Published on February 2, 2021

How To Improve Your Visual-Spatial Skills

How To Improve Your Visual-Spatial Skills

When I think of visual-spatial skills, I think of an aptitude test I took in high school where I had to analyze different shapes and figure out what they would look like if they were turned this way or that. I didn’t give it much more thought than that at the time, but visual-spatial skills are increasingly important in today’s world.

Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Visual-spatial intelligence is one of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Gardner’s theory expands what we think of as intelligence. Instead of just academic intelligence, or book smarts, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences leaves room for people to excel in other areas.

Gardner’s multiple intelligences include musical, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, and visual-spatial.

Visual-Spatial Intelligence

Visual-spatial intelligence is the ability to visualize objects’ positions, shapes, movements, and their relationships to other objects. For me to grasp visual-spatial intelligence, I think about two things. First, that aptitude test I took in high school. I had to mentally flip objects around and move them to be able to get the test questions correct.

Second, Ikea furniture. Nothing makes me think visual-spatial intelligence (or lack thereof) like putting together some Ikea furniture. My husband was just building an armoire. I came downstairs and saw that one of the shelves should have been inverted and rotated to fit better into the frame.

That’s visual-spatial intelligence—being able to mentally picture how objects will look when they’re moved and how that will change their relationship to other objects. If I’m being totally honest, the shelf still ended up being upside down, so maybe my visual-spatial intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


How to Improve Your Visual-Spatial Skills

Thinking about visual-spatial skills as intelligence might give you the impression that it’s innate—you’re either born with it or you’re not. But that’s not at all true.

I’m a big fan of Carol Dweck’s mindset theory, and I think it’s a great way to think about visual-spatial skills as well. A growth mindset is when you think that your skills and abilities are malleable—that you can improve with dedication and practice over time.

On the other hand, a fixed mindset is when you think skills and abilities (like visual-spatial intelligence) are fixed—that you’re either born with it or you’re not.

It’s important to have a growth mindset when it comes to visual-spatial skills. There are exercises and activities you can do each day to improve your ability to visualize objects, their relationships to other objects, and their positions in space.

1. Move Your Body

One way to improve your visual-spatial skills is to be one of those moving objects. That’s right—move your body.

Visual-spatial intelligence includes being able to visualize your body’s relationship to other objects in space, so movement that requires this kind of bodily intelligence can beef up your visual-spatial skills. Think dance and martial arts.[1] If you have to strain your brain to figure out which foot goes where, then you’re probably strengthening your visual-spatial skills as well as your body.


You can also pay attention to objects’ shapes, sizes, and relationships to other objects, while you’re outside taking a walk. What’s in the background? What’s in the foreground? How far is that tree away from that creek? Study the scenery as objects and examine those objects’ position as compared to other objects.

2. Paint a Pretty Little Painting

Visual arts can also help your visual-spatial skills. I vividly remember watching Bob Ross paint his pretty little trees on PBS when I was a kid. I would watch for hours because I was fascinated by the way he could create such depth in his paintings.

When I painted, everything was the same size and on the same plane. Not Bob Ross. His paintings had objects with clear relationships to other objects. The mountains were in the background. The trees were in front of the mountains. Birds were flying here and there, from foreground to background.

What better way to enhance your visual-spatial skills than wielding your own paintbrush and painting your own happy little trees? Even if you’re no Monet, you’ll still be practicing the skill of visualizing objects and their relationships to other objects. You can even find Bob Ross’s tutorials on YouTube still if you want to learn from the master himself.

3. Ditch the GPS

While you’re at it, you might as well ditch your GPS the next time you’re driving or walking somewhere. GPS does us no favors in terms of visual-spatial skills. You don’t have to pay any attention to where you are or how you’re going to get yourself to point B when you’re using GPS.

So, turn off the phone and find yourself a map. Before your next adventure, study the map and figure out how to get from point A to point B. Studying maps is a great way to force your brain to boost its visual-spatial skills.


4. Play Video Games

Video games are another way to work your visual-spatial skills. Think Tetris or Snood. I know I’m dating myself, but these games are a great way to visualize objects’ shapes, sizes, and relationships to other objects. They’re also a great way to visualize how objects will affect other objects when they move through space. It’s definitely a bonus that they’re also fun and a great way to pass the time on a long GPS-free car trip.

5. Try 3D Puzzles

There is also a whole slew of 3D puzzles you can try. I always think of the 3D Empire State Building puzzle but there are tons of other options. The sky’s the limit, really.

Even a regular puzzle is a fine way to practice your visual-spatial skills since you have to imagine what pieces will look like when they’re flipped and turned. So, find yourself a puzzle, hunker down, and boost those visual-spatial skills.

6. Bust Out the Brain Teasers

You can also find brain teasers that are reminiscent of that high school aptitude test I took.[2] These are just visual questions about which shape comes next to make a pattern or what this shape would look like if inverted or rotated. These brain teasers are also a ton of fun for children.

