Mind maps: what they are and how to use them.

Mind maps: what they are and how to use them.

Recently I instagrammed a mind map of an in-progress blog post. The comments surprised me: quite a few people didn’t know what a mind map was or how to use one.

I shouldn’t have been surprised: a few years ago I didn’t know about mind maps, but discovering what they were and how to use them was a godsend to my non-linear brain. I use mind maps primarily for writing but occasionally for planning, problem solving, and brain dumping. Mind maps are my go-to tool for conjuring order out of my jumbled thoughts. I could never draw up an outline from scratch, but it’s much easier to do so after I’ve made a mind map.

What is a mind map?

A mind map is a tool for representing ideas and concepts in diagram form. They’re especially useful for visual types and non-linear thinkers.

The mind map is especially useful for generating ideas, uncovering associations, and organizing information.

Why bother?

A mind map differs from a regular brain dump or a list in that a mind map’s information is organized. However, unlike an outline, which is rigid and linear, a mind map is flexible. That flexibility makes a mind map is a great starting point for collecting ideas.

Mind maps are frequently used for organized brainstorming—to generate and capture lots of ideas on a given topic in a quick and efficient manner. It’s an easy way to get an overview of a large subject. A mind map takes advantage of the brain’s propensity to work by association, uncovering connections you didn’t know were there.

matchmaking field notes

How to make a mind map

These 7 rules are from Tony Buzan, who coined the phrase “mind map” back in the 60s.

  1. Start in the centre of a blank page turned sideways.
  2. Use an image or picture for your central idea.
  3. Use colors throughout.
  4. Connect your main branches to the central image and connect your second- and third-level branches to the first and second levels, etc.
  5. Make your branches curved rather than straight-lined.
  6. Use one key word per line.
  7. Use images throughout.

I gave these rules a try when I first began experimenting with mind maps. Now I break them freely, bending the tool to suit my purposes (and whatever pen colors I happen to have handy at the time).

book club mind map

How to use mind maps

There are countless ways to use mind maps. These are my favorite:

• Brain dump: getting my scattered thoughts out of my head and down on paper.
• Big projects: to help categorize ideas and create objectives and timelines.
• Long-term planning: for work, for life, for my family.
• To-do lists: to capture and prioritize entries.
• Writing projects: for everything from a blog post to a novel. I frequently use mind maps to turn a blog post idea into an outline; they’re indispensable for literary matchmaking.
• Problem solving, from should we buy this house to where should we go on vacation to what is up with our kid?
• Curriculum planning for our homeschool.

Do you use mind maps? I’d love to hear how and why in comments.

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52 comments

  1. Emma says:

    I was practically raised on mind maps! My Dad’s solution to many problems was (and still is) “let’s do a mind map!” So I can remember doing them for talks at school, essay planning and life plans.. Probably since I was about ten. Such a great skill, I always find them so helpful.

  2. I think I must have a linear brain or something because I’ve seen mind maps before and they just seem so messy to me! I’m pretty sure I think better in list sort of formats, or if I’m gonna do a chart, it’s still pretty linear, like a flowchart.

    Also making me think I have a linear thought process: I have spatial synesthesia, and all of it is very linear (some of my kids have spatial synesthesia too and a few of theirs are not as linear.)

      • Of the linear thinking? Or the synesthesia?

        (The synesthesia always seems like a huge benefit to me, but that’s because I can’t imagine thinking without it! My husband thinks it sounds completely crazy, though. Ha.)

        • Anne says:

          I was thinking of synesthesia but now that you mention it—I could use a little boost with the linear thought as well. 🙂

          Have you ever read Wednesday is Indigo Blue by David Eagleman? That book probably wouldn’t seem as much of a revelation to you as it was to me, but you may still find it interesting.

          • I haven’t, and sadly my library doesn’t have it. Boo.

            (Maybe I will actually have to buy it!)

            My son Joshua seems to be even more of a synesthete than I am…for instance, he sees certain musical notes as colors, and some of his other mental pictures have color in them.

            His also tend to be a bit less linear than mine.

    • Ashley says:

      I don’t have a synesthesia, but I identify with being a linear thinker. In fact my brain usually looks like an outline! We had to do mind maps in college and I hated them; I felt they were totally unorganized, messy, frustrating. Give me s list, flowchart, outline, etc. any day!! I’ll even color code and alphabetize it for you. 🙂

      • Yes to all of that.

