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Mind Mapping 101: Your Practical Introduction

Clarity Affords Focus – Thomas Leonard

In this practical guide, I will give you not just information on what mind mapping is, why you can/should use it, who benefits from it and when to use it. I will also give you practical pointers on how to benefit from it right now. Throughout this piece, you will find links that help you to learn more specific information, techniques, and tips as well as places where to get the best tools for mind mapping.

Without further ado, let’s get started with Mind Mapping 101, the guide that helps you to get started with mind mapping right now. 

 1 What Is Mind Mapping?

This is a very important question. You have to know what mind mapping is and what a mind map is. Mind mapping is simply the method for creating a mind map. Mind mapping is formalized by Tony Buzan. A definition of mind mapping is:

“Graphical technique for visualizing connections between several ideas or pieces of information. Each idea or fact is written down and then linked by lines or curves to its major or minor (or following or previous) idea or fact, thus creating a web of relationships”

Source: Business Directory

Or from the mind map book by Tony Buzan:

“The Mind Map® is an expression of Radiant Thinking and is therefore a natural function of the human mind. It is a powerful graphic technique which provides a universal key to unlocking the potential of the brain. The Mind Map can be applied to every aspect of life where improved learning and clearer thinking will enhance human performance. The Mind Map has four essential characteristics:

  • The subject of attention is crystallized in a central image.
  • The main themes of the subject radiate from the central image on branches.
  • Branches hold a key image/word printed on the associated line – details radiate out.
  • The branches form a connected nodal structure.”

Source: The Mind Map Book, Tony Buzan

When people ask me what a mind map is, I often give them 2 ways of looking at them.

The first defines mind mapping as a visual format that uses words, colors, and images to represent information in a radial format starting in the center and radiating outward using branches with related information.

Sounds like a mouth full… so I often also tell people that mind maps are ways to look at information differently. This different view allows the user to get different perspectives that give them better insight, clarity, peace of mind, and understanding. Basically, you go from a lot of information to a clear view. You allow yourself to have a bigger-picture overview.

It is important to know that mind mapping is formalized by Tony Buzan. He is not the first person who created the mind mapping structure of working. Mind mapping structures were used by many people throughout history. Many smart people used it (and probably also many people who are not that famous).

Tony Buzan did create the system and gave it a name. I am sure that when you look back at the way you are taking notes, you used a similar way of working. The reason this probably happened to you before is that mind mapping comes very naturally to us and our brains. The structure of mind maps is something that you see in nature a lot.

Mind mapping is the combination of art and science, logic and emotion, words and images, boring and fun. Mind mapping combines all these things to make the result, the mind map, something that your brain really likes.

Normally, you only use words. In a traditional theory that is used a lot in mind mapping, we learn that the left brain loves words and the right brain enjoys images. Although this is true, it is not either-or. Both love words and images. These brain differences are small, but still, there is a difference.

I use a very easy technique that you can use to create any type of mind map. It is the C.O.W!. method.

This acronym stands for:

C – Capture

O – Organize and Overview

W! – Work with the map, use it, update and edit it

TIP: Use the COW! method for mind mapping your information. Realize that this is not a linear format. It doesn’t start with C, goes to O, and then to W! It could, but that is highly unlikely.

You Capture, then you Organize what you captured. Perhaps you have to Capture a little bit more information. Then, when you are ready to go to the W! stage, you are about to go into the real world with your mind maps. The COW! system is easy to understand and easy to use.

TIP: Apply the COW! system on a topic that you want to study or investigate.

NOTE: I feel it is important to tell you that there are many different forms of visual information management. One that is related to mind mapping is concept mapping. In this method, you create an overview that may look like a mind map. The big changes are:

The lines between concepts in the map are named. For instance, you have two concepts called Barack and Michelle. The line between these two would be called “is the husband of” or “if the wife of”. 