7. Build Stuff

Let’s say you’ve done the brain teasers and you’ve built the puzzles, and you’re still hungry for more visual-spatial skill-building. I’ve got you covered. You can literally build things.

When I was a kid, I competed in Odyssey of the Mind. We did the challenge where you had to build a structure out of balsa wood. The structure had to be super strong and endure weights and collisions, so the very act of designing and building this lightweight yet strong structure demanded intense visual-spatial skills and problem-solving.


Now, you don’t have to build a balsa wood structure to boost your visual-spatial skills. You could build a contraption to protect a raw egg from a high fall. You could build a chicken coop. You could even build some Ikea furniture. It’s up to you, but if you want to keep your skills sharp, just build something.

8. Read

You can also boost your visual-spatial skills by reading. Any book that involves objects (including people) moving through space helps improve your skills. It’s way better than a film or TV show because you have to picture the action in your mind, and that’s what visual-spatial skills are all about: visualizing objects.

9. Pick Up an Instrument and Play

Studies have also shown that playing a musical instrument boosts your visual-spatial skills.[3] Again, this has to do with imagination and visualization. To play an instrument you have to picture how your body needs to move to create a certain sound.

So, the next time you’re plunking away at the piano, you can encourage yourself by saying that while you may not be the best pianist, at least you’re boosting your visual-spatial skills.

Why Visual-Spatial Skills Matter

More and more jobs require visual-spatial skills. It used to be the turf of architects and designers, but now an increasing amount of programming, computing, and tech jobs also require people to be able to mentally manipulate objects in space.

You need visual-spatial skills to be able to think abstractly and understand how details fit together to create the big picture.

So, whether you’re painting, playing, building, or roaming, the results are the same. Boost your visual-spatial skills to better understand the world and your place in it and to finally be able to put together that Kleppstad armoire from Ikea.

More About Learning Styles

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via


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Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Last Updated on February 11, 2021

7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It

7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It

For most of us, the experience of studying for an exam can be captured in one word: panic. You’ve got 18 hours, exhausted, and sitting there staring at an equations sheet full of gibberish. Why? Why didn’t I start earlier?

Believe it or not, there are forces acting against you, pulling you away from starting early enough so that you can comfortably learn new material. Here are 7 of the most insidious reasons why you don’t start early, and what you can do about it.

1. You’re anticipating hard work

Procrastination is generally viewed as this guilt-ridden character defect shared almost universally by all students. The problem is, this is exactly what we should expect to happen from an evolutionary perspective.

Humans are known to be cognitive misers:[1] we conserve mental resources whenever possible, especially when facing tasks not viewed as “essential to our survival.”

In other words, we put off studying until the last minute because (1) we know the work is hard and will require a lot of mental energy, and (2) until there’s the threat of actually failing the exam (and therefore potentially being humiliated publicly) we’re not in enough emotional pain to motivate us to start studying.

Additionally, when your brain anticipates multiple outcomes that are all viewed as “painful” (the pain of studying vs. the pain of failing out of college) you become immobilized, unable to choose the lesser of two evils, and push off the work even further.

Schedule in time for yourself first and then fill in the gaps with study time.

As Niel Fiore discusses in bestselling classic, The Now Habit, part of the reason you procrastinate is because you see no end in site.

Think of the difference between a 100 yard dash and a marathon. In the first case you’re able to give maximum effort because you can see the finish line and know it will be over soon. The marathon runner is not so lucky. They know there’s a long road ahead filled with pain and exhaustion, and subconsciously conserve their effort to ensure they can make it through all 26.2 miles.

This is all to say, if you know you get to go hang out in your buddy’s dorm room and goof off for an hour after you study, you’re much more likely to want to invest that energy.

As a side benefit, you end up taking advantage of Parkinson’s Law. Because your work expands to fill the time allotted, by scheduling less time for studying, you actually become more productive and focused.


2. You’re sleep deprived

Who in college isn’t pounding the caffeine?

Students who force themselves through weeks upon weeks of 4-6 hour sleep nights, are significantly deteriorating two aspects of their mental performance critical to studying for exams: motivation and vigilance.

Studies show that poor sleep negatively impacts motivation.[2] But really, no one needs a study to tell them how much worse your outlook on life is when you’re low on sleep.

And vigilance,[3]the ability to maintain concentrated attention over prolonged periods of time, is also significantly reduced during a period of either acute (staying up all night studying), or chronic (cutting sleep short for multiple days) sleep deprivation.[4]

Set yourself an end-of-the-day alarm.

Yes, studying more consistently for shorter chunks will allow you to spread it over a longer period of time; therefore, preventing the need to deprive yourself of sleep just to get your coursework done. But really, it’s a psychological issue.

