Mind mapping is one of the most effective ways to capture concepts and thoughts. It also serves as an amazing technique to get information both in and out of your mind. Although I first came across mind mapping in the context of note-taking, mind maps can help you with problem-solving, collaboration, and more.
Regardless if you are familiar with mind maps or not, keep on reading to find out everything you need to know about this simple but powerful tool.
What are mind maps?
A mind map is basically a visual diagram that allows you to connect information around a central concept. Almost always starting from the center, you use branches to connect things together in a comprehensive manner. As new information comes, you add on more and more branches, eventually building a full map of the concept you are mind mapping. Below you can see a beautiful example of mind mapping for the concept of time management:
Don’t get frightened by the heavy amount of visuals in this mind map, as this one is used mostly for demonstration purposes. While color and images can play an important role in creating an effective mind map, they are not at all mandatory. In fact, I personally create very plain ones, where the only colors come from using a blue pen, a black pen, and a pencil. I do it this way because I don’t want to make the creation of a mind map an extra task on its own. Instead, I use mind maps to help me understand and grasp other things. (You will see some of my own mind maps later on in the post.)
Why are mind maps better?
As we said, mind maps are great for understanding concepts and getting information into your head. In fact, they seem to be way more effective than simple text notes. Let’s see the various reasons why mind maps are better.
You don’t need to think in order
One of the biggest problems in learning and understanding, in my opinion, is how linearly we learn. For instance, when you were learning vocabulary from a list, didn’t you always remember the translation of the word based on the previous one? When taking notes from lectures, we tend to so in a linear way, and it then becomes hard to connect concepts that were taught at different times, as they are in far apart pages.
Mind maps allow you to jump around, both when creating the mind map and when reviewing it. This type of free-form, but focused, thinking allows for your creativity to flourish. It also assists your brain to connect various parts of the concept together, sort of like it would if you got into diffuse mode for a little while. (Note that this does not replace actually getting into diffuse mode).
Boosted memory and recall
What separates mind maps from classic text notes is the use of visuals of some form (even very simple ones) and the use of association. Both are immensely powerful factors in retaining new (and old) information. Mind maps incorporate both by definition. Especially association is the very essence of mind mapping, which shows through the use of branches to connect information. (Learn more about association in my article about chunking)
There is, in fact, research that suggests a 10%-15% increase in retention when using mind maps. Make sure to leverage that when you need to remember something in the long-term.
With mind maps, creativity can be heavily enhanced. As we saw, the fact that you can think freely, combined with the use of visuals, creates the perfect environment for your mind to jump around and to produce new ideas. This is why mind maps are an amazing tool when you are trying to map out a new project (more on that in the uses for mind maps section).
Mind maps provide the big picture
Due to the way mind maps are structured, it is very easy to see all the information about a concept at once. It is also much easier to find stuff, as you have the majority of the information right in front of you, in a nicely structured manner. Due to the above, it is quite easy to get the big picture of a concept, and you can still dive into the finer details (the smaller branches) if you want to.
They are efficient and intuitive
To begin with, creating mind maps is much more efficient than classic note-taking. That is because you can add new information to the corresponding branch as they come, instead of having to move around your notes all the time. It’s also much more efficient as a tool when learning from them, as you don’t have to navigate your way through complex notes. (This was always my problem when I was borrowing notes to study).
What is very important about mind mapping is that it very closely resembles the way we think. Our thinking is rarely linear. Instead, our mind loves to jump around from one thing to another, and associate things with each other. That’s why mind maps are so intuitive. They are simple, fast, and fun, but still provide all the benefits (and more) than any other similar technique does.
While all of the above are very important, this is the primary reason why mind maps are so effective. Through the use of visuals and association that we mentioned, you assist your brain to connect the information with pre-existing knowledge. This forms the basis for deeper comprehension. Paired with better retention, it allows for a deeper and more holistic understanding of the central concept.
This is also why mind maps help you study less. By comprehending the information more deeply, you don’t need to read your notes twice. This is not the case with linear text notes, where you just read through them again and again, wasting a lot of time. And if at any point you want to review a particular point, mind maps make it very easy for you to find it, as we said.
