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Mind Mapping 101: The Visual Way to Organize Information

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Mind mapping is a great way to capture your thoughts and organize them visually. By planning with a mind map you promote creative thinking and avoid forced linear thinking. And yet, mind mapping often ends up being a buzzword, with little explanation by what it means and how you'd go about making a mind map. If you download a mind map app without having ever made a mind map on paper, you'll likely not know the first place to start.

In this tutorial, you'll learn how to create a basic mind map with pen and paper, as well as electronically. We will then take a look at a few specific use cases, that will help you on your way to making your first mind maps. With a little hands-on work, you'll be ready to start organizing your thoughts in mind maps, whether you pick a great app for your mind maps or decide to stay analogue with paper and pen.

Let’s Begin

The idea behind mind mapping is to start with a big idea or central thought, typically as a blob in the middle of your map. From there, you will progressively work your way visually, through various branches of a tree to more specific supporting concepts. You’ll continue branching out as far as you want, until you end up with information that is even more defined, specific, or actionable.

For your first mind map grab any piece of paper you have available to you and a pen or pencil. Jot down an idea in the form of a word or phrase in the center of the page and draw an oval around it. Here’s what my example looks like:

Paper mind map
A quick mind map hand written with pencil and paper

From there, you can begin to branch out and fill in more “bubbles” and details on your paper, or remove ideas that don't seem to fit in the general plan.

The nice part about a paper or notebook mind map is that they are relatively cheap to make and you are limited only by our own thought process and imagination. The downside to paper is the inability to move ideas around easily. Rearranging your mind map is a very useful part of the process of mind mapping and is harder to do when you have to erase and rewrite.

There's an App for That

There are quite a few good pieces of mind mapping software out there. For my examples, I will be showing MindNode Pro on the Mac. There's a number of great alternative mind mapping apps on every platform, so search for one for your platform, or grab FreeMind which works great on almost any computer.

Now that you’ve installed some mind mapping software, open up a new blank map and put your central idea in the middle, just as you did on your paper map. Both MindNode Pro and Freemind use the enter key to create another object at the same level and tab to add a child object from your current position. Play around with this till you get the hang of how you create “nodes” or “objects” and then go ahead and finish duplicating your paper mind map. Now try moving ideas around on the page, or moving single items between higher order items. This sort of organization and reorganization is where you really start to see the power of using software over paper.

Here’s our starting example output using MindNode Pro.

MindNode Pro mind map
An example mind map created with MindNode Pro for Mac

Here’s the same map using the open source tool FreeMind.

FreeMind mind map
An example mind map created with the open source software FreeMind

Neither of the software generated mind maps even come close to touching the beauty of my chicken scratch paper mind map, do they? They are, however, far more practical and quicker to put together than a hand-drawn mind map. But whether you choose to use an app or a sheet of paper, mind mapping is still an effective tool to get your thoughts organized.

Putting Mind Maps to Work

The best way to learn is by doing, so we’re going to look at some ways you can start using mind maps today. First, let’s create a mind map of a weekly routine we want to define and stick to.

Here’s what we’ll define:

  • Things to do every day
  • Things to do every weekday
  • Things to do every weekend day
  • Things to do on specific days

Here is the end result of this mapping example:

Weekly routine mind map
A mind map of an example weekly routine

Here is what it would have looked like in outline list format:

  • Weekly Routine
    • Every Day
      • Help get kids ready for school
      • Make a healthy breakfast
      • Help with dinner
      • Get kids ready for bed
      • Skim my RSS articles
    • Weekdays Only
      • Stop to check PO Box after lunch
      • Go for a short run
    • Weekends Only
      • Go for a longer run
    • Monday
      • Martial Arts class
    • Tuesday
      • Take kids to swimming lessons
      • Work on freelance projects
    • Wednesday
      • Take trash up to curb
    • Thursday
      • Work on freelance projects
    • Friday
      • Pick kids up from school
    • Saturday
      • Mow the lawn
      • Play lots of Diablo
    • Sunday
      • Catch up on Instapaper reading

The list format does have some organization to it but makes it a little harder to get the big picture at a glance. To move items from one day to another as your brainstorming or iterating on your routine, you can simply click and drag to and from any “node” at any level of the mind map. In the list version you’re stuck highlighting, copying, and then pasting between sublists. That is less intuitive and certainly less fun.

For our second example we’re going to take a stab at that feared interview question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I recommend you think more for yourself than to impress a potential employer however. Here’s what we’ll define:

  • What does your five year self look like?
  • What are the steps you need to take to get there?

Here is the end result of this mapping example:

Five year plan mind map
A mind map of an example five year career plan

Here is what it would have looked like in outline list format:

  • Five Year Plan
    • What does it look like?
      • Director of my department
      • Respected expert in my field
      • Provide value / give back to community
    • How do I get there?
      • Exposure
        • Give a talk at an industry conference
        • Start blogging on my area of expertise
        • Volunteer my talents twice a month
        • Find someone to mentor
      • Training
        • Attend formal leadership training
        • Find someone to mentor me
        • Read one book in my field (or related) per month
        • Consider pursuing Master’s Degree in area of expertise
      • Opportunities
        • Apply for open Manager position on my team
        • Buy another department head lunch once per quarter
        • Apply for company tuition reimbursement

Once again, the list format works here but provides less freedom of movement while coming up with these details. Even during the creation of this example, I was grabbing items and moving them between areas. Being able to organize visually like this is a big help when defining a plan.

For our last example let’s define an organizational structure for where things we capture throughout the day go. Here’s what we’ll define:

  • Physical input sources
  • Digital input sources
  • Our flow for where things end up as we process this input

Here is the end result of this mapping example:

Where things go mind map
A mind map of an example input processing workflow

Here is what it would have looked like in outline list format:

  • Where things go
    • Physical input
      • Physical inbox @office
      • Physical inbox @home
      • Mailbox
    • Digital input
      • OmniFocus
      • Drafts (iOS)
      • Reminders
      • Calendar
    • Processing
      • Thoughts and reflections
        • Day One journal entry
        • Blog post
        • Social media post
      • Projects
        • Within 3–6 months
          • OmniFocus
        • Future / Someday
          • Text file
            • nvALT (Mac)
            • Nebulous (iOS)
          • Mind map
            • MindNode
      • Appointments & Reminders
        • Calendar
        • Reminders
      • Documentation
        • Text file
          • nvALT (Mac)
          • Nebulous (iOS)
        • Mind map
          • MindNode
        • Project wiki

Out of the three examples, I believe this is best suited for a mind map over a list. Not only is there a higher level of nesting, but there is an implied flow from capture to processing that is a bit lost when just reading this as a list, compared to seeing it in mind map form.

Now that you’ve worked through a few examples, here are a couple of other use cases you can explore on your own:

  • Creating a study guide for a class or topic
  • Mapping out a data set with complex relationships

Conclusion

Mind mapping is a powerful way to visually plan or brainstorm just about anything. As someone who has added this to my workflow only within the last year, I highly recommend it to anyone who has yet to try it. There are a variety of tools including MindNode, Freemind, iThoughts, and many others; so go grab one today and get mind mapping.

If you have any more questions about creating mind maps or recommended apps, be sure to leave a comment below!

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