The second big change is that in a mind map the branches never connect to other branches. In concept maps, you can create circular branches. For instance: 

mind map and concept map

As you can see, these methods are different visual information outlining. 

Different methods help you with your creative thinking and comprehension of information. By the way, sometimes a mind map may be referred to as a spider diagram. These look like a lot so don’t feel this is a completely different method.  

Now that we discussed mind mapping (the system for creating a mind map) let’s have a closer look at what a mind map is.

1.1 What is a Mind Map?

As I wrote just earlier, a mind map is something that we see a lot in nature. Have a look at a tree for instance. We have the stem of the tree. From this stem, all kinds of branches appear. Some are small and thin, others are long and thick.

Even on a micro scale, the structure of a mind map can be found. Have a look at your brain and the dendrites. Their structure is similar to a mind map as well. Going from the thick core going outward getting smaller and smaller. By the way, your entire brain doesn’t look like a mind map because of the interconnections between different cells.

So what is a mind map? Below is an example of a mind map.

hand drawn mind map example

This is a mind map drawn on paper on a certain subject. The subject is shown in the center. From this center, branches with topics go outward. Each branch shows information on a certain topic. Notice that there is no connection between different branches! This is according to the mind mapping rules not possible. Remember the tree? The stem is the subject, topics are branches, and detailed words are leaves on the branch.

It is important that you know that a mind map is a TOOL. It is not the end goal itself. Wasting time working on a mind map in order to create a good-looking map is not smart. You use a map because you want to achieve something. You could for instance be looking for understanding study material better. Or you want to get clarity in your work. You like to figure out what stops you from being successful. All of these are wonderful goals. The mind map is there to assist you in realizing or achieving those goals.

TIP: The moment you start working on a mind map and it doesn’t contribute to you achieving your goal faster and/or easier… you should stop mind mapping immediately.

I just showed you a hand-drawn mind map. Mind mapping was first described in the 1970s. Computers were back then not really graphical so mind mapping on a computer was not really done the way it can be done these days. In the 1990s the first mind mapping tools were created. Now it was possible to create mind maps on your computer as well. Then from 2000 on, more serious tools were produced that can be used on PDA’s, phones, and later on tablets.

There is a big difference in my opinion between hand-drawn maps and computer-created maps. I usually refer to hand-drawn maps as traditional maps and I refer to computer maps as digital maps.

1.2 How To Make A Mind Map

Here are a few simple steps you can follow to create a mind map. 

1. start with a blank page. This can be a sheet of paper, or a new document in a mind mapping software tool. Make sure the sheet is in ‘landscape’ mode, so the long side is towards you (like a computer screen).

2. In the middle of the sheet, you put your central topic. This central concept is what the map is all about. Make sure you use a single concept per map. Don’t confuse yourself using multiple ideas on your map. All the information on your map is about the central topic.

So if you create a map of your notes from a book, you don’t talk about your daily planning or a recipe for life. You talk about your book.

3. Then you add your information. In mind mapping, we create radial maps. This means the information starts in the middle and is added towards the outside of the sheet. This way the topic is the center and the major ideas are around it. 

Normally you would be using only a single word or single keyword on the branches around the central topic. It is fine if you use short phrases as well. The map is supposed to be helping you. You are not there to create a perfect map. 

All the information you add is related to a single central key concept. In our example, this could be a book. 

TIP: you can change the way you look at your information by adding many images. This takes a lot of work. An easy way of putting emphasis on certain ideas in your map is this. You can change the text size of ideas. The larger text means that it is more important. A different text color also does a lot to draw attention. Test this and let me know how this works for you.

TIP: To create maps faster, you can use a mind map template. Using a mind map template, you don’t have to think too much about what to add to the map and where. You simply add your information.

Click here for more information about mind map templates.

Click here for detailed information about mind mapping on paper, and mind mapping on your computer.

