I like using mindmaps: it is my preferred method for taking notes and playing around with ideas. When sitting in conferences, people often look over my shoulder and start talking – not about the conference speaker, but how pretty my mindmaps are… It was one such conversation that made me think I should post about mindmaps and how and why I use them.
Mindmaps are a way of making connections between ideas and thoughts; I use them to take notes, to plan for meetings and to write presentations; whenever, in fact, I need to order my thoughts and ideas. They are more flowing than conventional – linear – notes, and (for me) less detailed: mindmaps work at a high level.
It didn’t come easily. I was first pointed in the direction of mindmapping by a former boss, and I thought I would try it out. So I got hold of Tony Buzan’s book on mindmaps (creatively entitled “Mind Maps”, as far as I recall), and read it, and experimented with mindmapping.
This was far from a success. Buzan, who first came up with the idea of mindmapping (and who has, I believe, trademarked the phrase “Mind Map”), was quite dogmatic about how one should mindmap. You have to use large sheets of paper – A3 or larger; you have to use lots of different coloured pens; and you have to use pictures, not words, to convey your meaning.
None of this worked for me at all. Whilst I have a quite well developed visual sense, I don’t think in terms of pictures. (When in meetings designed to stretch one’s creativity I am instructed to draw a picture to describe how I feel about something, I have two stock pictures to call on: either a tree or a river. I have never come across a corporate issue that cannot be conveyed by one of these images!)
I don’t carry bundles of coloured pens around with me, nor pads of A3 paper.
And I really don’t like being told what to do. Buzan’s prescriptive method seemed to be the opposite of creative and innovative – what he said he was trying to promote.
So I parked mindmapping as an idea that wouldn’t really work for me.
This changed when I was studying for my MBA. I take a lot of notes in lectures – writing helps me remember things, even if I never look at the notes I might have taken. But my linear, well structured notes were hard to revise from; they didn’t facilitate connections. I wanted to summarise whole lecture series on one page, and I wanted to develop essay plans for my exams that I could remember.
I turned again to mindmaps.
This time, though, I was in control. I dumped the rules that Buzan had set up – no pictures, no coloured pens, and whatever paper I wanted – and headed out into the blue.
Very quickly, mindmaps became my prime method of note-taking and planning. Working with them the way I wanted to work made them feel very natural. The free flowing, high level structure allows big thoughts; the tree-like, organic structure allows one to build a picture of related topics. The patterns on the page, the branches of ideas, were easy to remember.
Although I use mindmaps for most of my notetaking, it isn’t without reservations. Sometimes I think that my mindmaps are only a circular representation of linear notes (especially as when I took more conventional, linear notes, I developed complex, nested structures which allowed a similar grouping of ideas); sometime, my mindmaps morph into linear lists as well (as the picture – a mindmap I made at a very interesting discussion on citizen power at the RSA – shows; made, I hasten to point out, on a pocket A5 pad…).
There are lots of pieces of software available to help one make mindmaps on computers – none of which work for me in the slightest. (They might work for you; just search for mind maps and see what you get.) For me, the act of writing – using a pen nestling in my hand, the connection between the paper and my brain – is essential; electronic mindmapping seems no different from writing a list in a word processor.
Mindmaps have become very engrained in the way I work – maybe even the way I think; not perfect (but neither is the way I think!) but very, very useful.