Mind mapping is a way to visually represent ideas and arrange them in a structure that is based around a central theme. Although the concept has been used for a very long time now – since as early as the 12th century according to Wikipedia – it has picked up a lot in the business circles over the last decade or so. The core idea is to document thoughts as they come to mind and build a visual map to form structure and hierarchy.
How I Mind-Map
I don’t remember how I got introduced to the idea of mind maps, but have been pretty much in love with them for as long as I can remember. Today, I use them for pretty much every bit of thinking or note-taking I do when in front of a computer. This is a quick run down of how I get stuff done through mind mapping and the tools I use.
Ideation & Conceptualization
I’m a big fan of picking up a paper and pencil and jotting down keywords as a starting point for an idea. If I weren’t as bad as I am with retaining my sketches, I would have reams and reams of paper with words and phrases scribbled on. For a while now though, the conservationist in me has been pushing me to transition to a more environmentally – and much more productive to be frank – way of using mind-mapping software.
The way I go about most stuff I think these days, is to start with the topic in the middle and start putting words all around it. Soon as I start seeing patterns, I add sections and move sets of thoughts within them. In most cases, I go as far as I can, close the file and then come back later to look at it again with a new perspective. More often than not, I find a new way to look at the relationships. Once I have something good enough to work with further – like writing the actual note, putting together a visualization or creating the graphic – I file the map and move on to the next tool.
I spend a good deal of time at work reviewing and structuring content from clients, often to come up with course structures for learning programs. Given it’s ability to collate random pieces of information and build a hierarchy around them, mind maps come in real handy with stuff like this. As I review the content, I start dropping key words and concepts in a new mind map, using only the right side. Once done, I add logical sections and subsections on the left, then move the words from the right into appropriate sub sections.
Then, when I’m ready to document this stuff, I just copy the entire map and paste it in MS Word for a multi-level bullet list ready for descriptions and notes.
Managing a couple of teams and participating in a dozen projects at work means I tend to have a lot of meetings – enough to feel overwhelmed at times and confuse the outcomes of one with another. As is normal with most meetings, a lot of points get thrown on the table all along and it can very easily become extremely difficult to remember everything and identify actual doables from the mess. So much truer with meetings that involve heavy design discussions and brainstorming.
Well, you guess it. Mind mapping to the rescue. Adding every point discussed to the map and means that it is all there and ready to be reviewed and reconsidered as necessary. I tend to also create a separate ‘Parking lot’ section that houses all the off-tangent topics that are either not directly related to the discussion or that threaten to drive the discussion away from the main goal. Once the meeting is over, it’s just a matter of exporting the map as a Word or PDF file and distributing it to everyone. For design discussions, I also tend to include the actual mind map image so everyone can refer back to the structure and connections.
Tools of the Trade
Although mind mapping evolved as a pen & paper technique, it derives much of it’s flexibility for me through software applications that allow for structuring and re-structuring of content without worrying about having to erase stuff that I’ve already written. A host of free & commercial applications are available out there, ranging from desktop applications to web & mobile applications. Here are my favorite few. For more, check out the list of tools on Wikipedia.
Freemind is my tool of choice. Apart from the perennial appeal of an open source application, Freemind serves pretty much every requirement I’ve had till now. It is probably the oldest mind mapping application project on sourceforge and still the most active one. It is Java-based, so works on pretty much any operating system that supports Java. The interface is simple, intuitive and best of all, extremely keyboard-friendly. The last thing I want when documenting thoughts is to be fumbling with the mouse clicking things, so Freemind makes it super-simple to keep adding idea after idea without ever having to touch the mouse. To top it off, it has the most extensive set of export options in any tool I’ve seen – from images to plain text and everything in between.
If you’re looking for a quick way to get started with mind mapping, just head over the the Freemind website, download a ZIP package, extract to your hard disk and launch ‘freemind.exe’. No installation necessary. I keep a copy of the application on my thumb drive at all times, so wherever I go, I have the entire working application always available.
If online access to the mind maps and collaboration is important to you, MindMeister is the way to go. There aren’t too many online mind mapping tools available on the web, but of thosse that are, this one is by far the best. It is not as feature-rich or fast as freemind is, but it does provide pretty much all the tools one would need to create their own mind maps in the browser without the need for any software installation. Also in active development, the application is updated regularly with new features. They also have an iPhone app, if that’s your kind of thing.
Pen & Paper
And if neither of the above cut the ice for you, plain old pen & paper should do the trick just fine. Although you need to remember that mind mapping on paper can get extremely frustrating at times and therefore requires tons of patience and practice to master. Personally, I’ve very of the former, so the latter is a bit out of question.
In the end, I can safely say that whatever your need, you are sure to find an application for mind mapping somewhere in your workflow. Above and beyond the uses I mentioned, I’ve heard stories of people who have been using them for project management, task management, flowcharting, even as creative writing tools. Go ahead, get creative and mind map at the speed of thought. And if you have stories of how you have or plan to them, feel free to share them in the comments section below.