1.3 Traditional Mind Maps

A traditional map is usually created on paper, drawn by hand, and often a personal piece of work. You draw the images, you use your ideas and colors, and you use the map most often for yourself. Maps created on paper are slightly more difficult to update when compared to digital mind maps.

difficult to update a mind map

Traditional maps can be created in groups on a whiteboard as well. One or more people work on the map simultaneously and create a map during a brainstorming session (for example).

TIP: Be sure to take a picture of the map after the session to save the information!

TIP: Make sure that when you create a map on paper, you write and draw them in a special notebook. This way you have all your maps together. 

1.4 Mind Mapping Software

A digital or computer map is an electronic map. You create it on your computer, phone, or tablet. The beauty of mapping software is that you can use it to create maps really fast (when the device is powered on of course). Another benefit is that you don’t have to bother thinking about branches, how big the map is, how to add information, colors and how to use images.

computer mind mapping

In short… mind mapping makes it really simple to use, create, and edit maps quickly. Sounds great… right? Well, the digital map is also less personal. You type words or add images (from google.com/Flickr)… but this is not your handwriting and they are not your images.

Especially with the images, many people are actually wasting lots of time on this process. They start out really great. They add information and organize it… but then they start thinking about colors and great-looking pictures.

This is the moment their productivity and creativity get killed. They spend so much time ‘perfecting’ the map, that they lose track of their goal (remember you create a map to help you achieve something?).

What often happens with people who use mind mapping software is this. They create maps and hardly use images and colors. Don’t get me wrong. While this may not be the way traditional mind mapping was described, it can work perfectly. Often people just want to have clarity in their thinking or summarize many sources of information. Images are not really needed then (most of the time). Many people don’t even change the default settings for colors and mapping direction anyway… so their digital maps are pretty boring…

The amazing thing about mind mapping software is that you can update the map really fast. You can drag and drop branches around the map. You can save it, copy it, and share it with others.

Especially this sharing of maps with others is really good. Imagine you are a manager who has to share your vision on a project that is about to start. You can use a document to tell people about this and what their place in the project is. What you can also do is share a single sheet mind map that gives all the information in an attractive and visual format. What do you think will stick most?

Here are a few additional tips for using mind mapping software:

TIP: Make sure you check out online collaboration in mind mapping tools. This allows you to create mind maps with others, who can be all around the world, at the same time! A very powerful tool is Mindmeister. 

TIP: I recommend you to not create maps on your phone or tablet that often. The reason why I advise you this is because typing on a tablet or phone is not that great. When you have an external keyboard, I would say, go ahead! If not… don’t do that yet. Create maps on your computer and USE them on your phone or tablet. It just takes too much time to input information. This will stop the creative process and probably might annoy you as well.

My preferred method for doing this ‘on the move’ mind mapping is this: I create a map on my laptop or desktop computer. Then I share it with myself via Dropbox or Google Drive. I open the map on the go, and I only update the things which are important. Save it again, and I work on the map more when I use my laptop or desktop.

Here are some very good mind map software tools you can have a look at:

  • Mindmanager (Windows, Mac, Online) 
  • Xmind (Windows, Mac)
  • MindMapper (Windows)
  • MindGenius (Windows, Online)
  • SmartDraw (Windows, Mac, Online)

I also have a more extensive list of mind mapping tools for different systems. It also shows you how to make full use of mind mapping on your computer using your own personal system.

Basically, it doesn’t really matter which tool you use if it is for personal use. Find one that fits your budget and is easy to use.

Go to the download page and download any of the tools you want to try. They all have a trial period. This means you can create all the mind maps you want!

If you need any help finding a mind map tool, let me know. I am more than happy to assist you in finding your visual thinking tool!

1.5 The Practical Mind Map

There is a third way of mind mapping that I call practical mind mapping. I coined this term about 10 years ago. Many people probably work this way already (but hey… if you can formalize something that is done by people… why not me, right?).

