Mindmapping is powerful. It’s an amazing method for giving structure to your thoughts and building from your ideas. To me, it’s an essential part for any of my creative workflows whether it’s about writing, giving a presentation or working on a project.
In this article I am not so much telling you when and why you should mindmap. Suffice to say the opportunities for you to come up with a mindmap first in your daily life are numerous. (Ever considered a mindmap before building a slide deck?)
Instead, I want to tell you about my favorite tool for mindmapping and how I use it. What follows below is my workflow for developing and growing ideas. The tool that I use and love is MindNode by IdeasOnCanvas. I am aware of other solutions out there but this app is just my preference. I switched to MindNode from the analog variant of a simple sheet of paper a while ago and I won’t turn back anytime soon. It’s a poster child of iCloud integration and comes with apps for both iOS and MacOS.
Let’s get started.
When I start building anything - be it an article, a presentation or a project, I first want to let my ideas flow freely. The point is about not getting stuck in the details. Unlock your full mental potential.
Maybe you can relate to this: An idea pops to your head and along with it a few good others. You write down your idea and try to broaden it, strengthen it, decorating it - and gone are those other good ideas.
So, when I start out, I am not thinking about hierarchy. I try not to value the importance between ideas. Instead I just want to capture them all.
You will get to detailing and refinement later. First, you want to be open to all the ways and directions your thoughts take you.
When you first open a new file in MindNode, the app presents you with a large white screen. Imagine it being an infinite sheet of white and untouched paper. Paper for you to scribble and write and draw and no one judges you about it. Feel free to throw anything at it that comes to your mind.
At startup, MindNode invites you to create your first master node. It’s the first building block of your mind map. Just type whatever’s on your mind and hit enter. The app prompts you to branch it out and create subnodes from it but that’s not what you want to do now.
Instead, create more master nodes. Get every thought you have about your project down on the whiteboard no matter their relationships. Make every idea big. At this point, it’s not about hierarchy. It’s about materialising your thoughts first.
In this step, treat each of your ideas equally. They are fine to exist in parallel without interconnections. It’s about freedom. The less you fiddle with structure, the more capacity you have for the generation of new thoughts and ideas.
It’s a giant leap for your thoughts to come to life as written words. Embrace it and delve into it. Don’t belittle this step by putting your ideas in boxes. Don’t create connections and hierarchies between your nodes now.
It doesn’t matter whether some thoughts are just single words and others are sentences. Do as you please. You could even take it one step further and use dictation or narration for data entry. Even pictures or links are fine. It’s not about beauty yet. Just get it all out.
Step 1: Collect all ideas on the canvas. Don’t create structure.
If you have the time, let your mindmap sit for now. Come back to it some other time and try to repeat step one. It’ll surprise you how many more ideas you can breed by literally sleeping a night over.
Let your ideas blossom
Once your ideas have materialised on the canvas, it’s time to let them grow - each one as a tiny bud of its own.
By now, there will be several master nodes on your whiteboard. Pick one and zoom in on it. Focus.
In this step, I elaborate on my initial brainstormed ideas and give them further depth. I try to come up with related thoughts around the idea and add them as a first set of subnodes by using the „+“ button. This will create a single „new node“. I repeat this process to attach everything that I come up with to my central idea.
Again, it’s not so much about structured hierarchy. We are just one level in.
I go around my canvas and add these buds to the other master nodes until my whiteboard reminds me of a cell culture plate - tiny new cultures starting to grow at different angles and positions. And I am the incubator.
Step 2: Add thoughts like little buds to your ideas. Create a first level of subnodes. Again, don’t create structure just yet.
Growth and connection
Once you planted the seeds, it’s time for growth. By now, each of your master nodes should have a few subnodes attached it.
At this point in your mindmap, feel free to grow branches wherever you like. You may add more subnodes and sub-subnodes. Now is the time for structural hierarchy. Take each colony of ideas as far as it will go. Some ideas may end up pretty branched out and messy at first glance. That’s perfectly fine.
Make use of the zoom function in MindNode and zoom in and out often. Look at your idea colonies from a distance and from different perspectives. I often move my node colonies around on the canvas and change their position. Placing ideas next to each other sometimes lets them shine in a different light.
I try to find connections between each node colony. Is something iterative? Is something related? Is something contradicting?
Contrasts between ideas are a powerful driver to further deepen your train of thought. I often play around with font colors to highlight contrasts. Colors work better for me than greyscale and most of the time I will stick with the standard set of colors the app provides. I also use arrows to draw connections between different branches of ideas.
Maybe you will find that some thoughts belong together. Some will be part of a bigger category. So just make them a subnode. You can easily drag and drop nodes to a different position on your canvas. You can turn any master node into a subnode somewhere else.
This is why you didn’t go wrong in step 1 not to create structures first. You can easily do so now with everything out of your head and visually in front of you.
Step 3: Start connecting your nodes. Build hierarchies and structure.
Trim the branches
Every piece of creative doing profits from a little grooming. A little smoothing at the rough edges.
Looking at your canvas now, what’s there to cut? What’s there to brush up? Which nodes need further elaboration? Which are just too big and misplaced? Which kind of spices (think colors, fonts, pictures and connections) can you add? Or can you shrink your mindmap to a minimum? Do you still have sentences in your mindmap? Is there a way to narrow them down? Can you say it with a single word?
Follow the work of Mister Miyagi on his Bonsai trees. Growing something to strength and coherence sometimes needs a pair of scissors. Think like an editor and use the delete key.
Step 4: Trim to grow.
In a nutshell
Here are my 4 steps in creating a minimap with MindNode in summary:
1. Collect all ideas on the canvas without hierarchy. It’s about capturing your thoughts in a written form. Just get it all out.
2. Let your ideas grow buds. Start adding a first level of subnodes. Still, don’t worry about form and structure.
3. Start connecting and structuring your ideas only after you have emptied your head. Get it big and branched now.
4. Trim your mindmap to perfection. Something is good if it tells a lot, but it’s better if it does so with less words. And less branches and nodes for that matter.
One more thing
While mindmapping like this, there is one additional rule at play: It’s ok to make exceptions. It’s perfectly fine to deviate from these steps. But be mindful. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with diving into hierarchies early on, as long as you don’t limit yourself. The point is to embrace a certain freedom of thought. To me, this is essential in being creative.