        But the weird thing is that I am a very visual learner. I remember people’s names better if I see them written down, when I memorize lists of facts, I memorize them in relation to where they’re written on the paper, I remember things I read much better than things I hear, and so on.

        So it’s not the visual part of mind maps that’s hard for me, it’s the non-linear part that doesn’t work for me.

          • Yes! That’s totally what I do…think about where it is on the page.

            This is why I have such a terrible time learning from speakers and why it helps me a lot if they have a powerpoint or a printed outline to go along with their talk.

          • liz n. says:

            Same here. I used to tell my students to do the same: visualize what you wrote where you wrote it.

        • Ashley says:

          Exactly the same. I’d color code my study notes and try to remember where that note was and what color it was during tests. But I need things to be linear!!

    • Just went off to read about spatial synesthesia — I guess I have this, but I thought everybody did. Numbers and dates are arranged very specifically in my mind: numbers are like ladders — zero is at the bottom and goes up to ten, then eleven begins on a new ladder just to the right of ten and half a step higher and goes to twenty and so on. The months of the year are arranged in an oval with me at the center. Is that spatial synesthesia?

      • Yep, that’s exactly what it is. I used to think everyone thought like that too and was so surprised to find out that’s not the case.

        My numbers go straight up in a single ladder with zero at the bottom. My 9 yo’s start with zero at the top and then go down! My kids and I drew ours out for each other with my mom one day (she has it too.)

        I see the months of the year, the days of the week, the hours of the day, and the years of history all in visual shapes in my head.

        • liz n. says:

          Yeppers. I see odd and even numbers in different colors, but on a train track rather than a ladder (although they’re similar, no?) I also see months in colors, and days of the week in different shapes.

          • Ana says:

            that is so cool. I had no idea people had this. my son keeps going on about how he “feels” and “sees” different numbers, it might be synesthesia but likely just “five”

        • Sarah says:

          Wow! I just learned through reading these comments and google, that I have spatial synesthesia. My year is seen as an oval that I travel along. And the years are a slightly curved upward climb. Numbers don’t increase on a ladder, although I do see them and their relation to others in my mind. I just thought I was a visual person and this is what my brain did to organize numbers.

    • Tory says:

      My mind is blown – I just looked Spatial Synesthesia up and I think that is me! Would this explain why I prefer analog clocks? My husband thinks I’m nuts that I can’t read digital clock very well.

      I have a degree in education and used to be a teacher so I’m very familiar with mind maps and I’ve never found them useful at all – glad it isn’t just me!

    • Lydia says:

      I’m also just finding out I have synesthesia. Months of the year are arranged in an oval going counter-clockwise. Numbers 1-10 are bottom to top, 11-20 are left to right, and from there up is bottom to top again. I also have auditory-sensory synesthesia which I always knew was weird. Nails on a chalkboard make my front teeth physically ache.

      I also have a harder time “reading” a digital clock – I can read it just fine, but then I have to place that time on an analog clock in my mind.

      I’ve seen mind maps a few times but haven’t ever used them because they seem so confusing to me. The linear order of a bullet list just seems to make more sense, but I can see how mind maps are more open-ended and can help create connections. Maybe I will give them a try.

  3. I love the pictures of your mind map. This is something I have considered trying in the past, since I don’t think in a linear fashion very easily. Making straight, orderly linear outlines feel like somebody stomped on my creativity and killed it. ( I’m not dramatic at all, am I?) I will definitely be trying this for my new blog and maybe some upcoming college papers as well. Thanks, Anne 🙂

  4. This is so awesome. And you shared enough information and tips (like I noticed you didn’t use pics throughout) for me to do my own mind map whenever I want. (Which probably means today because you’ve made it sound like something I will enjoy.)

    Thanks!

  5. Katia says:

    I have heard of mind maps but haven’t actually attempted to create one yet. Very interesting! Thank you for providing the outline. I’m still not entirely sure how to go about this exercise, but I will give it a try.

  6. Breanne says:

    Count me as one who didn’t know what a mind map was or how to use one! And now I don’t know how I existed without one, I’m a big visual learner and most planning tools don’t work well for me. This seems like it would be so helpful on so many levels.
    And, such great follow up comments!

