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March 31, 2015

Doodle do

Ruth Hill

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You know that feeling...

You’re in a post-lunch meeting and your eyelids feel heavy. It’s hard to concentrate. Your attention starts to drift and your mind wanders to other tasks you’d rather be getting on with. Maybe you’re planning what to have for supper later. Or worse, you start to nod off... then your boss asks you a question! (Or maybe you are the boss!)

Meetings can be a trial at times. It’s quite telling that when training video company Video Arts updated its classic 1976 “Meetings, Bloody Meetings” video in 2012, the only thing it changed was the actors. The issues remain the same.

You’d think that, with all the technology we now have at our disposal, we would have gotten a bit better at conducting meetings. There are a multitude of apps available that do everything from sharing your agenda to improving your presentations, and even helping you to attend a meeting without actually having to be there. But none of them make it any easier to concentrate when time starts to drag.

It can surely be no coincidence that one of the most useful meetings apps, which helps busy people to find mutually convenient times to meet, is called Doodle. Actually, I think they may be onto something, but I’m not talking about technology.

Considering that I work for a digital company, I can be a bit of a luddite. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of my job, I’m curiously old fashioned - give me a mark-up on a hard copy any day. Despite efforts from others to bring me into the 21st century, I remain tenacious in my attachment to pencil and paper. Don’t get me wrong - most of my work is done “in the cloud,” on my laptop, but, even after all these years of word processing, my brain still functions best when I am holding a pencil.

In meetings, while my colleagues tap away, making notes with their keyboards, I can still be found scribbling into a “real” notepad. And, in my eyes at least, my notes are a work of art because each page is embellished with spirals and circles, squiggles and curlicues.

Where these abstract forms come from, I do not know. Some believe that a doodle offers insight into the subconscious mind of its creator, but others dismiss this as nonsense. I lean towards the latter camp, recalling an account in the news some years ago.

The story goes that a British newspaper seized upon some doodles left behind at the 2005 economic summit in Davos, believing them to have been the handiwork of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The team of psychologists and graphologists who analysed the artwork proclaimed that they were drawn by a man who was (among other things) a mentally unstable daydreamer, who was impractical and unable to complete tasks. They retracted their statements, however, when it was later revealed that the doodles had belonged, not to Blair, but to Bill Gates. Hardly the characteristics I would associate with a well-respected philanthropist, who also happens to be the world's richest and most successful software entrepreneur.

Unlike Gates, who clearly doesn't mind leaving his doodles lying around, I usually try to be more discrete about mine. Doodling has a bad reputation for inattention, time wasting, and inefficiency. It certainly looks unprofessional, which is odd, considering that there is evidence to suggest that every US President, from Washington to Nixon and beyond, has been an avid doodler.

However, research is now suggesting that, rather than being a distraction, doodling actually improves concentration by preventing the mind from drifting or zoning out completely. In the words of philosophy professor Jesse Prinz, it “opens a space where information can get in.”

In one study, participants were asked to listen to a monotonous telephone message and make a list of the names of people mentioned during the call. Half of the group was also given a “doodling” activity, shading in the outlines of different shapes. In subsequent tests, the doodlers exhibited 29 percent better recall than the non-doodlers.

Technophiles might argue that it is better to make notes on a laptop or tablet because everything is searchable. But, when I need to find something I made a note of earlier, I usually have a mental image of the section I’m looking for (doodles and all) that lets me skim over everything else in my notepad until I locate what I need.

Besides, typing notes seems to somehow bypass my conscious brain. My notes may be more complete, but for all I remember of them, they might just as well have been written by somebody else. Interestingly, recent research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer confirms that this is, indeed, the case. In three separate studies, they found that students who took notes on a laptop during a lecture had poorer recall and understanding than those who wrote longhand.

So, if you want to learn more about taking effective notes, check out our guide. And next time you’re in a meeting and your attention starts to wander, grab your pencil and get doodling!

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5 comments on “Doodle do”

  1. I'm such a doodler! At my desk, in meetings, when I'm on the phone, when I'm planning, daydreaming, thinking, not thinking... And I ALWAYS have a notebook (proper book with pages) with me. Probably the only time I don't doodle is when I'm cooking. 😉

  2. I have been a doodler since grade school and it was been blessing when in college, in the military and now working in corporate. It keeps me focused during meetings and curious onlookers always want to see my notes (creativity)! 🙂

  3. Read a book years ago by a woman who studied 'kinesthetic' learners. There are people who can repeat key points and sometimes word for word what they heard by retracing their doodles.

    1. Ram, yes, that may be so. But sometimes even productive and necessary meetings can become tedious...and then the doodling really helps to alleviate the boredom! Probably going to get myself into trouble here - sooner or later. 😉

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