Where can mind maps be used?
This is the obvious answer, and the main use of mind maps too. When in a lecture, or when studying alone, use mind maps instead of linear text notes to capture the concept referenced. Don’t worry if it feels a little strange in the beginning, it will get easier the more you do it. Eventually, it will be easier than classic note-taking.
Another similar way that mind maps can be used is when you want to clarify a concept that you don’t completely remember or understand. Start to map out what you know about the concept without help in the beginning, and it will soon become apparent which parts it is that you are missing. You should then go and learn about those, while also completing the mind map in the process.
Note that this also helps you retain the concept for longer, as you exercise recall in the beginning. Trying to recall new information is proven to be the most effective way to retain it.
An interesting way that mind maps can be used is to solve specific or complex problems. Starting with the problem, you then map out all the various aspects of it. As you note down the various obstacles you are facing, you can then map out their components. This makes it easy to identify the parts that you need help with.
This is greatly paired with one of the top problem-solving strategies, called the 5W1H method. The initials stand for Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. By exploring each of these branches of the initial problem, you can more easily reach to a solution.
Ranging from small projects, like writing this article, to bigger ones, like a company-wide project, mind maps can be highly effective. For instance, right below you can find the mind map for this exact post. As I was familiar with the concept of mind maps from personal experience, it was easy for me to imagine the first set of branches, which actually form the outline of this post. Then, with a substantial amount of research and my own experience, I mapped out this article in its entirety.
A use of mind maps I had never heard or thought of was that of knowledge banks. Simply explained, a mind map knowledge bank is simply a replacement of that 200-page stack of notes you have on a specific topic. Instead of gathering tons of pages on a topic, you can create a big mind map that will incorporate all the information in it. Just note that, because these can get very big, this use of mind maps is best along with software-based mind maps, and not paper-based ones.
If you’ve ever been in a meeting, you have noticed how quickly topics change. A lot of information is bouncing around, and linear notes can’t give it justice. It is very effective to have someone create a mind map of the meeting as it unfolds, and then share it with the attendees, or whoever needs to see it.
I’ve recently started keeping some (rather brief) summaries of books I read, especially if I enjoyed them. Mind maps are ideal for summarizing information, and can easily serve as a tool to capture ideas, concepts, and quotes from a book. Instead of keeping notes on the book, you can create a mind map as you read it to capture what strikes you as interesting. It then becomes easy to review the main concepts of the book, and prevents you from having to reread it in the future.
Another way that mind maps can be used is for brainstorming. During a brainstorming session, a lot of ideas are being thrown around. That can result in losing some of them, or even to not making any progress as you may just be moving around in circles with your ideas. By mapping out the ideas, you can create a very basic sense of structure, which you can then enhance after the brainstorming session is over.
Read more here about how to use mind maps for brainstorming.
Ok, don’t expect something magical here, mind maps are not good for creating to-do lists. To-do lists should be made the classic way, in a linear and simple form. What I’ve found mind maps to be good for, though, is for populating to-do lists. Every time I use a mind map for a project or something similar, I then go through it branch by branch, and it then becomes very easy for me to identify what should be done for that project to be completed. Then, I gather those into a huge to-do list, and I set off to completing it item by item.
To find out some more uses for mind maps, check out this amazing post by Asianefficiency.
How to mind map
The necessary steps
The basic concept is rather simple: all mindmaps start from the center. It is suggested to start with an image in the center, even if you don’t use any other images, in order to visualize the concept or the outcome. You then start expanding with curved lines (straight ones are boring to the brain). While simply using words at each branch can be sufficient, you can also use symbols, colors, and images, to make the mind map more memorable. Just note that this makes it also harder to create.
After choosing the main theme for the mind map, I usually spend a few minutes trying to identify all the main sub-themes. As soon as I do, I create the respective branches. If there is a need for more nested sub-themes beforehand, I figure those out too before I start. It’s then time to move freely and complete the mind map based on studying and relevant pre-existing knowledge.