There are a million things we’d rather stay up and do, than go right to bed after a full day of classes, only to have to get up and do the same thing over again. This is a chicken/egg problem: if I don’t get sleep I procrastinate studying, but if I go to bed I’ll just have to get up and study. Again, lose-lose. We need to break the cycle.

Set yourself an alarm. But not in the morning. Set your alarm for 45 minutes before when you should get to sleep and allow yourself to sleep for a full 8 hours. If you adhere to that you’ll be surprised how many hours of free time seem to materialize.

Study time + free time + sleep = happy and successful students.

3. You have a false sense of security

You may think you’re being a diligent student, sitting there in the lecture, listening intently, copying down page after page of notes from the professor. You might even be following along and raise your hand here and there. But there’s a big difference between feeling like you understand something, and actually being able to reproduce it on a test.

This is what we call passive learning, and it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll spend a lot of time and effort trying to learn new material, without actually being able to retain any of it.


Quiz yourself.

Don’t be fooled by your professor’s overly logical explanations. This dude already knows the material, so it’s easy for him to explain it in a way that others find understandable. The real challenge is whether or not you can do the same.

If you’re wondering if you actually understand something, quiz yourself. Or better yet, explain it to someone (or yourself, but be warned: people tend to stare).

As Einstein liked to say, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

By routinely quizzing yourself, you’ll get a dose of reality of whether you actually know the material or not, instead of what most students do: assume they know it until the night before the test, when they proceed to freak out because they can’t do any of the practice problems.

4. Not all study time is created equal

Fact: seven hours of studying over 7 days is much more effective (more learning per time spent) for understanding new material than 7 hours of studying in one chunk. This is especially true for technical courses with new jargon you have to internalize.

Chunk your study time.

The brain uses a ton of energy (20% of our resting metabolic rate), and there’s only so much you can expend per day. To maximize your retention of new material, you want to take advantage of both active learning and recovery.

Because the brain consolidates new neural pathways during sleep, particularly during REM sleep, the more sleep cycles you intersperse between your study hours, the more likely it is that you will retain the material and be able to whip it out on test day.

This also allows you to take advantage of spaced repetition. Instead of having to constantly review your material to keep it in the forefront of your memory, you can follow a cycle of ever-increasing time intervals between review sessions (the “forgetting curve”), decreasing the overall amount of time needed to re-learn material you might have forgotten from the beginning of the semester when the final rolls around.

5. The planning fallacy

Humans systematically overestimate what can be accomplished in the short-term, and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long-term.

Ironically (and sadly), we only have this problem evaluating our own tasks – providing a pretty accurate picture of how long things will take when evaluating someone else’s situation objectively.


Use the 50% rule.

Estimate as conservatively as you can, how much time it’s going to take to study for your exam, assuming you start early and work consistently.


Okay. Now add 50% to that estimate.

This will give you a more accurate picture of how much time you really need to allocate to starting studying.

6. You think you have more study time than you do


    Pull up your Sunday schedule. What do you see?

    Oh looks like I’ve got a big chunk of free time from 4pm to 10pm. Perfect, I’ll just squeeze in 5 or 6 hours of studying and then call it a night.

    Try again. It’s more like 2-3 hours.

    This is another type of planning mistake: overestimating how much productive time we can extract from any given period.

    Things we tend to forget: we need to eat; we need to sleep; there will be interruptions (yea right like you’re actually going to shut off your phone).


    But another thing we fail to account for: the body goes through 90-120 minute activity cycles (called the Ultradian Rhythm). So even though you may be sitting there, highlighting your textbook for 3 hours straight, you really only have the ability to absorb material for 1.5 to 2 hours before you need a period of rest.

    Cut your estimated hours in half.

    If you think you have 8 hours on Sunday after the game to study, forget it. You actually have 4 or less when you take out time for eating, breaks, and normal daily activities.

    7. You can’t get motivated or focused

    A lot of us tend to sit around and wait…

    Waiting for the wave of motivation to strike us to finally get started on the homework assignment due in 24 hours, or studying for the midterm.

    Here’s the problem: motivation comes and goes, but the demands of school and learning and everyday life don’t. And if you’re relying on your motivation to keep you focused, everything you’re doing is going to be in a perpetual state of lateness and last-minute-ness, because there’s never enough motivation to go around.

    Focus on the process, with the end in mind.

    Why are you in school? Why do you want a degree? Get clear on exactly what your motivations are.

    But thinking about the future is not enough. That vision of the future that drives your emotional intensity needs to be linked to your daily activities. (e.g. “Each day I study for Calculus brings me one step closer to being a doctor and making a difference in people’s lives.”)

    What is the one set of activities each day that will virtually guarantee success in your coursework?

    And what can you do to organize your day, set up incentives, quit things that don’t matter, etc. to virtually guarantee you will do that one set of activities day in and day out, despite motivation?

    Featured photo credit: Melanie Deziel via


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