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This is my guide to mind mapping. I’m going to cover all you need to know to get started making awesome mind maps for free.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • what a mind map is
  • the benefits of mind mapping
  • how to create a mind map
  • what you can use mind maps for
  • the best mind mapping software tools

Prepare to revolutionalise your note taking and your productivity!

Let’s get started.

mind mapping

1

A mind map is a collection of thoughts organised into logical groups. You start with a central topic (a thought) and then create branches from the main topic to encapsulate each thought that comes to mind. This is a process known as brainstorming.

According to Wikipedia, "A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information."

So what does a mind map look like?

The image below is a mind map of a shopping list. The bubbles encircling the text are known as nodes.

mind map of a shopping list

Ok, now that we have the basic concept down, let’s touch briefly on what it means to ‘mind map’.

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What is meant by mind mapping?

Mind mapping is the term used to describe mapping your thoughts. Calling it thought mapping would have been more accurate, but that doesn’t sound as marketable as mind mapping.

Thought mapping is, in essence, brainstorming.

Mind Mapping Explained - How to Create a Mind Map 1

What is brainstorming?

To brainstorm an idea means to note down every thought you have without trying to censor or edit it in any way. 

Wikipedia describes it as: "Brainstorming is a group creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members."

For example, let’s say you and a colleague want to start a company. You start discussing how to get started, pitching your first idea (e.g. let’s think of a name) and your colleagues shoots it down immediately, suggesting instead that other things are more important, such as deciding what to sell.

brainstorming an idea
brainstorming ideas

Then you suggest an idea and your colleague starts to pick holes in it. This is sometimes known as ‘playing devil’s advocate. I think of it more like using a smoke screen to criticise others’ ideas. But there you go.

In brainstorming however, everybody is banned from criticizing any idea. In fact, the only thing allowed in a brainstorming session is ideas.

Jargon recap

  • mind map: a collection of thoughts, usually on paper or created using software
  • mind mapping: the process of creating a mind map
  • brainstorming: the process of coming up with an uninterrupted flow of ideas
  • node: the bubble that encircles the text that represents an idea

Interesting fact: the person who invented the concept of mind mapping is Tony Buzan.

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The benefits of mind mapping

There are many benefits to mind mapping. To start with, it’s more effective than note taking because taking notes is a linear process and our brains don’t think in a linear way. Mind mapping enables you to capture your thoughts as-they-come.

decluttering your mind

Cunningham (2005) carried out a study in which 80% of the students believed "mindmapping helped them understand concepts and ideas in science". (Wikipedia)

It is thought that mind mapping can improve learning by up to 15% over note-taking. (Wikipedia)

Why is mind mapping so powerful?

Mind mapping works in tandem with how our brains work, enabling you to capture your thoughts very quickly and efficiently.

To illustrate this, imagine you decide to go grocery shopping.

You have 2 options: 

  1. create a list
  2. create a mind map
brainstorm

If you opt to create a traditional list, and you start listing items as they enter your mind, you’ll end up with a list of randomly assorted items.

shopping

For example, your list may look like this:

  1. tomatoes
  2. bananas
  3. chicken
  4. milk
  5. coffee
  6. ice cream

This forces you to either re-read the list at each aisle to find all the items possible, or to visit multiple aisles repeatedly as you find each item in turn.

The only way to prevent this is to re-write your list in a more logical order. And the problem with this is that, invariably, you’ll think of new items which you’ll then have to try to fit into your new list.

This is simply not efficient.

With a mind map on the other hand, you create categories (i.e. fruits, vegetables, dairy, etc) and then write each item as it comes to mind as a sub topic of the corresponding category. See image below.

mind map of a shopping list

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How to create a mind map

Think of a mind map as a brainstorming session, since that’s what it really is.

Here’s the process for creating a mind map from scratch:

  • start with a central topic
  • crate a branch out from the central topic for each idea
Mind Mapping Explained - How to Create a Mind Map 2

In practice:

  1. write down the central idea in the middle of a piece of paper.
  2. the central concept is the main idea. For example, shopping list.
  3. circle the central topic.
  4. capture whatever idea comes to mind by branching out of the central topic (i.e. draw a line), writing down the idea and then circling it. For example, apples.
  5. repeat the last point. If the idea is related to the previous one (i.e. if it’s another fruit) you should create a group called ‘fruit’ and then branch out from the ‘fruit’ bubble. These are known as sub topics.

Here’s an example of how to mind map your life and goals:

Mind Mapping Explained - How to Create a Mind Map 3

Video: how to create a mind map

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What can you use mind maps for?

Mind maps can be used for a wide variety of scenarios.

Here’s a few of them:

  • brainstorming an idea
  • creating a chart (for example, an org chart)
  • unleashing your creativity
  • mapping out tasks or steps in a process
    plan projects from start to end
what can you use mind maps for

Other user case scenarios:

  1. in a business setting, to plan a project.
  2. as a developer, to map out a process.
  3. as a student, to map out concepts instead of using notes, to aid memory retention.
  4. as an educator, to use in slides in presentations or online courses.
  5. as an author, to map out a book’s chapters and ideas.
  6. as a content creator, to create a content schedule.
  7. as a solopreneur, to map out your company.
  8. on a personal level, to map out your goals.

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What are the best mind mapping software tools?

Mind mapping is no longer confined to paper. There is plenty of mind mapping software tools out there, from mobile and desktop apps to browser-based tools that enable you to create online mind maps.

Mind Mapping Explained - How to Create a Mind Map 4

The cool thing about using software for this process is that you have a more visual canvas to work with. For example, you can use icons to greatly enhance the look and feel of your map. In many cases, it can help you look more professional if you’re producing maps for a client.

Another priceless feature of using a mind mapping app is the fact that all your work is digital. You can export your work into PDF files and use them in the real world.

Many tools also offer real time coloboration (handy if you have a team) although this is usually a premium feature.

What mind mapping tool you settle on is going to be down to personal choice and cost. For example, I use the unlimited trial version of Xmind, which is free, because I don’t need many of the paid features.

To help you with your decision, take a look at my video below:

Video: the best mind mapping software

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Conclusion

Mind mapping is a powerful tool you can use to unleash your creative thinking and imagination when it comes to planning just about anything from projects to shopping lists to personal and professional goals.

Many studies back the fact that mind mapping helps memory retention. Well, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then it makes sense that a mind map should be more memorable than an old fashiond list.

Starting out on your mind mapping journey needs no preparation. You can start with pen adn paper, or you can dive into the software tools I’ve listed above.