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Mindmaps, Notes and Spreadsheets

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Mindmaps Mindmap

Let’s talk about Mindmaps. Specifically, what they are, when to use them (and when not to use them), and how they compare against, say, traditional linear note-taking. I’ve been using mindmaps for a long time. Somewhere around 10+ years. I used them through school, through university, and I continue to use them in the business world and in my creative endeavours. I love them, but I know that a lot of people hate them and a lot simply don’t understand why they’re good for some things but not for others.

Mindmaps

The most common reaction I get when people see one of my mindmaps is “woah, that’s amazing”. The next reaction is “uh, so… like… how do I read this thing?”

It’s actually fairly simple. Mindmaps are information (as opposed to data) stored around a central concept, or multiple central concepts. For example:

Thai Food Mindmap: Minimal

Thai Food.

As you can see, the main idea in the middle here is “Thai Food” (I’m in Thailand at the moment). The concepts branching off are “side dishes”, “desserts”, “rice dishes”, “noodles”, “Chinese influenced” and “Isaan food”. These are sub-concepts that all fit under the main idea of “Thai Food”. Furthermore under that, are specific lists of dishes. Mindmaps are supposed to be hierarchical in nature, with each further level (or “branch”) elaborating on the one prior to it. You read the mindmap by levels out. I would start with the central node/idea, then move onto the first level, then the second level. Or, I could pick the first item in the first level (“side dishes”) and go onto its child items before moving onto the second item in the first level (“deserts”). Now this does go against how most of us are taught to read – linearly – but reading in iterations is actually a lot more powerful than reading something start-to-finish just once.

Note: check out our upcoming series on speed reading for more on this.

Let’s compare this same set of information, but in list format:

Thai Food

Side Dishes
morning glory
spare pork ribs
sweet and spicy deep-fried fish
son-in-law eggs

Desserts
mango sticky rice
assorted sweets with coconut milk

Rice Dishes
crispy pork and kale on rice
omelette and rice

Noodles
dry egg noodles with fishballs
flat rice noodles
vermicelli

Chinese Influenced
green bean soup
red bean soup

Isaan Food
sticky rice
grilled pork neck
grilled beef
grilled catfish
papaya salad

OK, so far so good. At this level, there isn’t too much difference between using a mindmap and using notes. But check this out:

Thai Food Mindmap with Relationships

Thai Food Mindmap with Relationships shown.

So now we’ve introduced an element into the mindmaps called Relationships. These are essentially arrows (with the occasional callout) that link certain ideas together. And this is where the power of mindmaps comes in. You can start to store not only relationships, but different levels of data (using callouts and images) within the same singular diagram. As such:

Thai Food Mindmap Full

Thai Food Mindmap with images and callouts.

This demonstrates what mindmaps are good for – for storing an entire set of information and meta-information about one thing on a singular diagram. This makes them exceptional for tasks such as brainstorming. In fact, each AE article begins life as a mindmap similar to the one at the top of this page. In the business world, mindmaps are invaluable for solving complex problems, mainly because they allow you to draw relationships and see where all the different pieces of a scenario fit together. (Note: as awesome as they are, there are still some more conservative corporate environments where “diagramming” is a big no-no.) More related to what we talk about here on Asian Efficiency, mindmaps can also be used to solve life problems or store information about your life, for example the Life Roadmap concept that Thanh and I have talked about before:

Sample Life Roadmap

Sample Life Roadmap

So I hope you’re pretty much sold by now that mindmaps are an absolutely awesome technique for creating and storing information. But let’s look at what they’re not good for. The first is when you have a very small amount of information to capture – e.g., something with one hierarchical level, like a shopping list. The second, is when you have a large amount of information – say anything more than the contents of a book. This is when your mindmaps start to get huge and out of control, and essentially useless.

Notes

Unlike mindmaps, notes are linear stores of information or data. They do vary a bit in format, but most of them are hierarchical lists of some sort, using bullet points usually with multiple levels of hierarchy, and storing both textual and image information.

We can safely assume that notes have been in existence since we started writing things down on papyrus. This makes them great for some things, but not for others. I personally use notes for when I have to store large amounts of information (though nowadays I am more apt to use a Spreadsheet, see below), for creating checklists such as a daily to-do list, or for jotting down items for processing later. Notes are not so great for problem solving, brain storming, or anything where you need to determine the connections between different pieces of information.

The huge upside to using notes is that you can take them easily on-the-go on your smartphone or in a small notebook. It is extremely hard to draw a mindmap in a pocket-sized notebook, and despite all the great mindmapping applications for iOS, there still isn’t one that works as quickly as their desktop equivalents do.

Spreadsheets and Databases

One step up from using notes to store information is the use of spreadsheets and databases. These are heavy-hitting business-grade tools, designed to handle large quantities of structured information and data. You use them when you have tabulated data that has a lot of attached metadata – such as dates, descriptions, source, origin, author etc… You probably already use databases day-to-day without realizing it: OmniFocus and Things are both database that store your to-do data. Google Calendar and iCal are both database that store your scheduling data. Custom spreadsheets are a little trickier, and I like to use them for example, for storing accounting/financial information, or for storing long lists of information.

Tools

So the question becomes: when do you use each format, and how do you go about using each format?

For mindmaps, I would stick to:

  • Summaries of information.
  • Book summaries.
  • Brainstorming.

For notes:

  • Smaller checklists.
  • Large quantities of information for future reference.

For spreadsheets:

  • Financial data.

