reminded of the value of patience. Drawing is an object lesson that not everything good comes quickly, which is an easy thing to forget.

It's grounding

While you're cementing memories of a museum visit, vacation destination, or just an ordinary day, you're paying much more attention to your surroundings than you would normally. Drawing any of these items requires sustained attention, so while you're doing the work, you're more conscious of that specific time. Drawing is like a mindfulness meditation of its own sort, as the video above explains. Not only will you have a small piece of your own art to look back on later, but while you're creating it, you almost can't help but be in the moment. You can also draw while you work through something emotional; repeating patterns (like a mandala) can be soothing and relaxing. Or you can draw to think about nothing except the colors, patterns, lines or shapes in front of you.

It's a good reminder that failure is OK

A few of my sketches are really kind of great; I can look at them with pride and I might even show them to another person. But plenty of my little drawings are nonsense, unfinished, have weird proportions, or I got the size of the page all wrong to begin with. It doesn't matter. I still had the experience of trying to draw and the benefits that brings. Even if you're not naturally "good" at drawing, you'll get better over time if you practice — which can be a nice way to grow your self-confidence. At the very least, it improves hand-eye coordination over time, and gives you a perspective shift. Take the pressure off. Your drawing doesn't have to mean anything or do anything useful, and sometimes (maybe even most of the time) you will fail. No big deal.

It can help you think

If you're stuck in a problem at work or even in life, try sketching it out visually. I do this with a combination of bubbles, a tree-like structure, and lots of asterisks and arrows. Sometimes drawing out charts can be helpful if you're trying to think through a bunch of data (like a budget). Other times, maps can help; in every short story I've written, I always ended up with a map — of a room, a house, a town, or the forest the character gets lost in. It helps me to remember where the door was, what side of town the post office is in, or which direction the sun will set when my character realizes she's going to spend the night in the woods. Sure, this is less drawing that thinking-while-doodling, but who cares? Do what works for you. As artist and educator Andrea Kantrowitz points out in the video above, human beings "think with our hands," so drawing can be one of the ways that manifests.

She suggests thinking of it as a tool, just like Dowd did. "If you take a step back, and define drawing as symbolic mark-making, it’s obvious that all human beings draw. Diagrams, maps, doodles, smiley faces: These are all drawings!" Dowd points out in his book.

So quit leaving the drawing to the experts and have fun with it; you'll be a better person for drawing it out.