Practical mind mapping is defined as mind mapping really fast, being extremely goal-oriented, while at the same time making maps that are brain-friendly. Practical mind mapping is sort of a hybrid between traditional and digital mind mapping. More colors, faster, easier

  • Traditional mind mapping uses often this order for adding information: images, colors, and words.
  • Digital mind mapping uses most often this order: words, images, colors
  • Practical mind mapping follows this format: words, and colors (optional images).

That’s right, in a practical mind map the words are most important and colors are used to make the overview brain-friendly. If images are needed, you can add them. But this is only optional. Remember that the map itself is an image also! So when you don’t add additional images, that is fine. Simply work with font sizes (really important!!!), font background colors, font colors, and branch colors. Add them in this particular order.

Font sizes are the most important you use, then font background color, etc. All of these are really fast to implement and have a big influence on the way you perceive the information.

digital to practical mind map

One of the features of practical mind mapping is that it is done really fast. You type for example all the information into the map in about one minute, max two minutes. You organize it (takes less than one minute). Then you do the color and font changes (if needed), in less than 1 minute. And now you are ready to go!

The map is created with a clear goal in mind. You need to identify (10% of your time) and solve a problem (90% of your time). You need to organize your ideas or create peace of mind because of a raging mind. You need to outline the next week or month or 90-day planning.

The result is a simple and powerful map that will help you achieve your goal. Now that you have the map, you use it, update it, and edit it.

When I look at the amount of time I spend mind mapping (for myself)… I do this about 5 to 7 minutes per week, approx. one minute per day. I don’t create mind maps because they need to look pretty, they just have to help, guide, and direct me towards my goal.

TIP: Create a practical mind map for your next project, week, and meeting in one to two minutes. When you created it, USE it and let me know what you noticed and achieved.

Great, now you know what mind maps and mind mapping are. Let’s have a look at when to use mind maps.

2. Why Use Mind Maps?

I am sure you figured out the answer to this question out already when you read the information above. Still, you might have skipped all that text and gone to this part straight away. Even so, for all you people who want to know why you should be using mind maps, here we go:

Mind mapping is a tool that creates overviews that are exciting, fun, and interesting to look at for our brains. We feed not just words into our brains, but also images and colors. The end result is that information is much better remembered.

For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity – Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Also, because we create a mind map on just a single sheet of paper, we will be able to get a good overview of the entire piece of information or the situation. All on one sheet means no flipping pages or searching for stuff. You can have all the things that are spinning around in your head on your one sheet. This makes it much easier to create an overview.

A mind map has a clear and simple structure. Information is stored in branches. All the information in a branch is related to each other. The result is that you can quickly find out what something means, what the implication of the information is, etc. You save time and energy this way. When you create a mind map, it is fun to do. You are not thinking about work or making things difficult for yourself. You get to doodle and still create something valuable.

Another reason why people enjoy mind mapping is that when they are mind mapping, other people are interested in what they do. A conversation gets started. You can connect with other people easier and faster.

Can you imagine what happens when you mind map your next meeting and people only think why you are not paying attention… and then… you ask that one question or give that one remark that blows them away! Why you can do this? Because you have amazing insight into the information shared and you see connections and relationships between topics discussed!

In general, when you start mind mapping, it is all a little bit strange. It won’t be too different from your own way of working. Still, everything that is just a little different usually is hard. People love change… but not too much, too often, and happening to them… In the beginning, mind mapping may take time, cost a little bit more energy, and may not always result in a much better end result.

That is in the beginning… But once you went through that phase, things will change for you. You will be able to save lots of time (I know of people who save 2 hours each day!), feel better, have less stress, have more energy, and be able to get a good understanding of new situations and new material.

Oh… by the way… it doesn’t have to take long to get to this almost heavenly place where information is your friend and not your foe. When you work hard, you might be able to go there in a matter of hours or days!!!

3. Who Uses Mind Maps?

Anybody who has to deal with lots of information can benefit from mind mapping. This information can be found in your head, in books, documents or papers, in other people, etc.

