Guest Blogger: Dan Fries
The human brain is likely the most powerful device on the planet.
Although today’s computers may be able to perform computations faster and digest more content, artificial intelligence has yet to deliver a tool that is capable of thinking and problem-solving like a human can.
But the brain works best when it has structure and organization. Brainstorming sessions will go nowhere unless ideas are captured, expanded, and analyzed. This has led to a rise in popularity of the mind mapping concept, where individuals or teams start with one central topic and then build connections to help the idea grow.
This article will cover some of the basics of mind mapping and then explore how best to use it as a productivity tool in your daily life.
Mind Mapping Basics
A mind map can be created anywhere from a single piece of paper, to a meeting space whiteboard, to a computer screen. Later on, we’ll explain why software tools are the best mechanism for mind mapping, but for now let’s talk about the process in general.
When beginning a new mind map, you and your team should always start in the center of your workspace. There you should write the down the central theme of your brainstorming session and, if desired, add an image or illustration to help define it. Your central theme can be a project name, a problem statement, or just a high-level thought.
First Level Associations
After setting the central theme for a new mind map, the real brainstorming can begin. You and your team will work together to create first-level associations that can be linked to the central theme. These should be spread spatially around the center of the map with lines drawn to connect to the middle.
A first-level association can be any topic that needs to be considered to satisfy the central theme. Try to keep these relatively generic so you can continue to build from them.
At this point, you should go around the circle of first-level associations and focus on them one-by-one. Each first-level association should have two or more branches splitting out from it that offer more detailed or actionable content. But still aim to keep each link brief, using more keywords and fewer full sentences.
In general, you should avoid having more than seven total first-level associations and a maximum of three or four levels below each one. Otherwise your mind map will become too crowded and difficult to comprehend at a glance.
Also, keep in mind that a mind map should never look like a spider web. Sub-levels should always be linked to their related first-level association and not have lines crossing through the map.
Goal-Oriented Mind Mapping
Goals are a necessity for adding structure to your daily life and allow for productivity both in a personal and professional sense.
When it comes to mind mapping, it can actually be most beneficial to use a single map for your work and personal goals in order to help set priorities and focus on what’s most important to you. Goal-oriented mind maps can also be used by teams, but you should try to avoid mixing individual goals with group goals.
Before creating a new mind map for goals, it’s best to do a brain dump and create a simple list of everything you want to achieve, regardless of the category or timeframe. At this point, it’s okay for the goals to be written out in a complete sentences or phrases.
For this kind of mind map, your central theme should just be labeled “GOALS” in the middle. Then look at your list of goals and break them into four to five high-level categories, such as Work, Education, Money, Social, and Fitness. Then add a simplified description of each goal as an association directly below the relevant category.
As you move around the mind map and focus on each category and goal, your sub-levels should become more specific and action-oriented. For example, if one of your work-related goals is to get a new job, then your mind map should include levels related to updating your resume, networking with colleagues, and performing online job searches. Don’t worry about putting these actions in a specific order or arrangement.
When your mind map is nearing completion, you should have a visual understanding of where your goals are concentrated and what is required to make them a reality.
Aiming for SMART Goals
Mind mapping can be especially valuable when it comes to setting goals, whether in a personal or business situation. The internet is like the central nervous system of the global economy today, comprising nearly a third of all commerce that takes place in the world. Mind maps are a fantastic tool for planning any online endeavor or business idea, helping you visually navigate the overload of information inherent to online business.
Chances are your very first goal-oriented mind map will be a bit of a disorganized mess. And that’s okay, because the best mind mapping exercise involves several iterations and drafts. This way, your brainstorming activity builds upon itself and becomes more powerful.
The best defined goals follow an acronym known as SMART. SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Bound. Especially in a business setting, SMART goals are critical to proper project management.
A goal is specific if it can be clearly defined in a few words while answering a question or solving a problem. For example, saying I want to train for a marathon in order to lose weight is a specific goal. On the other hand, just saying you want to be healthy would not be a specific goal.
A measurable goal is one that can be tracked and quantified. This is important because you want to refer to your mind map as time goes on and see how you are progressing toward your goal. For a fitness goal, you might aim to run six-minute miles in your marathon training.
Big dreams are great, but when it comes to brainstorming goals with a mind map, you need to have ones that are realistic, otherwise the entire exercise will become frustrating in a hurry. Perhaps running an entire marathon is not attainable for you at this point in time. Instead, you can revise your goal and have it focus on a 5K race instead.
Deciding on the relevancy of a goal is entirely up to your own personal opinion. You should never prioritize a goal just because other people around you are focusing on it. Instead, choose goals that are going to help you improve and develop from your current station in life.
Lastly, the goals on your mind map should be time bound. They don’t all have to share the same timeframe, but you should be able to clearly define when you want to achieve each goal. You won’t ever work hard towards a goal like running a marathon if you don’t specify an end date.
Benefits of Mapping Software
Some people find that using a large whiteboard to jot down ideas and notes can be helpful during a brainstorming session. But there is always the risk of the whiteboard being a temporary space, which makes it difficult to grow and iterate the ideas included there.
As a result, mind mapping software has become a very popular alternative. With a tool like MindManager, you can choose from an assortment of pre-built templates for common business or personal activities. Moving elements around the map is easy and you can save drafts to see how your brainstorming evolves over time.
In addition, you have the ability to link outside artifacts to the concepts on your map. For example, instead of just having sub-levels labeled with text descriptions, you can actually embed Word files, diagrams, or emails into the map.
Finally, MindManager’s new SmartRules™ feature allows you view cause and effect situations when changing elements within your mind map. For example, if you build timelines, resource allocations or budgets into you goal setting mind map, you can create SmartRules™ that will dynamically tell you the impact of changes you make to each variable. If you extend the timeline of one goal, how will that affect budget? If you remove a resource, how will that affect your timeline? All of these variables and moving parts can be automated and visualized using MindManager’s SmartRules™ feature.
Goal Follow Through
At its core, mind mapping is an exercise in planning. Nothing in a mind map tool can guarantee that you will meet your goals or even make progress towards them. That, of course, requires a great deal of focus and willpower on the part of the individual or team.
With that said, you can use best practices in mind mapping to help you follow through on goals and say on track. Once the levels of your mind map have been relatively finalized, go through each one and make it into an action item that is measurable.
The best action items are progressive ones that have multiple checkpoints on the road to the final goal. That way, you can exhibit productivity right from your mind map.
I’d recommend taking advantage of MindManager’s task info tools, that allow you to add start and end dates, priorities, progress and resources to each of the steps towards your goals. To turn your goal setting mind map into an actionable calendar, you can also use the Schedule or Gantt Pro features to help guide you toward the end.
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About the Author: Dan Fries is a freelance writer and full stack Rust developer. He looks for convergence in technology trends, with specific interests in cyber security and cloud infrastructure as a service (IaaS) applications. In his free time, Dan enjoys snowboarding and kite surfing. He is currently based in Hong Kong with his pet beagle, Teddy. Connect with Dan on LinkedIn.