Bullish: Can Drawing Your Problem Help You Solve It?

Drawing by Jessie Dawn


I am a big advocate of strategic planning – and daydreaming, and brainstorming – on paper.

I am reminded of the advice for insomniacs that, if you want to get to sleep more easily, don’t work or read in bed. Train yourself that beds are only for sleeping. If you spend a lot of time awake in bed, you train yourself to be awake in bed.

Similarly, if you use your computers and devices for work (and squirreling away time on social media), it’s hard to convince yourself to sit in front of the same technology but ignore all the normal cues and instead see the BIG PICTURE RIGHT NOW.

I like a good sketchpad and a purple marker. I’m fine with someone thinking I have the aesthetic preferences of a twelve-year-old girl. I don’t have a problem with twelve-year-old girls.

An aside: a 2014 thread on Reddit asked, “What girly thing do you really want to do or try but it is socially unacceptable?” (See, patriarchy hurts us all!)

The number one answer was girly cocktails. Wearing yoga pants also came up a lot. But one poster answered that he’d like to be able to write in multiple colors of pen. (Several gay men posted that they do all these things regularly.) I like writing in multiple colors of pen. It helps me think.

I wrote in Bullish: Pre-Internet Productivity Tips for the Young and Sprightly that:

The main problem with so many productivity applications is the most obvious one, the one so obvious no one really notices or talks about it: on a computer screen, you can only see one screen full of stuff at a time. Your brain can really handle more of a visual field than that – close to 180 degrees, in fact – but one thing your brain does not like is the one-second switch between apps (“task switching” is disorienting – the one second on your computer causes a greater-than-one-second lag time in your brain).

So one day last May I was browsing my Twitter feed when whimsical male Bullish reader @Truett posted:

Maybe you should draw your problems.

I thought this was a great idea. I have no special artistic talents, but I believe in breaking out of screens and lined paper and lists and sometimes just thinking spatially and visually. When teaching math, I teach really specifically what to write or draw on your paper for specific types of problems. So if it works for one of those situations where two trains are barreling towards each other at different speeds (I know you all love those!), maybe it would work for a life problem.

It took me many months to follow through, but I finally decided to DRAW MY PROBLEM.

Specifically, I was having the problem that my husband and I were moving in five days, and we hadn’t packed anything and we didn’t have any boxes and we weren’t sure we had done a very good job of estimating to the moving company how much stuff we had, and my husband works 40+ hours a week and I’m super-pregnant and hence less able than usual to lift things, and also he gets anxious about things that aren’t 100% planned, despite the fact that my far more laissez-faire management style has recently proven effective in producing both our wedding and the Bullish Conference.

Obviously, that’s a pretty one-sided view of the situation. Anyway, here’s my picture!

Draw your problems to help you solve them.

I showed it to Andrew, who didn’t even complain that I made him look like a grandma.

The picture prompted a discussion in which the problem seemed to get rather smaller and better-defined, and which led to ordering boxes on the internet, and hiring some packing help on TaskRabbit. All of this worked out great. I wasn’t being totally facetious about the cat. Cats are great at helping anxious people chill out.

So, that exercise seemed like a success. I put out notice that I was looking for other people to try drawing their problems, and I got one volunteer, artist Jessie Dawn.

Jessie submitted the following:

Her problem: “Should I follow my fiancé to Ottawa for 2 years while he finishes Law school? Or try to manage a long distance relationship while I keep my job and social circle here in Montréal?”

This excellent drawing of a real-life quandary filled me with questions! I followed up. Here’s a little interview.

Jen: How did you feel about your problem before you drew this?

Jessie: Before drawing this I can honestly say I hadn’t admitted to myself this was a problem. In my mind moving to Ottawa was a far away decision. When I started to think of a problem to draw I realized that it wasn’t just about going to Ottawa, but about my reluctance to leave Montréal, and the opportunities I have here. So before drawing this I hadn’t taken this problem seriously, and I didn’t realize how soon this decision would have to be made.

Jen: How do you feel now that you’re looking at your problem?

Jessie: Drawing the problem helped me to figure out exactly what was upsetting me about this move, which is that I have opportunities in Montréal I’m not yet ready to leave. Looking at the problem as a drawing really helped, because I saw the emotion I had tied into it. I didn’t mean to draw my face in such a worried expression, nor did I mean to draw my fiancé looking so aloof to my worry, but now I realize that’s exactly what I am feeling. He’s headed forward on his dreams, but what about me?

Jen: You drew yourself really small! Are you really that much smaller than your fiancé? That’s interesting.

Jessie:It’s really interesting that you noticed the size difference in the characters. I didn’t realize it until my fiancé pointed it out to me. He is bigger than me, but not that big! I really felt like I was getting pulled along in this situation and I didn’t want to end up following someone along on their dream, while putting mine on hold.

Jen: Ottawa (that building you drew representing Ottawa) doesn’t look very welcoming! And your fiancé isn’t paying attention to you at all. Um … thoughts?

Jessie: That building isn’t very welcoming! I drew the Parliament buildings in Ottawa instead of a residential area we would actually live in, because when I think of Ottawa I just get this vision of a corporate town, good for lawyers and government employees, but not for artists. I can’t imagine building a life there.

Jen: Are you closer to a decision?

Jessie: I am much closer to a decision now. I tried not to show this drawing to my fiancé, but I forgot that I left the pencil sketch out on my drawing table. We had a long chat about it. Creating this drawing helped me express exactly what I was feeling. I didn’t even have to say anything, we just looked at the drawing together. He said he didn’t want to stay in Ottawa for longer than 2 years, and that he understood what I had here. I’m doing really well at my current job and I’m not yet ready to take the plunge into working for myself full-time (which is my ultimate goal). I also realized I’d been stressing so much about getting my side business ideas off the ground, that I wasn’t giving myself realistic deadlines. I was self-destructing everything I was working on, and losing focus because I had decided I needed to be self employed by next year OR ELSE! So I’m still not 100% sure if I’ll be staying in Montréal next year or not, but knowing that its okay if I do, and that it’s not the end of my relationship, was a huge stress relief.

Can Drawing Your Problem Help You Solve it? A Get Bullish Q&A with Jen Dziura

Thanks, Jessie! You can find Jessie Dawn here (and somewhere in Canada).

I have often written that most people tend to blow up problems into messier, bigger things than they really are, and that defining a problem really specifically can help.

Sometimes it feels like everything is wrong, or that your whole life has exploded. But you can’t really draw your problem without starting somewhere – like with a sad stick figure or a physical object – and, from there, it’s hard to imagine that your problem is really “everything” or “my entire life.” It’s probably more limited, and therefore more manageable.

This is obviously only one technique out of many possible ways to think through a problem, but it’s growing on me.

I might, in the future, expand on this technique by covering my problem with spray adhesive and then glitter-bombing it.


Update: Jessie is now known professionally as Jaymie Dylan.

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