No need to use maps if you are not dealing with information, ideas, thoughts, fears, projects, etc. that are crystal clear and need no further clarification or outlining. What is good is good, Don’t create maps that are not needed.

This piece started with ‘who USE mind maps’.

I think most people who don’t create mind maps can benefit from using them. You probably don’t know how your computer works. Still, you can use it quite well. The same goes for mind maps. You should share maps with people who can USE them.

TIP: spend 95% to 99% of your time USING mind maps, and only 1% to 5% on CREATING them.

So individuals can use mind maps. Groups can use them as well. Do a brainstorming session with people in a group. Or outline a project with a couple of co-workers. This works really well.

Often people can use mind maps even without knowing it is a mind map they are using. Give them a simple map. Don’t add too many colors. Keep the number of words you use at a minimum. Now have another person tell you what is on the map. I am sure they can understand it quite well, even if they are not familiar with the topic or with the mind mapping technique.

People are really good at figuring out how things work. Since a mind map uses a natural and brain-friendly format, people will understand it quickly. They figure out where to start and what important information is and what isn’t.

TIP: By the way… share a map you created with another person. Have them look at it and tell you what they see and understand. They might give you a different perspective or see flaws and inconsistencies in your map that you don’t see anymore

TIP: If you want to take this a step further… I advise you to give them the map and ask them to understand or memorize what the map is all about.

Then, you give them a fresh piece of paper, and you ask them to create a similar picture as the one they saw, but now from what they remember. Be sure you don’t ask them to memorize the map, just to memorize and understand the content.

This new map is something that is showing you what is in the mind of the other person on your topic. Is it the same? Why (not)? 

4. When to Use Mind Maps

Some people will tell you that you can use mind maps for everything. From planning a nuclear facility to writing poems to grocery lists and making dinner.

While this is something you could be doing with mind maps… I wouldn’t recommend all of them. Let’s face it, you can draw everything you want to communicate with yourself and others. More than often it is not really necessary, needed, or smart, right?

Here are a couple of things you can or perhaps should do using mind maps. Use them, but be sure you keep them practical and goal-oriented. I wouldn’t want you to come back to me and tell me you wasted time and energy (or worse…).

TIP: Be sure to check out the template information so you can get started even faster!

4.1 Notetaking with Mind Maps

This might be the one thing that most people do when they first start mind mapping. They take notes from a training course, a book, or when listening to another person. They outline the ideas and information they hear and transform it into a well-organized piece of knowledge.

I work with many adult students who need to summarize books and lectures. They use mind mapping a lot to create a clear overview of their information.

4.2 Mind Maps for Meeting

Ever been in a meeting where the agenda is kind of clear, but is not really used and you end up hours later thinking… “what was I doing there in the first place…?”.

Next time when you go to a meeting or are organizing one, make sure you outline the meeting (before it starts) using a mind map. You will be surprised about the clarity a mind map will give you. Organize the items, add key points to them, and start talking and discussing them. Add thoughts and ideas to the original map and before you know it, you have your minutes or notes ready. No more time is wasted writing the full minutes with this handy overview!

4.3 Studying with Mind Maps

A mind map can be a wonderful companion when studying. You can summarize your books in a mind map. Often one book can fit in a single sheet mind map! Or you create a schedule of your papers, exams, assignments, etc. on a map. From there, you add dates, bullets, or ideas, links to relevant websites, and more. What you end up with is a map that will help you in creating an overview of what seems to be an overwhelming amount of data.

You will be amazed at how fast you will understand the information. Your insight is increased and you reduce study time.

4.4 Giving Presentations with Mind Maps

There you have it, you know how to mind map your information. You create a smart outline and when you have your mind map ready to present it… you export the mind map to Powerpoint and you present it from that tool.

That would be WRONG!!! Don’t export. Keep your mind map and use it to present your information to your audience. A mind map shows them exactly what information is shared and how it will help them benefit in their work, studies or life.