As for actual software applications, here are some suggestions to get you started:

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11 Comments

Posted by Linda Maye Adams  | September 20, 2016 at 6:08AM | Reply

There’s also a fourth, organic notes, which are not linear. They sort of form organically in whatever order works for the person and might include pictures, lines connecting one part to another etc.

Though I’m a creative and had been told mind maps are a great tool for me, I’ve found I actually can’t work with them at all. I can do one, I’ll enjoy doing it, and then a week later, it makes no sense to me. It loses the context once it’s out of the meeting. I do better with the linear notes, though someone else may look at them and scratch their heads and go, “What the–“

Posted by Justino  | September 4, 2013 at 9:37AM | Reply

Studying for a Microsoft exam, are minds maps the way to go .
I am watching videos courses, reading ebooks, and using virtual machine to implement?

What would be best study method?

Posted by Wilson Ng  | March 20, 2013 at 12:13AM | Reply

Many mind map programs have the option of viewing your mindmap in an outline format. I’ve seen this in Mindjet and NovaMind.

http://onlinehelp.mindjet.com/Help/MindManager/81/ENU/outline_view.htm

http://www.novamind.com/blog/2011/tutorials/windows/outline-view/

Sometimes I find it helpful to see the outline create itself when I’m in mindmap mode. I’ll switch between the mindmap view and outline view to try to make sense of my chaotic project.

Posted by Michael Sheaver  | September 13, 2011 at 8:38PM | Reply

I am so glad you guys introduced me to mind maps! I tried a couple of different packages, and settled (for now) on the free version of iMindMap. They made it so easy to create really stunning mind maps with a minimum of effort and prior experience. 

i have a question for you. Do you know of any software other than the paid version of iMindMap that will generate a project plan from the mind map? I discovered this in the 7-day evaluation, and found it to be really handy.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 14, 2011 at 8:19AM

Hey Michael I’m not familiar with generating project plans from mind maps. How do these work?

Posted by Michael Sheaver  | September 15, 2011 at 10:39PM

Thanh, if you download the trial version from imindmap.com, it comes with all the features enabled for 7 days. Create a new mind map, then click the Project icon in the middle to the toolbar, and voila! it generates an instant project. It is really handy.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 14, 2011 at 8:19AM

Hey Michael I’m not familiar with generating project plans from mind maps. How do these work?

Posted by Vincent Cordel  | August 29, 2011 at 3:14PM | Reply

All of your articles are great. Thanks for putting so much effort in them.

I’d love to know how you make all the tools work together so you don’t repeat yourself.

Say, for ex., you start with a mindmap and a few notes. Chances are you’ll have some kind of todo list in it for a specific project.

It becomes redundant to enter the todo in a mindmap and then to OF.

Same problem goes when you have a team. 
I’ve been using Basecamp for a while (and alternatives). It’s great but the same pb occurs.
You setup some todo lists in basecamp but then they’re not available on OF.

It’d be nice to sync both in real-time so you don’t have double-entries potentially leading to errors or misses.

Do you have a trick? :)

Thanks again,
– Vincent

Posted by AE Aaron  | September 2, 2011 at 3:27AM

Hey Vincent,

I don’t find creating a mindmap and then recreating a task list in OF as a problem. As an example, whenever I read a business book I create a mindmap at the end of it. I then go through the mindmap, picking out ideas for implementation. I then create this implementation list inside OF and process it. The main reason for this is that OF is my go-to for “doing” stuff, while the mindmap remains an information store, in this case for the contents of the book.

I used to use Basecamp myself and found it to be a bit of a hassle. I understand the need for it in a team environment, but it was hard to track both things in Basecamp and in OF at the same time. There is a sorta-workaround called Spootnik (http://www.spootnik.net/) that may be worth checking out. My conclusion was one of two options: 1) that each team member should be smart enough to manage their own to-do list on a 20-minute chunk level, while the tasks that go into collaboration software should be higher level than that (e.g., basecamp task: configure wordpress, OF tasks: log into cpanel and set up database and email address, upload zip file to server, SSH and extract, run wordpress install etc etc); 2) a custom-coded solution for task management and completely remove tasks that appear there from OF.

– Aaron

Posted by Justin Withers  | August 27, 2011 at 6:36PM | Reply

Good article. I struggle with the best way to capture meeting notes. I have corporate Dell, personal Macbook Air, iPhone 4, Moleskine in pocket. Familiar with MindMaps, have apps on Mac and PC, not iPhone (yet). Tried Evernote, not convinced, trying OneNote which links nicely to Outlook but is rubbish from a Mac point of view of course. Should I try mind mapping with meeting notes templates on Mac/iPhone or???

thanks

Justin

Posted by Thanh Pham  | August 27, 2011 at 6:49PM

There a lot of different approaches to this. A while back I was discussing something similar with Aaron. We both love watching videos, such as TED talks or other educational videos, and taking notes of them. Aaron prefers mindmapping to capture those notes, while I prefer OmniOutliner for this. OO is great for taking notes on videos and I also have used it for team meetings. The reason I love OO in this case is that you can quickly write down thoughts and interpretations. Plus when you have personal semantics you can quickly scan the notes file for specific things.

What I mean with this is, whenever a line starts with a certain character, that signifies something. I will write a separate article for this in the future, but to give you an idea:

* means it’s something I have to pay attention to
[] (two square backets) means it’s a task you have to do
? means something is unclear and needs to be clarified

So when you’re taking notes, these little semantics really help you take better notes and make them more useful too.
If you can take notes for meetings on OmniOutliner, give it a try. Or find something similar for on Windows.

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