Today I want to tell my story of how drawing helps me write better code.

No more than 1.5 years ago I didn’t know how to draw anything more complex than a human-like figure made from 5 lines and 1 circle. Nor did I believe that I ever could or will. I was wrong.


If you can draw this, you can draw anything.

One day Hacker News had a nice article about books that help you improve in unusual ways, self-help books without intentionally being about self-help. The article had a nice pick of titles, but the most promising one was ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’, because the idea that drawing is actually easy, pitched right through my mind.

And when I finally got it and started to read… magic happened. This book is one of the best ‘how-to’ books ever written, and it does its job in a really special way. It doesn’t show you drawing techniques and it doesn’t want you to draw simple shapes as you would think. It starts by showing that you can draw with simple exercises, and reinforcing your confidence about your drawing ability forever. And that was all I ever needed.

It really comes as a revelation.

I went through the book, finished almost every exercise, and stopped. I stopped because the book already fulfilled my desire – desire to know that I am not hopeless in a field of drawing. I didn’t know what to do with my newfound skill, so I switched on to what I’ve done in my spare time before – coding the game this blog is about. And I didn’t draw. Until about 3 months ago.

You see, when you’re working on a video game, you naturally play and analyze a lot of other video games, just to be a better video game designer. And when you’re playing other video games, especially indie ones, your mind sometimes comes with the notion: ‘Wow, this is really nice art, I wish I could draw like that’, and then instantly to: ‘But there is nothing that stops me, because I know I can draw after that awesome book’. And, after a couple of strokes like this, I just couldn’t keep myself from pencil and paper anymore.

I started sketching again. At first I did it after job hours, in my spare time, but then I noticed that, after acquiring some basic knack, I can draw simple sketches quickly, so I tried to have drawing breaks when I got stuck with a new coding problem in my head. And to my surprise, my productivity rose.

Every software engineer worth a dime knows that programming is more about thinking, than typing code (and if you do not agree, you should probably go do copywriting or something). When you work on a hard problem, you think, think, think, read an article on your current topic, think, maybe do some tinkering here and there, think again, get an ‘AHA’ moment, and then, only then do typing.

But there is a subtle problem in this approach, at least for me. I can procrastinate between parts. Because focused thinking is hard, and checking email and twitter feed is easy. It’s a known problem in the field, and I consider myself in a constant state of war with my slackier self, employing useful weapons, which sadly do not address the core of the problem, but help to focus a lot nevertheless. And drawing is a latest weapon in my armory.

So now I do one or two daily drawing breaks, when I feel tired and in a need of some mental replenishment. I draw simple sketches, copying images I like, or just doodling around. I give myself 20 minutes max, and that is more than enough in most cases. And I feel better after that.


2 breaks x 20 minutes = this pic and a less tired mind

I do not know why it is working for me, but I think main two reasons are:

  1. Drawing doesn’t break the workflow. Drawing is work too, just a different kind. Maybe even symmetrically different to logical work as programming. Reading twitter feed however can break your workflow faster than a sledgehammer breaks a bulls skull.
  2. Drawing ‘uses’ different parts of the brain than programming, and the brain kind of sorts out your previous thoughts while you draw. This is absolutely unscientific observation, and you probably shouldn’t believe me. But I still think it does.

Recreation is not the only reason I draw, but it’s certainly a big one. And it helps other causes. Hope you enjoyed the read!