In a Powerpoint presentation, you use a linear format. You go from slide to slide. A mind map gives the audience the general overview (full map), plus the details (branches with information). Attendees know what the topic is that you discuss and how it relates to the other topics in your presentation. This way you have an easy tool for capturing attention and making it an engaging time they spend with you!

By the way, this works for large audiences and one on one sales meetings or training.

4.5 Mind Maps for Problem Solving

Were you ever in a situation where you did not see or find a way out? It would be smart that next time you outline your current situation and your desired situation in two maps. Make them face each other and you will see something interesting occur.

Facing mind maps for problem solving

The white space in the middle is the birthplace of something amazing. It will give you the answer to your way out of that situation. To me, the white space between the branches is very often much more important than the fixed information in/on the branches. White space gives our minds a way to grow, find, and expand! Fixed information in a map doesn’t really do this.

Fill the space between the two maps and find your way out of the problem. Then… simply take action, update your map if needed, and learn from this lesson.

4.6 Increasing Creativity

We are all creative creatures. We all can find a solution to a situation that seems difficult (to say the least).

Creativity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil reside in the same individual – Arthur Koestler

To stimulate this, I want to advise you to start creating more mind maps. You can go for a traditional or practical map. In the beginning, a digital map could be helping you, but the other two are much more powerful. A mind map uses words, images, and colors (in this or any other order). When you work like that, you will not just use the slightly more logical left-brain side. You will also use the more dominant creative right side.

Use images and colors and you will create a different perspective on the information. Doing that will not just make you look at things differently. It will help you become more creative.

4.7 Clarifying, Overviewing, Understanding, Outlining

Do you remember when a thousand things were going through your mind? How did that feel? Kind of bad, stressed, and dis-empowering?

The moment you can create clarity, overview, understanding, or some sort of outline of all that information that spins around in your head, you will feel sharper and clearer. Go ahead, try it for yourself.

When you are stressed, write down all the things that are going around in your mind. When you have that, ask yourself 3 simple questions for each item on your map:

  • Can I control this?
  • How will this help me?
  • What would I think about this in one year?

The answers to these questions will give you clarity and it simplifies what you need to do in your head.

4.8 Planning with Mind Maps (the nuclear facility)

Here we are again, planning a nuclear facility, right? Well, you can plan all you want with mind maps. Whether it would be a project at work, a party at home, your next exam, or whatever you want. If there is some sort of planning that you want to make, you can do it in mind maps.

TIP: Don’t create a plan with the main branches being the days of the week or months in the year.

Be a little bit more creative. The above outline (days of the week), is done much better in Outlook or Google Agenda, right? No need to reinvent the wheel again. You can think of something like meetings, projects, interviews, studying, etc. Fill in the information behind these branches and you have good planning for X days or Y months! By the way, I do this using my 90 planning outline

5. To Conclude Mind Mapping 101

You should know that there are many different approaches to mind mapping. Other techniques for visualizing information are concept mapping, flowcharting, summapping, etc. All of these have their own group of people who use that technique.

TIP: Be sure you don’t reach out for mind maps because mind mapping is a tool you know you could use.

ALWAYS make sure you use the right tool. After all, all problems look like nails when the only tool you have is a hammer.

There are more and more people who are certified mind map trainers. They train people in mind mapping and how to create a mind map. I was not trained by Tony Buzan. I did read his book and started to USE mind maps.

This resulted in creating new approaches to mind mapping and new methods to view information. I was fortunate to assist thousands of people who now have a much clearer overview of their information.

What you should know is that Tony Buzan is very strict in using his technique and the way you should create mind maps. I completely understand that. His trainers also work that way. Be sure that you learn from other people and that you develop your own style. For me, this resulted in the summapping technique, a method that creates, even more, brain-friendly overviews that help you to create insight and understanding of people, situations, and of course information.

Let me know how you use the information in this article to your advantage. I am more than happy to assist you in becoming an excellent information manager.

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