Mind Map Like a Pro: An Essential Tool for Idea Generation, Brainstorming, and Problem Solving

It was July of 2011, and I was sitting in a lecture hall at the University of South Australia. Not because I was taking classes, but because I was working a temp job setting up AV equipment for professors. I had just moved to Australia a few months earlier, and the world was my oyster. As the professor droned on about a subject I didn’t care about (I say this because I vividly remember the class where the students were designing a house for an ornithologist on the cliffs by the ocean), I got out the coloured pens and sketchbook I bought from the university bookstore, took a deep breath, and started my first memorable mind map.

I say “memorable” because I had learned mind mapping at some point in school decades earlier, but this one was different; I was mapping out what I wanted to do with my life. I still have it to this day, and I often reflect on what I put in it.

But let’s back things up. What the heck are mind maps, and why are they so lifechanging?

Bottom line, mind mapping is my favourite tool for idea generation, brainstorming, and problem solving.

For a long time, I just assumed that everyone had this skill. Over the past few years though, I’ve had to explain mind maps over and over, so consider this my introductory guide to mind mapping.

What is a mind map?

Mind mapping is like making a list, but somehow, it’s more freeing than that. It lets your imagination wander and releases any judgements or inhibitions, since any and every idea goes on a mind map. Once you’ve exhausted all your ideas and you have a nice full mind map, then the real magic happens. Unlike with a list, you get a fuller picture of your concept, and you can draw connections or see patterns you weren’t aware of before. You’ll probably find you come up with ideas you weren’t even expecting, too! And finally, it’s a great record of your ideas to refer to later.

How to make a mind map

Now let me show you how it works in more detail. It might take some practice, but it’s pretty awesome once you get the hang of it.

1. Get a blank piece of paper and a pen and sit in a creative space. I prefer roughly printer-size paper without lines, but this week I used the back of an envelope so really anything works. Notebooks are the best because you can flip through them later.

2. Write your main concept in the middle of the page. For this example, we’ll brainstorm monthly educational theme ideas for a Naturopathic Doctor’s practice. From there, draw spokes off that main concept as you come up with ideas.

First step of a mind map with "Monthly Theme Ideas" in the middle in a circle, and lines expanding out from that with subcategories of ideas like "babies", "flu season", and "fitness"

3. As you do step 2, continue writing your sub-ideas off those spikes to further specify your idea.

A more expanded mind map with susequent ideas coming off the previous ones, for example off the "flu season" bubble there are 3 lines pointing to "soup recipe handout", "symptoms" and "herbal remedies"

4. Keep adding more ideas and sub-ideas until you can’t think of any more. You should end up with a nice full piece of paper with tons of really great ideas (and some not-so-great ideas, which is also fine). The example below is a good start but could be taken much further.

A completed mind map with many subsequent ideas coming off each previous idea

5. Sometimes it makes sense to look for patterns or draw connections between your different ideas. You can use different colours to do this, or even draw lines between related ideas.

This is an example I did recently that shows how I connected ideas together.

A completed mind map with the main theme of leading by example being highlighted and linked to other parts of the mind map

6. When you’re done, the last step is to action your ideas and transcribe them into a format you can actually use. For example, when I did a mind map for an e-book, each idea and sub-idea became a chapter and section in the book. In this example, each idea would be a monthly theme for your practice which you could put into a marketing calendar or project management system.

Can you make a mind map digitally?

Pen and paper is my favourite way to do a mind map because it takes me away from working on the computer. I love to go sit outside and work on it, or curl up with a cup of tea in a comfy chair. That said, there are tons of neat programs online that you can use for mind mapping, offering lots of features you can’t do with paper (such as unlimited space, re-organizing it, adding colours, pictures, fonts, symbols, etc.) One I have tried is called Mind Meister but there are lots of others, both paid and free.

What should you make a mind map about?

Any time I’m feeling overwhelmed, confused, stuck, or even just creative, I make a mind map. When I’m planning a new project, coming up with a new business idea, or brainstorming something fun, I start with a mind map.

To give you an idea of the variety of things you can use mind mapping for, here is a list of some of the ones I’ve done in the past:

· blog ideas

· career ideas/direction

· business name

· partnership roles

· e-book content outline

· training options for personal development

· what I want to be known for

· things my ideal clients struggle with

· branding

· things I’m good at

If you haven’t mind mapped before, I hope this gives you the direction you need to get started. If you know what mind maps are, I hope this gives you the inspiration to do more of them. So go off, give these a try, and see where your wonderfully creative mind takes you!

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