In the iPad App Store on Monday, I downloaded this week’s free app — MindNode, a tool that helps set out the groundwork for projects. I love new apps, and it doesn’t hurt when they’re free, but I absolutely adore making plans… probably more than carrying them out. When it comes to organizing in general, my computer groans with deeply-nested files; defolderifying is required when my system proves more of a hindrance than a help. I should probably delete redundant files altogether — those awful old merged fractals from 2007, for instance… I can do a lot better nowadays.
It can be hard to let go, sadly. My middle name should be Squirrel.
As any squirrel knows, sorting resources into careful heaps and folders is calming. It’s an acceptable way of gloating over your hoard while allowing you to feel more in control… so I had hopes this mind-mapping thing would be a useful weapon against the encroaching world. In my experience, plans morph into action surprisingly quickly, leading to greater self-confidence and a lot less of the energy-sapping procrastination I’m prone to.
“Incredible — I sorted that out myself! No dithering for days on end wondering what to do!”
It astonishes you to discover you’re a rational adult and can take on many comers, regardless of their role in life. Usually that phenomenon is attributable to pencil, paper and copious notes, and it’s also why MindNode now lurks on my iPad.
So far, so good.
You can’t, however, be a rational adult without questioning yourself and others, so there are reasons for me to be sceptical as well as hopeful.
First of all, mind-mapping looks and sounds terribly technical and arcane, and you wonder if you’re doing it right, particularly when not learning anything from it. You suspect it’s an attention-seeking gimmick that does the job no better than merely writing lists. Mind maps don’t present with a neat appearance, so how could they be better? They start in the middle of the page and sprawl in different directions… what if you ran out of room and started writing on the table by accident? A mouse could make a nest in someone’s mind map and feel completely at home.
Secondly, I know myself too well! A helpful and instructive tool becomes a blunt instrument in my hands. I bludgeon myself with it remorselessly, then give up, disillusioned and bruised.
It’s one thing ‘actioning’ a highly-targeted plan when there’s a time limit and a specific outcome in mind. It’s another to ‘improve’ myself or my daily life with something like a Chart of Chores or a To Do List, because these tend to be grandiose, pernickety, perfectionist schemes, quickly tired of and forgotten.
Who wants all of their time earmarked in advance, even for pleasant pastimes like watching Blackadder’s schemes on TV? Years ago I created such a time chart in an effort to combat a bad spell of procrastination, but I never tried it out. It’s still in my nested folders somewhere. I could draw up a new one specifying “read blogs at 10 every Sunday morning”, but it’s unlikely to happen. This is real life: I read blogs at different times during the week and could be there for anything from two minutes to two hours. I’m not a robot, and there’s no point trying to programme myself as though I am one.
iNotRobot. Depressing but true.
There’s a To Do List app in my arsenal, but it wasn’t at all long before I deleted it. For the right kind of people it’s excellent, and they doubtless use it the right way. I, on the other hand, use it completely the wrong way, so for me it wasn’t working. There’s something about being told what to do that makes me dart like a spooked squirrel the other way — even if the person telling me to do it is me.
Before discovering the app, my usual organizational methods included (and still include):
- Lists — I love lists
- Spreadsheets and charts
I don’t use the iPad’s Reminder app as it’s never worked for me… too limited, or so I thought when I tried it. I can’t remember much about it now, but a lingering impression is that there were only so many items I could add to a page. I would tell it to alert me to something, and either the alert wouldn’t arrive, or I’d be uninterested and ignore it when it did.
By ‘journaling’ I don’t mean bullet journals, which I haven’t yet tried — I mean ordinary ‘dear diary’ journaling. This has surprising strengths which I should probably go into another time. The gist is that you start with a problem and enter into a conversational spiral, one thought leading to another… ending up fairly consistently with an idea of what will work and what won’t. Sometimes when you re-read, you pick up on things you forgot, which is all to the good. It’s like an old-fashioned ‘text’ version of problem-solving mind-mapping, no neater than a pictorial mind-map, and though I’ve filled out most of my thoughts fairly satisfactorily, you are left with a mass of text you might never read again. Unless you type your diary on computer and remember the keywords you used, you’d find it difficult to search for a particular event or idea.
