Map Your Mind: Mind Maps as an Alternative for Capturing Ideas

Do you ever have so many ideas running through your head, flip-flopping, churning, bumping into each other, that you feel that your head will explode? Do you often get stuck while trying to think through the aspects of a new idea, the steps of a process, planning a new project? Or, maybe you’ve been taking notes during meetings and find that, unless you write down every word that’s said, you just cannot recall the main ideas and action items from the meeting.

We’ve been trained to attempt to capture the content of our rapidly moving brains in mainly linear ways. Think of how most of us take notes in a meeting. We take a lined note pad, try to write down ideas as they’re stated, and we may try to somehow categorize them after the fact. It would be nice if our brains would follow a single line of thinking to its conclusion before being distracted by a totally unrelated thought. I’d personally love meetings in which all participants could diligently follow the established agenda, never veering off into wild tangents, or jumping back and forth between topics. I say that, but I can imagine how boring that would likely be. The fact is that humans are not computers and our brains will never be that disciplined. Our unruly brains seem to have no shame. They fire thoughts in a seemingly random fashion – one second thinking about the plan for our upcoming project, the next about our upcoming Hawaiian vacation.

Since our minds do not usually follow a streamlined flow, but instead jump from topic to topic – topics that are sometimes related to the task at hand, sometimes totally unrelated – it seems counter-productive to attempt to capture those thoughts in a way that does not account for this reality. That’s the whole point of mind maps. When I encountered the concept of “mind maps” a few years ago, at first I simply thought “what a novel concept”. My first trial run involved replacing my usual, linear method of taking notes during meetings. I started simply turning my notepad horizontally at the beginning of a meeting, writing the main topic of the meeting in the center and creating branches off this “trunk” as ideas were discussed. If my mind seemed to naturally relate a new thought to an existing branch, I added it to that branch. If not, I created a new branch. What I found was that I spent much less time writing and more time listening. To my surprise, I also found that, even though I took less notes, I remembered much, much more of the important content of the meeting – more than most of the people seemed to recall who had taken notes in the traditional, linear, category-based fashion most of us have been taught. This, even though I usually came away with a single page containing a mind map, while others had several pages of notes. This was powerful insight for me.

Although some people are naturally artistic and use lots of art in their mind maps, I find this is unnecessary for me, although I might decorate my map if an image comes to me without extra work. Here’s a simplistic example of the mind map for this article, which I created with the free FreeMind tool:

Mind Map Blog Post

I believe that the power of mind maps lies in the fact that they allow you to capture your thoughts in a manner that models the way your mind really works. Our minds do not follow a single idea to final conclusion before moving to the next idea. However, most of us have been trained to capture ideas, especially meeting notes, as if this were true.

While I find mind mapping very useful for taking notes, I find it also frees my mind when thinking creatively by allowing my “capture” method to follow the natural flow of my thoughts, rather than trying to force my thoughts to follow the way I want to capture them. I’ve also used it during project team brainstorming sessions and have received great feedback on the results in most cases. Mind mapping is a great tool for any situation that involves both thinking and capturing the thinking. That covers a lot of territory!

You can find examples of mind maps created with the FreeMind tool at http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Mind_map_gallery#Computers_and_IT. You can also search the Googles image library for “mind maps”. You may find some very creative maps that will inspire you. However, you do not need a tool to start creating mind maps – a simple pencil (colored pencils for the artistically inclined) and notepad will do just fine. Once you start creating mind maps, you may find that you have little need for traditional “sequenced” methods of capturing complex ideas. You may be surprised by the thoughts that you were missing out on. Welcome to your mind!

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Posted in Mind Mapping, Project Documentation

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