If you’ve ever given a speech, taught a lesson, or written a blog post, you know what it’s like to organize your thoughts on a topic.
You’re also familiar with the challenge it can be to get your thoughts down in a coherent fashion.
A brain dump just gives you a pile of thoughts to sift through, like Marie Kondo dumped your brain into a pile on your bed to sort through.
Going straight to an outline, like we were taught in middle school, is too rigid. An outline has a strict top-to-bottom, left-to-right ordering, and that’s not how our non-linear brains think. We start trying to organize our ideas before we’re done coming up with them.
This is where a mind map comes in. A mind map has a hierachy to it, but it’s not as rigid as an outline (and it has a couple of tricks up its sleeve that an outline can’t match). It’s flexible enough to capture ideas as our brain thinks of them, but still help organize them into something coherent.
A mind map is a two-dimensional graph of ideas. Your main idea, subject, or topic is prominently at the center. As you move outward, each idea becomes more specific. Similar topics are grouped together in a cluster, and related ideas are connected with a line. When you’re done, you have a map of what’s on your mind.
An outline has one way to express a relationship between elements: a child element expands upon its parent. That’s it. (Sure, siblings are related because they’re both expanding upon the same parent, but that’s a secondary effect of the parent-child relationship.)
Because a mind map is a two-dimensional graph, you can draw a line between any two ideas. Express that two or three siblings really are closely related by connecting them, or connect one idea to another that’s in a completely different part of the graph.
To create a mind map, write your main idea, subject, or topic in the center of the page. Next, surround it with the high level topics, each connected by a line. If I need a little nudge at this point, I’ll start with the relevant journalistic questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how) to prime the pump.
You can start breaking ideas down hierarchically, just like you would an outline. Surround an idea with more specific sub-ideas and draw a line. You can also connect ideas by drawing relationship lines across hierarchical boundaries.
It’s okay to jump around. Let your brain come up with ideas in whatever order it wants to. Leave room if necessary to add the intermediate ideas if your brain jumps to a specific detail early on.
When you’re done, you have two options, depending on why you’re creating a mind map. If you’re creating a mind map to have a mind map, you’ll want to create a final draft from this rough draft, now that you’ve got all of the ideas out and on paper. A mind map can communicate a lot of information as a resource.
If you’re using a mind map as a tool to organize your thoughts as your prepare a speech, lesson, or blog post, you’ll need to find a linear path through the graph. Pick a starting point and start moving through nodes. Once you’ve covered a subgraph, find the next subgraph to dive into.
You don’t need to hit every idea; the mind map will show you that some ideas may be an interesting thought, but they’re not really connected to anything else so they can be safely skipped.
A mind map helps you clarify your thinking. One interesting side-effect of this is discovering gaps in your understanding. A sparsely-populated region of the graph may represent an opportunity to learn something new.
The next time you need to outline something, try creating a mind map instead. You might find it easier to think if it’s easier to capture your thoughts.