Try Drawing Your To-Do List Instead of Writing It

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You know that feeling when you’ve had the craziest day at work, and by the end of it your brain is so fried that you know you won’t remember everything you need to do tomorrow, so you make sure to write it all down before you leave, but then you come in the next morning and you can’t find your to-do list anywhere, and you have to take a few minutes to just sit sadly at your desk feeling totally lost before you can pull it together and get on with your day?

No? Um, yeah, me neither. I bet it sucks, though.

But should the aforementioned disaster ever strike, a study published earlier this year in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology offers a way to salvage things: If you draw each item on your to-do list rather than write it, you may have a better chance at remembering them all later on. Over a series of experiments, a team of researchers from the University of Waterloo, led by Ph.D. candidate Jeffrey Wammes, found that drawing beat out several other memory tricks to best help information stick in participants’ brains.

In the first experiment, participants viewed a series of words that could be drawn easily (like “apple) and were given 40 seconds to either draw or write each one. To make sure people paid the same amount of attention to writing as they did to drawing, they were instructed to fill up all the time allotted for each prompt (the drawers had to keep adding detail until seconds ran out; the writers could either keep writing the word over and over until their time was up, or write it once and run out the clock by adding design flourishes to the letters). When they were later asked to remember as many words as they could, the subjects recalled more than twice as many words they’d drawn compared to words they’d written.

To see if the effect held steady in a bigger group setting, the researchers repeated the experiment in a lecture hall, asking participants to write or draw whatever word appeared on a projector screen at the front — and once again, drawing beat out writing.

Then things got a little more complicated. In the next few experiments, the study authors added a rotating third option: Participants wrote some words, drew others, and for the rest, were instructed to either list attributes of the prompt (for “apple,” for example, the list might contain “red,” “fruit,” and “healthy”), focus on a mental image of the prompt, or look at a picture of what the prompt describes. Across all of them, the words that were drawn were still the easiest ones for people to remember.

One reason for drawing’s strength as a memory tool, the researchers suggested, is that it required people to use a combination of the skills they used separately in the other tasks: To draw the prompt, people had to consider its physical attributes, visualize it, and use their motor skills to render it on the page.

“The mechanism driving our drawing effect may be one that integrates these traces into a more cohesive unit,” the study authors wrote. “Specifically, we believe that because drawing results in more interconnected memory cues to draw upon at recall, the memory trace for drawn words is much more likely to be effectively retrieved than when it was simply written, listed, visualized, or viewed at encoding.”

So, you know, it’s worth a shot. Especially because drawing your to-do list still leaves room for the best part: the deep satisfaction that comes from crossing things off. That is, if you remember where you put the list in the first place.