Productivity Toolbox: Mind Mapping

What Is It?

Mind Mapping (also known as "brainstorming") is a creative way of putting thoughts and ideas onto paper in a semi-organised manner. There are a multitude of uses for this technique, from generating ideas to organising notes and articles. It's a great place to start if you want to create a lot of ideas, or if you want to explore different ways of doing things.

When Do You Use It?

The great thing about mind mapping is that it's so free. There's no right or wrong way to use it. For some people, it's useful when trying to come up with a list of ideas, but for others it's a good way of organising and idea they've already got and clarifying the various pieces.

As a general rule, if your task involves ideas of any kind, creating a mind map is a good place to start.

How Do You Do It?


If you can draw on it, you can pretty much mind map on it. I prefer to use paper as it is more flexible (you can doodle or use colours to add extra context easily), but there are some good software solutions out there too.

The PAPER method

The best way to get started is to take a piece of plain paper. Draw a bubble with your topic in it in the center, and then add anything that comes to mind in bubbles surrounding the main one. Add more related items as you go along, and add lines to them to signify relationships.

There's no real "end" to this process, so go as long as you need to. I find it helps to rewrite the diagram later in the day when my subconscious has had time to stew on things, but it's purely optional.

REMEMBER: Mind maps are as individual as the people that write them, so if you feel drawing emoticons next to something would add meaning, go for it. If you feel something is in the wrong place, it doesn't really matter. Either draw some extra lines or scribble it out and move it somewhere else. The whole process is very organic, so just go where it takes you.

The DIGITAL method

There are plenty of great mind mapping applications out there, but here's a few to look at:

  • Freemind – It's free, cross-platform and easy to use, and you can produce good looking mindmaps easily. It's also quite keyboard friendly, so you can get ideas onto the screen quickly without having to fiddle with the mouse.
  • XMind – A little more heavyweight than Freemind, but still good.
  • LucidChart – An online charting app that supports mindmaps and multiple users at the same time, so good for teams.

There's a much larger list on the wikipedia page "List of mind mapping software".

What Are The Benefits?

In some ways, mind mapping is like a form of exercise for your creativity. It allows you to explore new ideas quickly and easily, and is good for overcoming mental blocks or finding alternative solutions to problems. More importantly, because there's no set structure you don't lose any creative juice trying to stick to a methodology or set of rules. Just grab a pen and paper and go for it!

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Five Quick Procrastination Busters

Procrastination is a curious phenomenon, and I sometimes wonder if it's exclusive to humans. We have such fantastic energy and abilities, coupled with an almost boundless enthusiasm for exploration and knowledge.

So why do we waste so much of our time worrying about doing what we're best at? Not only that, but we seem to go out of our way to do anything but what we should be doing. Whether it's web surfing, TV watching or just shuffling papers, we've all done it.

Here's five quick and easy things you can do to beat your procrastination. They may not be enough to cure it entirely, but they'll help you get over the initial hump.

Create a work friendly environment

Remove distractions from where you'll be working before you start. Turn the TV and radio off, close your internet browser and your IM clients. Get everything you'll need for the task ahead, and lay it out in front of you. Make sure there's plenty of light, and that you're comfortable. Nothing makes work harder than an uncomfortable chair or a messy desk.

Make a short list

Making a big list of what needs doing is helpful at times, but when you're battling with procrastination it can end up being de-motivating instead. Take an index card or small piece of paper, and list THREE things that you can accomplish in the day that will make a difference. It's tempting to pick something big, but it's important to start small. Even if it's just "tidy desk" or "send email to X about project Y", it's something you can work on.

Completing tasks is the best way of busting down the walls put up by procrastination, so think of them as a warm up before a work out. Once you feel more energetic and confident, move on to bigger jobs.

Start a timer

When I sit down to work on a task, I start a 30 minute timer. Then I start working. It doesn't matter if the quality of writing is good or bad, as long as I do something. By having the timer in front of me, I'm reminded to focus on the job at hand. Once the timer is up, I'm done.

It's often the case that I want to keep working even when the timer has finished, so it's great for making progress on tasks I've been putting off.

Monitor your time

I've written about keeping a time log in the past, and they're a good way to help you focus. When you know what you do is going to be written down, it's a little encouragement to do something worthwhile.

RescueTime is a handy tool for Windows that automatically logs what you're doing on the computer and lets you view statistics. After a week of use, you'll be able to see what your biggest distractions are. Be warned, it can be a little sobering to find out just how much time is wasted during the day.

Reward yourself

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. When you force yourself to work, you can reinforce the idea that work it's bad. Make sure you reward yourself, whether it's a movie, a meal or reading a book in the sunshine. Smile when you're working, to remind yourself that once you're finished you can do something enjoyable. Don't think of the task as a barrier keeping you from what you want, but as a journey to take to your reward.

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