Mind Maps are a non-linear method of capturing thoughts. They work like our minds work, in a web of interconnected thoughts, ideas, concepts. Here’s a Wiki on them if the process is new to you. They are great way to brainstorm, free associate and kick start the creative process. I use them often to outline when I am gestating a piece I am writing or at the start of a project plan. For writing, I find it easier to address the white space of an empty page in the free associative manner of mind maps and they are a great way to see the interconnection between topics, subjects, sources etc. For projects, they are much more free form than a GANTT chart approach and appropriate for the early phase of planning though not necessarily the project management phase once you have clearly defined the plan.
At first I did them on paper, then I found a software took called MindJet/MindManager. I used it on Windows and now use it on iPad and Mac. At this point it is a cloud based platform with a full set of features. There are other tools as well, some open source, so play around and find what works for you. Using the software opened up a few great efficiency features that paper can’t afford you. MindJet allows me to export my maps in several key formats. If I am outlining, I can export to Word and quickly take my outline to completed report, memo, agenda, training session or whatever I am producing. If I am creating a presentation, I can export directly to PowerPoint and save a great deal of work. Each subtopic becomes a slide with bullet points (based on the level of outlining you have done) If I am in project planning mode, I can export to MS Project (this is available in the Windows version of MindJet only at this time) and take the plan into greater detail, assigning resources, interdependencies and all the attributes needed to actually manage with robust project management technology. If you have ever tried to brainstorm in MS Project, you know it is fruitless. Start in a mind mapping tool like MindJet first and you will get much more done. It works great in a project kickoff meeting with someone as scribe on a laptop and everyone joining in with map projected on a screen.
What I realized is that mind mapping is also a great way to take meeting notes. Meetings never proceed from one agenda item down the list with all discussion (and therefore the attendant notes) falling neatly in one discreet section of my notes. Meetings ramble back and forth, projects, activities, people and information in those settings are frequently connected, overlapping and causal in relationship to each other. As a result meeting notes can be a mess. I also really wonder about the people I see every day with moleskins or notebooks, taking notes in volumes. How do they go back and find what they need in those notes and most importantly, how do they track the actions they commit to?
By using mind maps, I am able to move back and forth between topics in my map as the discussion ranges back and forth and keep adding more detail to the topic section of my map. In linear note taking, I either have no more space ‘back’ at the earlier topic location or can’t find the separate parts of a disjointed conversation. In addition, using maps lets me highlight the interconnections between topics. The map also makes it very easy to type up my notes if I have to distribute meeting minutes or for my own use. Once I started mapping directly on a laptop or now my iPad I gained the additional benefit of legibility (my chicken scratch is indecipherable even to me). Here is a sample from a meeting I chaired:
When I made the switch to digital for all my mapping I discovered another trick that was a real light bulb moment. I like to keep one map topic called Next Actions so that regardless of the agenda item under discussion, all my next actions or to-dos from the meeting are in one spot so I can transfer them to my task list. If your task list is in MS Outlook, the integration of MindJet with Outlook will be a real time saver for you. Notice in the upper left corner of my map is the sub-topic called Next Actions. MindJet has a variety of icons you can assign to individual bubbles on the map. I just select all my Next Actions, then I use a Task Marker to tag them. When I export the map to MS Outlook, there is a setting in the Export Dialog box which I check that allows me to export only task items in my map (instead of all topics and sub-topics) and voila, all my next actions from the meeting are automatically turned into tasks in my Outlook system.
What is amazing, at least for me, is that this non-linear approach is actually the straightest line from first flash of a new idea to fleshing it out and turning it into actionable steps and capturing those steps in my productivity system. As I mentioned, there are many tools, they all offer different features and levels of integration across the tool sets we use for planning, tracking, persuading, presenting etc. MindJet works for me in my system and the way I go about work, find what works for you.