Another great technique I’ve picked up from Pat Flynn, is using post-its on big and complex mind maps. That allows for moving things around as necessary, and for adding additional information when you want to expand further. I’ve used that to write down some temporary notes when stopping for the night. I’ve also used it to keep a reference to the sources that this particular part of the mind map comes from.
The proposed technique
The following rules comprise the technique proposed by Tony Buzan, the man who popularized the concept of mind mapping. You can find it here.
- Start in the CENTER of a blank page turned sideways. Why? Because starting in the center gives your Brain freedom to spread out in all directions and to express itself more freely and naturally.
- Use an IMAGE or PICTURE for your central idea. Why? Because an image is worth a thousand words and helps you use your Imagination. A central image is more interesting, keeps you focused, helps you concentrate, and gives your Brain more of a buzz!
- Use COLOURS throughout. Why? Because colours are as exciting to your Brain as are images. Colour adds extra vibrancy and life to your Mind Map, adds tremendous energy to your Creative Thinking, and is fun!
- CONNECT your MAIN BRANCHES to the central image and connect your second- and third-level branches to the first and second levels, etc. Why? Because your Brain works by association. It likes to link two (or three, or four) things together. If you connect the branches, you will understand and remember a lot more easily.
- Make your branches CURVED rather than straight-lined. Why? Because having nothing but straight lines is boring to your Brain.
- Use ONE KEYWORD PER LINE. Why? Because single keywords give your Mind Map more power and flexibility.
- Use IMAGES throughout. Why? Because each image, like the central image, is also worth a thousand words. So if you have only 10 images in your Mind Map, it’s already the equal of 10,000 words of notes!
Personally, I find this abundance of images a little tedious. It is very easy to get lost in creating the mind map, and eventually procrastinate actually taking action. I suggest keeping the process as simple as possible. You want mind mapping to be a tool that assists you, not another burden in your process. (Note that, in software-based mind maps, images are much easier to include, so add some if they provide a lot of value!)
Mind mapping software
The software I use is Coggle, which is completely free. It is quite intuitive and easy to use, and has all the features a mind mapping software needs. You can double-click to edit a label, you can move each branch around, you can customize colors and upload images, and you can also export the mind map to both pdf and png. You can also collaborate with others on the mindmap, and you can view older versions to see changes that you or others have made.
In fact, the mind map for this article above is created in Coggle.
What you should look for in mind mapping software
When choosing mind mapping software, especially when you are about to buy, you should look for a few particular features. In brief, the right software should allow for links and attachments of all sorts, topic notes (extended, non-visible notes), filtering, export formats, and keyboard shortcuts. If a mind mapping software has all these features, then all your major needs will be covered. Read more here about the mind mapping essential software components.
Discover more software
There is a large number of mind mapping software available, and I find most of the popular paid options to be more than sufficient. You can read this article from lifehacker, which is based on a user survey, to find out more of the best mind mapping software available. But, as always, do not limit yourselves to the link above. Go ahead and google based on what it is you need from your mind mapping software.
Paper is completely sufficient
Despite devoting a full section on software, I believe that using pencil, pen, and paper is more than enough to create a mind map. If it something that suits you, go ahead and use just that. Personally, I find it faster and less tedious for grasping concepts, while maintaining all the benefits of mind mapping. When I try to mind map something I want to keep links for, though, I prefer to use Coggle, as it makes my life easier for computer-related stuff.
I have to admit, when I was researching this article, I got excited. I used to use mind maps for note taking and project management only, but then I discovered that there are many more things I can use mind maps for. I’ve already witnessed how effective a technique it is, and I plan to use it a lot more in the future, for everything from taking notes to mapping out my entire knowledge on a subject.
Note that mind mapping, like everything else, is a skill. It’s completely ok if it is a little slow in the beginning, or if it feels a little strange. The more mind maps you create, the easier it will be. Also, remember that not everything works the same for everyone. While mind maps can certainly help you one way or another, you should experiment to find out what best suits you, your needs, and your personality.