Mind mapping is one of my favourite ways of brainstorming, outlining and planning. A mind map is a diagram that represents ideas, tasks, projects or virtually anything else you want. It can be as simple as lines and circles, or it can be a work of art with sketches, multiple colours and more.
These “pictorial” methods of planning and recording information have been around for centuries, but modern mind mapping was invented by Tony Buzan.
I don’t want to get into too much detail about the theories behind mind mapping in this post. If you want to really dig into his methods and the theory behind them, Tony Buzan has several books on the topic.
Why I Use Mind Maps
The main thing I use mind maps for is outlining. Outlines tend to be linear – you start at the top and work your way down the list, creating topics and sub-topics as you go.
Mind mapping is a little more free-form. I find it a lot easier to think this way, because I can jump from one part of a map to another when a thought comes to mind.
This is particularly useful for brainstorming ideas because they rarely come in a linear fashion.
One of the theories behind the process is that drawing out your ideas this way activates different parts of your brain than a linear outline would. As you draw the connecting lines on the mindmap, it’s almost like those same connections are being made in your brain.
I don’t know whether the science behind this theory is accurate, but the fact is this is how it works for me. I remember things much better when I use a mindmap than if I just write them out in a list.
How To Create A Mind Map
There are several ways to do your mind mapping:
- Pen & paper
- Mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, etc.)
I use software most of the time, both on my computer and my iPhone, but I do revert back to old-fashioned pen and paper sometimes. Usually when I’m sitting in a coffee shop somewhere with a notebook and pen to do some planning or goal setting. There’s something unique about writing with a pen and paper that a computer just can’t match.
Structuring A Mind Map
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how to lay out your mindmaps – part of the attraction is the freedom to do whatever you want.
But most people follow some basic “rules”…
- Start with the big idea in the centre of the map and work out to more focused ideas as you move up the branches. For example, when I was outlining this post I created a mind map with “Mindmapping Post” as the central topic, Why, How To, and Resources as the primary branches and then more specific branches breaking down each of those topics.
Use multiple colours so each branch has its own. This isn’t critical, but it can add to the aesthetics of the map as well as make it easier to review later. Some people use images to identify each branch as well.
All nodes radiate out from a central source, almost like spokes on a wheel.
Mind Mapping Software
There are a lot of mind mapping applications, ranging from free to several hundred dollars. They’re available on almost every platform, from desktop computers to smartphones. And there are even web-based mind mapping services that let you work from anywhere and share them with other people.
Here are the applications that I use myself:
- Freemind – Freemind is a free application that runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. It doesn’t have as many features as some others, but it’s perfect for creating mind maps that you want to share with other people, since it’s free and works on all the major operating systems.
I really only use Freemind if I’m creating a mindmap as part of a training guide or something else that is going to be used by a lot of other people. If I’m only sharing it with a handful of people, I typically use one of the web-based services.
Mindnode – Mindnode doesn’t have as many features as some of the more expensive options but it’s one of the easiest and cleanest apps I’ve used. It costs $29.99 on the Mac App Store but there is a free trial available on their website so you can try it out before buying it.
There is also Mindnode for iOS, which works on both the iPhone and the iPad. It lets you sync your mind maps back and forth between your computer and mobile device. Mindnode is a nice little app, but I prefer another one for those devices.
iThoughts – iThoughts is available for both the iPhone and iPad. It has a huge number of features for a mobile app, and even with the small size of the screen on the iPhone, it’s easy to draw out large, complicated maps. They also make iThoughtsX for Mac and iThoughts for Windows so you can sync back and forth between the various versions with this app as well.
iThoughts supports several different formats, including Freemind and OPML, so you can transfer your mind maps back and forth from other apps.
In addition to the apps I use on my computer and iPhone, I also use web-based mind mapping services once in a while. The big advantage they offer is the ability to share the maps with other people, either for them to review or to collaborate on the document.
The web-based mind mapping service that I prefer is Mindmeister. It’s the easiest to use, offers a free version as well as paid plans, and has an iOS app that lets you work on your maps right on your iPhone or iPad.
I don’t use it a lot, but whenever I’m working on a shared map it’s ideal. It’s much easier than sending files back and forth and trying to get everyone on the same application. I’ve worked on maps with 5 or 6 other people, and everything worked flawlessly.
Other Helpful Mind Mapping Resources
There are plenty of websites that can help you to better understand mind
mapping. Here are a few of the ones that I’ve found useful:
- Peter Russell on Mind Maps
- Mind Maps – A Powerful Approach To Note Taking
- Idea Mapping Succes
The last one – Idea Mapping Success – is based on a book called Idea Mapping (check it out at Amazon). The ideas in this book are similar in many ways to mind mapping, but it is slightly different. I actually found this book to be more helpful than some of Tony Buzan’s because it’s less about the theory and more about practical application.
One of the nice things about mind mapping is that you don’t have to follow any particular “rules” to do it right. Whatever you feel comfortable with is the right way for you. Give it a shot and you might find you like it.