  7. Zoe says:

    I LOVE mindmaps. I used to have a computer program when I was a teacher that you created a mind map, clicked a button and it would turn your mind map into a nice organized outline. It really helped my kids with organizing their writing and get their ideas into an outline form when it was ‘required’….helped me too:)

  8. Julie says:

    I am so excited to have found your site as well as this gem of a strategy – thank you! I plan to implement it for myself in an upcoming project as well as teach my kids how to use it in their own projects as we start homeschooling next year…thank you.

  9. Debbie says:

    Mind maps are the same thing that was taught as webbing in elementary school. Teaching research to elementary students we started note taking as webs then organized into outlines. All the same thing, just different formats and terminology. Use whatever works best for you.

  10. Miriam B. says:

    I have never tried to do a mind map, but I have heard the term used a lot. Right now, I really prefer just doing a brain dump and then reorganizing it. My brain has been rebelling against learning different systems lately.

    • Anne says:

      “My brain has been rebelling against learning different systems lately.”

      The fact that you can recognize and articulate this is PRICELESS. 🙂

  11. Christina says:

    Your blog is such a fascinating vehicle for self-exploration! I’ve learned so much about myself from reading MMD. Today, for instance, I learned mind-maps, while fascinating to me, nearly send me into hives! I felt a serious spike in anxiety just looking at yours! Thanks for helping me affirm my current brain-dumping strategy is working just fine!! 🙂

  12. Ana says:

    I like looking at yours, but I must also be a linear thinker, because I do fine with lists/outlines. I like the pretty colors though. I do all my planning on the computer, so it would take too long to keep switching font colors.

  13. Sonya says:

    I love Mind Mapping! I always colour coded my notes in University because it was the only way I could pay attention to my linear notes long enough to learn the material (that and walk and talk – I’m an fairly evenly balanced visual, auditory and kinesthetic learner I now know . . . I need all three!). I was thrilled when I discovered Mind Mapping (about 10 years after I graduated). I took a training course with Buzan Institutes and trained people where I worked how to create and use them. As a stay-at-home homeschool mum I’ve taught the kids at our co-op and spoken at local homeschool meetings about it (my own kids are less keen). I find that I need both linear lists and mind maps. For me it depends on how much creativity or uncertainty is involved with my thinking whether I use a list or a mind map. I find that lists work well for things to do or things that are clearly delineated, whereas mind maps are for creative thinking or things that I need to think through and am not certain exactly what I’m thinking. It is like everything else, find the best tool for the task that works for YOU.

  14. Dagny Larkin says:

    I’m a huge fan of mind maps and use them for all sorts of things, from my vacation plans to my to-dos to brainstorming and outlining texts. I tried to mind map with pen and paper for a while but soon found that it’s just not for me. However, I absolutely LOVE mind mapping on my computer. It’s much, much faster and I can always go back and update my maps or delete outdated ideas.
    There are a number of really good mind mapping apps out there, but my favorite is MindMeister (www.mindmeister.com), because it’s incredibly simple and fun to use. I’d highly recommend it!

  15. I have loved mind mapping ever since I encountered it (whenever that was). I immediately bought books on the subject. And I have tried just about every mind mapping software tool I’ve come across. I’ve taught classes on it. About 8 years ago I planned and managed a whole-house renovation project (painting, papering, flooring, countertops, lighting, new appliances) on one 8.5×11 sheet of paper. My main uses are decluttering my brain and organizing all kinds of projects, personal and professional. For great ideas on how people use them, go to Google, select Images, and type in mind maps. Very creative people out there!

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  17. Heather says:

    Thanks for the tips on mind maps! I will be doing one shortly for a project I’m working on at work. I think it will help organize my thoughts around the whole thing.

  18. Hannah Beth Reid says:

    I casually read this post 2 months ago when it was first published, but it has stuck with me and I’ve been using these ideas consistently for brain dumping and event planning. Thank you for sharing the information! I’ve told several people about it and am always looking for ways to use this new “skill.” To full understand how best to use this method, I first mapped some processes that are second nature (planning a *simple* birthday party) and it opened up my understanding of how to think things through.

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