I am a huge fan of mind-mapping. It’s an easy way to organize your ideas. Here’s a great resource on how to get started (crayons required).
I was having trouble getting started on this column, so I turned away from the keyboard for a while and started jotting down words on a legal pad. There was no order; I just wrote down the things I knew I wanted to include all over the paper. The goal: to start seeing patterns and connections that would help me organize this information.
I was trying this approach because I’ve been learning about mind-mapping and visual notetaking.
This method of capturing information looks a whole lot different than your old notes from high school history class. You can use a mind map to brainstorm, plan, study or take notes. Mind-mapping fans say it kick-starts creativity and understanding.
What is it?
To understand what mind-mapping is, let’s start with the work of Katharine Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services at the University of Texas. Mind-mapping is an integral part of her work with students and her career guide “You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career” (which I wrote about in this column last year). She’s also recently begun working with adult job-seekers (see the box on page D6 for information on an upcoming workshop).
Brooks encourages the students and adults she works with to do what she calls “Wise Wandering” maps, where they fill a piece of paper with significant experiences in their life, without trying to put those experiences in order. Once they’ve written everything down, only then do they start looking for connections.
“It opens you up to new ways of thinking or a new discovery that you might not otherwise have made,” she says. “Because it is nonlinear, you are not trying to force anything into a category.”
This does more to help expand possibilities than making a conventional list, she says. If you wrote down a linear list of significant experiences in your life, your tendency would be to categorize: This is what I did in high school, this is what I did in my first summer job, this is what I did in college. You might not see the connection, say, between your love for debate team in high school and the fact that presentations are your favorite part of your job now because the two experiences are from different parts of your life. Using the mind-map format frees the information from categories and helps you see connections you might have missed before.
“You see different patterns. It allows your mind to play with the information you already have, but in a different way,” Brooks says.
Another fan of the technique, Austin Kleon, agrees. The artist and writer is probably best known for his new book “Newspaper Blackout,” in which he creates poems by blacking out words in newspaper stories. You can see examples of his work at www.austinkleon.com/visual-note-taking/.
“It makes generating ideas and seeing patterns in ideas easier because I’m not limited to linear logic or order,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Sometimes the ideas I get when taking notes non-linearly come entirely by chance — I’ll just happen to write one idea next to the other, and by sheer dumb luck of that combination, I’ll get a new idea, or I’ll make a new connection.”
Mind mapping might also be a better fit for your way of thinking. Some people are natural list-makers; some aren’t. If you’re in the latter category and have trouble breaking down major projects, this could be a good alternative for getting a handle on them, Brooks says.
Let’s take planning a wedding as an example. To begin, put the wedding date in the center of the page, Brooks says. Then think of the key areas you’ll be making decisions about: what you’ll wear, the color theme, flowers, cake, parties …
“You just splash those all over the paper in no particular order,” Brooks says.
Doing this will jog your brain to think about other things, like going to the printer about invitations. Put those on the map, too. Don’t try to organize the information; just dump it all out on the page.
After you’ve emptied your brain, then start making the connections between items and making your game plan. “I love this notion of getting control from chaos,” Brooks says. “Because your brain is a little chaotic, particularly when you’re trying to plan a major event like a wedding.”
“First I just use a regular old sheet of 8 1/2-by-11 paper, then I turn it horizontally,” Kleon says. “This is really the key first step because by turning the paper horizontally, you’re already changing things up. Then, I take a pen and a box of crayons, and I start in the very middle of the page with the main subject. Then I simply move out from there, filling in the rest of the page with my ideas, as they come. I’ll use the crayons to organize the ideas by color.”
Incorporating artistic touches like color or pictures cut from magazines might make the technique more fun and useful for you, but you don’t have to use them.
“I hear that all the time: ‘I’m not an artist,’ ” Brooks says. A mind map can use nothing but words if that’s what you prefer.
“It’s all about how your mind works,” she says.
“If you can write the alphabet, you have all the skills you need,” he says.
Your map doesn’t have to be neat, either.
“I sometimes think the messier the better,” Brooks says, “because then you have this amazing sense of accomplishment when you start to see the bigger picture in it and get it organized.”
The freedom to put stuff all over the page without any order can also be a little unnerving.
“It’s not uncommon for people to freeze a little bit when they first try to do it,” Brooks says. “They immediately start making a list.”
But if you keep going, you’ll usually find that the ideas start flowing, Brooks and Kleon both say.
“I like to say that a blank page is the most terrifying thing I can think of,” Kleon says. “So that first mark is everything. Go ahead and make that mark, and you’re off to the races, so to speak.