That said, I love journaling, and wouldn’t stop for all the tea in China (or anywhere else in this globalized world). Mind-mapping should be just my cuppa, shouldn’t it, even if I don’t have carte blanche to waffle on?
To get to grips with my use of the MindNode app…
This isn’t intended as a review or how-to page, and I’m not going to focus on the technicalities of how to use it, but I’ll just comment that it’s easy for beginners — you don’t need an instruction manual, other than a couple of starting tips. Fiddly to use at times, but it’s good to be able to move things around or delete them altogether — an aspect which must blow pen and paper mind-mapping out of the water.
My first experiment
When trying it out for the first time, I mind-mapped an established creative process in digital art. My aims were to (1) provide a reference to keep me working quickly without getting bogged down; (2) potentially to inspire. I hoped mind-mapping might live up to its reputation and work some mindspace voodoo. Who knew what it might do? I lived in hope.
In the process of creating my nebulous map of creativity, I ran up against a few problems.
- I got confused about what should come under certain tags. For instance, radiating away from the word ‘artwork’, a key word in the map is ‘organize’. I read somewhere that you should use one-word terms rather than pin yourself down with something more specific. OK, keep it loose. Should I then go on to list organizational methods like folders and databases — or platforms like the iMac — or the type of resources to be organized, such as Bryce master files, Photoshop brushes, tutorials and so on? These are long lists — how do I put everything in one place without making the mind map explode?
- This led to the possibility of repeating the terms like ‘organize’ elsewhere in the mind-map, but I feared that might be against the rules. Also, how do you tie in ‘platforms’ with ‘software’, specific creative processes and different types of resources in a neat and orderly fashion, seeing as the software all worked together in some cases but not others — while working from different platforms in different ways — so I couldn’t list everything neatly in one place, moving in a sedate direction therefrom?
The results of this, my first experiment in mind-mapping:
- No benefit. I had no room for all the items I wanted, and it was as though I hadn’t got to grips with the problem — if there was one.
- The process I tried to clarify showed itself in its true colours. It’s a creative process that pulls in resources and inspiration from everywhere, and you can’t list these, slot them in one logical place or plan them robotically. This is something I should already have realized, and I didn’t need a mind-mapping session to tell me that.
- I found no inspiration or new ideas.
- If used as a reference to keep me on track, it would add an extra, unnecessary step. It wouldn’t improve matters, being more likely to throw me off.
Even so, I realized I’d used the process wrongly with a subject too big (or not properly broken down to something more rational), while having no clear and specific aim. It would be unfair to condemn it on such grounds. I’ve never before mind-mapped, and needed time to consider how best to use it. Some of my first attempts are bound to be duds.
Ploughing grimly on
If I was not to discard the baby with the bath water, it was clear I should do more research. It wasn’t looking at all good for my experiment, which I now viewed with a degree of irritation. I was hot all over, my heart raced, my brows beetled and I was starting to pout.
I recognize that soul-destroying feeling from other projects I’ve not been good at.
Baking is definitely one, when I start off with fond ambitions of delicate, beautifully decorated little cakes and wafting cinnamon smells, and end up feeling it’s all more hassle than it’s worth. After which I start chucking flour around in lumps and slamming badly-shaped objects in the oven. Another recent project was mindfulness — I was determined to give it a go because I might learn useful life skills, but every time it asked me to do something such as imagining a peaceful scene while repeating a senseless question over and over, dull rage surged up and I had to put the book down. So I’ve not yet read it.
That doesn’t mean I won’t read it… the real reason I’m irritated is it’s something I want to do but it turned out not to be that easy or pleasant. Also there’s still the worry it’s overhyped and I won’t get what I wanted: a better life and a better me. I’m not the perfect person I was fondly imagining.
Oooh. We have now reached the point in this narrative where I was getting these dangerous rumbles over mind-mapping. It was distinctly worrying but I grimly soldiered on. The only way to turn this around was to find out what other people use it for.
One site provided me with some real ‘ah ha!’ moments, and I gleaned the following:
- Mind-mapping is used for problem-solving. (I’d been thinking in terms of organizing and streamlining; not quite the same thing).
- Think of the keywords in terms of headers rather than processes. If I was planning a party, I would have lists for food, guests, games, music and ‘things to do’ before the big day. The chances are low that I would head one of my lists ‘Organize’!
- Leading on from this, I can see my worry about repeating keywords doesn’t matter… it’s flow and direction that matter. You are trying to get somewhere, and it’s not a crime if there are half a dozen information offices in your map, provided they are all well-located and useful.
- The biggest break-through for me was when it was pointed out you could use mind-mapping to plan blog posts.
A better attempt
All my pouts vanished, and in no time at all I was embarking on my second experiment: Mission Mind Map. If that term seems a little familiar, it’s because it is!
Shortly after starting, I knew I was onto a winner.
- I was now thinking in terms of headings and lists, and didn’t get stuck.
- Item order mattered. Things don’t just spring up in the middle of nowhere, and the map finally had a direction.
You see, I was finally getting the hang of it, but my pernickety nature ensured I aimed for at least two items per heading. You can’t have a list of one, can you? In a mind map it’s really about flow, like in my diary… one thought leading to another — but while thinking of thoughts as lists, I wanted two leading on from one, and would fish for another point just to make up numbers.
That’s the feng shui approach to mind-mapping, I guess — or plain OCD.
I enjoyed it; it was a lot of fun. I was able to go into detail without forgetting minor points or losing the shape of what I was writing about.
The next worry, however, was how to get the mind map into my document. The idea of swiping back and forth between it and my blog post didn’t appeal.
Of course, MIndNode wouldn’t have been a proper app if it didn’t have a solution! I was able to convert it into a column of text in my favourite writing app. First of all it arrived in a mad jumble, starting with my last point and ending with the introduction. So I went back and moved everything round the other way, reimported, and this time items appeared in the right order.
When I remembered things I’d forgotten, I made direct changes to the text column rather than edit the mind map itself. I was tempted to think of the map as a finished product, like a picture, but it’s only a stage. It had already done the main work and was not part of the equation any longer.
Some of my changes and additions in the text column arrived as long lines and paragraphs, which is how I’ve always written. I put ‘brief’ ideas in the right places, and these immediately start growing, forming the nucleus of the post itself. In contrast, placed in a mind map, they would remain short snippets of text to be fleshed out later rather than ‘now.’ The process of allowing your notes to expand immediately can take you in new directions, and these are sometimes worthwhile. On the other hand, it’s confusing if these weren’t directions you meant to go in, leaving your original point jostling for place.
Perhaps the mind map is not a hindrance to the evolution of your post — more a temporary postponement of narrative in favour of deeper structure. It still reminds me of my use of journals to ‘problem-solve’… one thought leading to another and ending in a plan. It’s certainly keeping me busy and I’ve not yet abandoned this mass of text! I’m polishing sections of this before I’ve even written the rest of it — it’s partly procrastination; partly because in some sense it’s been written already, and I can relax and not worry that I’ll forget things.
A few days ago, I was listening to a song that has stayed in my head all the time I’ve been writing this. Long Time Coming (David Sneddon).
And in a deeper part of me
A stronger soul is breaking free
And I want you to know
Can’t hold me down for any more
Pull myself from off the floor
And I want you to know
Based on my short experience of it, pros and cons for mind-mapping as part of a writing process?
- Cuts down the usual muddle, though not completely.
- Possibly you would axe redundant topics before spending much time writing them.
- Otherwise short and lazy posts would become longer and more detailed, though I don’t entirely know if that’s good!
- It becomes less intimidating to deal with your blog topic overall; you don’t need to put it off to a later time when your thoughts are less scattered.
- Tendency to waste time tidying the map — trying to balance it out and make it beautiful.
- Mine was inside-out and back-to-front, but there’s a setting to adjust that.
- This way of laying out your thoughts seems difficult to read. I showed it to a friend who commented: “I couldn’t get my head round it! It’s too much like the kind of thing the office used to produce as one of their many flavour of the month initiatives!” I can sympathize because I dreamed about mice (the ones nesting in it) and have no love for the corporate environment myself.
- The map is transformed into a column of indented headers. Why not write them that way in the first place? This is one I find hard to explain away.
- There’s a risk it disrupts one’s usual thought process. My style is conversational, but what if the mind map keeps me so much on the straight and narrow that I fail to follow some enticing side-path? On the other hand, the map probably makes sure I see the side paths, shoehorning all of them in. Both aspects could be bad.
- I already write long posts which could now become three times as long. Maybe you waste time overwriting it initially and need to trim it down later. The length of the text column generated from the mind map was putting me off, so progress was quite slow. I would ‘flesh out’ a section then scroll hopefully down, thinking, “There, I wrote quite a lot, I must be near the end?” Unfortunately, the tail of the mind map trails forever into the distance…
- My initial structure is too rigid. When I know what I want to say and look for somewhere to add it, I see what’s already there and there’s no logical place. Reading all the previous stuff, I promptly lose track of my new idea. Normally I write down phrases in my head before they are gone, fitting them together later. Perhaps it’s not the mind-mapping itself that’s at fault, more my use of the technique — I need to start with a looser structure and not break things down too much in the first place. It would leave me more room to move. Though that begs the question — why change from your existing method?
In any case, here it is… my mind-mapped blog post.
I am glad I persevered and didn’t give in to my attack of the blue devils. In the future I can see myself using MindNode for jotting down blog ideas, perhaps in combination with a page of ‘fully-sprung’ paragraphs, ‘use or lose’.
I still don’t see mind-mapping as a problem-solver — my problems may never have been that complicated. For me it’s: ‘Do research, write email or make purchase. Done!’
In decision-making I write lists of pros and cons; I can’t imagine using a mind map for that normally, but it was more complicated when choosing a new camera recently. I set up a chart composed of what I wanted from the new camera, showing how different models fulfilled these points compared to each other. Using this, I wrote lists of cameras in each context from best to worst. Different cameras came out on top in different contexts, but some listed high more frequently than others. There was a clear winner and it wasn’t the most obvious, being an older model I’d initially dismissed. I only added it belatedly for the sake of comparison, but it did so well (and blew off the roof in a number of reviews) that it seemed the only real option.
The newer camera model I nearly bought, praised in several reviews, would have been a pleasing choice as it was nice in its way… but it was not as good a camera, or as appropriate for me.
The above was in part a visual decision-making process but was not mind-mapping!
The idea of a mind map as study aid is interesting. In history, for instance — you could put main events in order and break them down. It would certainly help you write essays.
I’m still not sure why a mind map would work better than a series of lists. It was a great relief to me when I saw mine laid out as an ordered column of text. The ‘visual’ aspect doesn’t work when it comes to writing, as my usual need is to establish direction, not relationship.
I lost the plot towards the end of writing this, but it’s probably my fault for including too much detail and moving away from the visual map to an unbroken text column!
Will I continue to use it? Yes, I want to, and can make it work for me. Time will tell in the end, though my horoscope yesterday offered the following:
Someone’s ‘good idea’ could have you captivated – even if it means shifting things round yet again. The prospect of advance both at work and in financial matters could bring a smile too. With encouragement from someone who’s good at focus and who knows exactly how to present things on paper, you could enjoy a day of ‘personal development planning’.