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.
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:
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:
spare pork ribs
sweet and spicy deep-fried fish
mango sticky rice
assorted sweets with coconut milk
crispy pork and kale on rice
omelette and rice
dry egg noodles with fishballs
flat rice noodles
green bean soup
red bean soup
grilled pork neck
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
- Smaller checklists.
- Large quantities of information for future reference.
- Financial data.
As for actual software applications, here are some suggestions to get you started: