Four Ways Mind Maps Make You More Creative

Man standing by blackboard with chalk arrows that look like they're swirling out of his brain

Mind maps are a powerful tool to get yourself unstuck, focused and organized to do your best creative work. Tony Buzan is the person best known for coining the term mind map and helping to educate the world at large about the concept. Mind maps are a form of visual mapping, where you use a combination of words, lines, symbols and images to describe something tangible (like a product, a location or something that you can see and experience) or intangible (services, concepts, ideas and plans).

How does a piece of paper (or a computer screen) crammed with words, pictures and odd looking symbols help you think and work better? Let’s be honest: some mind maps are so busy and detailed that they tend to frighten most people instead of inspiring them.

That’s a fair question. To address this concern, let’s look at four major benefits of using mind maps to help develop your ideas:

Mindmap of the ideas in this article

1. Mind Maps Keep You From Losing Your Mind

The human brain, while very powerful, does have its limits. We can’t keep many thoughts in our mind at once.

David Allen, the author and entrepreneur who created the popular Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology for organization and prioritization, often quotes the following statistic: the human mind can only hold between 5 – 9 thoughts in memory without losing track of them. Once you go beyond that limit, you start to forget things – this usually lands you in trouble.

David Allen’s solution is to use inbox processing to put all of your tasks and to do list items into a trusted system where you can easily find them and take action on them when you need to do so. By getting rid of the extra ‘noise’ or things to worry about, you reduce the number of thoughts that you’re thinking about at a moment in time. This allows you to focus and, more importantly, not worry about losing something important.

Instead of writing yourself a note or an e-mail, which you might not understand days and weeks from now, what if you drew yourself a mind map and captured a more complex idea that way? You could empty out your mind, especially if you have a burning idea that needs to be expressed, and you could file it away for future use.

2. Mind Maps Adapt To Your Preferred Learning Style

Mind maps are flexible constructs that can adapt to different learning and communication styles. They are an attractive learning option because they can appeal to multiple communications and learning styles.

You may find certain types of media to be easier to learn from than others. You can incorporate different styles within your mind maps to make them work better for you, so that it’s easier to think, learn, and present information.

Let’s look at the three basic communication and learning styles:

Visual

Visual communicators like to use pictures to learn about things and to communicate.

Mind mapping, especially when it combines images and symbols with text and connecting lines, is a great way to communicate information for people who have a preference for visual communication. Experts like Tony Buzan will encourage you to put pictures in mind maps and use colors to appeal to your visual sense. Mind maps clearly have a strong visual component and therefore they should work well for you if you’re a visual thinker and learner.

Audio

If you are an auditory learner, sounds and spoken words are the best way for you to learn. The language you use makes reference to hearing, listening and saying things. You likely learn best by reciting facts and committing them to memory. You like to have people explain things to you instead of giving you documents.

You would think that auditory thinkers and communicators might not benefit from the use of mind maps. This may be true, but as an auditory learner, you could use the mind map as a way to arrange audio files in a logical, easy to find framework so that they can come back to it into the future. Many mind mapping applications now allow you to attach or embed many kinds of files within a mind map.

Kinesthetic/Touch

Kinesthetic learning styles have gained more exposure during the past few decades. If you have a kinesthetic preference, you are a ‘hands on’ person who understands things better when you can touch and use them. You learn better by tearing apart and reassembling an engine that reading a book or hearing a lecture about it.

But how do you touch a mind map, especially when it’s on a computer screen? After all, most mind maps don’t have moving parts, right? How do you get ‘hands on’ with a mind map? By drawing it by hand!

Using a mind map to describe something can serve two purposes for kinesthetic learners:

  1. The mind map can help you express something in a way that’s easier for you to do than if you only used sounds and words. The act of drawing or printing the information (even if it’s done with software instead of on paper) can help you put your thoughts together. It may feel more natural.
  2. The mind map can help you remember the information because you may remember the movements and pen strokes that you used to create it.

Curious about this? Try it and see!

One other point: you way work well with multiple styles. For example, mind maps drawn by hand combine both a visual and a kinesthetic component.

3. Frictionless Thought Organization

Thoughts are astoundingly fast. Here are some rough statistics for comparison:

  • Words we can handwrite per minute: 22 – 31
  • Words we can type per minute: 120 is above average for a touch typist

  • Words we can say per minute: 150 – 160, (which is a recommended rate of speaking for audio books and presentations) but it can go much higher
  • Words per minute that we can read or think: 200 – 300 is a good average

You can read and think much faster than you can capture thoughts on paper or computer screens using words. You need a way to capture the thoughts quickly but comprehensively when inspiration strikes or when you’re pressed for time.

You want to be able to document your ideas with minimal friction. But what does friction mean in this context? In physics class, you learned that friction is the force that asserts itself when two things move against each other. Friction slows down moving objects by creating resistance. When it comes to doing creative work, you can think of friction as anything that slows down your ability to do work, especially when you’re talking about putting your thoughts to paper.

Pen and paper is a great low tech solution that works well for the first draft of a project. However, you lose time in the motions of switching between mouse and keyboard or when you create a mind map by hand. You lose even more time when you try to redo a handwritten mind map so it’s easier to understand. These are examples of friction.

If you’re comfortable with the combination of mouse and keyboard, you can use your point and click skills with mind mapping software. Or, to really speed things up, use keyboard shortcuts instead.

This speed and power allows you to achieve something that we call frictionless thought organization. By eliminating the barriers to transcribing your thoughts, mind mapping becomes an extremely powerful tool to allow the rapid documentation and development of ideas. Your ideation processes take a huge productivity leap when you use mind mapping to its fullest potential.

Mind mapping removes friction during the creative process. Mind mapping is the closest that you can get to frictionless thought organization – transcribing your thoughts out of your head with minimal resistance.

4. Whole Brain Thinking Leads to Superior Results

Tony Buzan contends that mind maps provide an excellent way to engage your entire brain in the thinking and learning processes.

You may have heard people talk about being ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain’. These two concepts have been explained in a previous Lateral Action article. Whole brain thinking is the concept of using both sides of your brain together to think better. Your brain does this every day just keeping you alive. Most of the time this synchronization happens without any conscious thought.

To put this in context, here’s a quote from Lateral Action that talks about the roles of left brain and right brain:

Many people associate the right brain with creativity and lateral thinking, and there’s certainly something to that. Our left brains create structures that can act as barriers to alternative solutions and perspectives.

But your left brain plays a crucial role in creativity as well. Seeing logical associations between seemingly unrelated things is a hallmark of creativity. And the critical-thinking skills necessary to tell a good idea from a bad one are pretty important too.

Mind maps, with their combination of images, colors, shapes and text, can appeal to both sides of the brain. You can use the mind map to explore unusual, imaginative concepts (right brain) while using mind mapping techniques to put them into order and tie them together with logic (left brain).

When you’re lost in a mental jungle, doesn’t it make sense to use both sides of your brain to navigate through?

Mind mapping helps you make the most of both sides of your brain. This combination of capabilities allows your mind to build rich connections between pictures and text and it helps to cement knowledge in your brain, leading to longer retention of information.

How Mind Maps Get You Unstuck, Focused and Organized

In summary, then, this is what mind maps can do for you:

Get your ideas on paper as quickly as possible
You have a strong need for speed when inspiration strikes. The faster you can record your ideas, the more intact they stay. This allows you the best chance of capturing a potentially valuable, rewarding mind map.

Frictionless thought organization
Using mind mapping software short cuts and other relevant time savers makes the ideation process easier and less stressful.

Empty out your head into a trusted system
Emptying your ideas out of your mind when inspiration strikes (or when you simply have to document something) allows you to focus on what you need to do right now. Remember, the more thoughts you juggle at once, the more likely you are to forget something important!

Clear your mind so you can clearly focus on something else
You do better work when you’re not distracted or multi-tasking.

A visual yet tactile alternative to sticky notes, notebook jottings, etc.
Mind maps allow you to engage your body in the creation process, which is pleasurable and rewarding.

This is the value of mind mapping that you rarely hear about: an uncluttered, clear mind that can be organized and focused to take on a new job with vigor and enthusiasm.

This article is a summarized excerpt from Unstuck, Focused and Organized: Using Mind Mapping, a new information product released by Mark Dykeman.

Over to You

Do you have any experience with using mind maps?

Do they work well for you?

Is there anything you don’t like about them?

About the Author: Mark Dykeman is the founder and main brain of Thoughtwrestling, a blog devoted to better ideas, better achievements and better life. For more great ideas, follow Mark on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Mike Korner says:

    Nice article Mark.

    At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, I’m adding a couple of things for those with the preferred learning style of Kinesthetic/Touch:

    1) For those who understand the value of drawing a mind map by hand but cringe at the thought of having more paper to keep track of, don’t forget that you can then scan the document for electronic storage. It’s the best of both worlds — do the work by hand and then let the computer store it for later retrieval.

    2) For those who like to draw on a whiteboard, once the drawing is done, take a digital picture and file it.

    I’ve seen studies where referring to an original drawing (instead of a version that results from ramrodding a hand drawing into software following the thinking/drawing sessions) greatly expedites recollection and allows you (or a team) to get right back to the thoughts that were occurring. I’ve seen this work well for software design, for example.

    Like I said, probably obvious :)

  2. Hey Mike:

    Those are excellent ideas, thanks for adding them to the mix!

  3. This is one of the best breakdowns of mind mapping as a technique I’ve seen especially for those who are new to the concept or on the fence about using it.

    Since using software is one of the preferred methods I’d recommend the following article from Lifehacker: http://lifehacker.com/5188833/hive-five-five-best-mind-mapping-applications

    There are several free and web based options for those not looking to drop serious coin on their creative tools.

    Thanks for the well written article.

  4. Hi There,

    Very glad to receive this post in my Inbox – I’ve discovered mindmaps about 3 years ago, and they have been a constant supporter ever since. Firstly, I really like how easily you can just drop things that allow themselves to be rearranged easily afterwards, providing me with a clear picture of what is going on. I use mindmapping for several activities – work task management, workout project tracking, general brainstorming of next vacation, as having a virtual picture is a very powerful tool to progress with!

  5. Hallo there.

    Great article again.
    I have to agree with the part that says we must record our ideas as fast as possible when they come.

    Catch the magic when it’s there.

    I write, and put my words into music. And to not lose an idea, i record rehearsals and listen back to it, and i extract then the idea and use it to develop making a song with it.
    If i didnt recorded, i wouldn’t have noticed. I would remember the magic but would be almost unable to remember it.

    It’s like pictures taken at the right time, it’s hard to pose, but we all like the magic of a moment…

    The ability to catch that is an art i guess. Writers, photographers, musicians, painters.

  6. Charlotte says:

    Hi Mark
    Really interesting article – thanks for posting. Could I use some of your content for a presentation I am doing on Revision techniques?? Referenced of course!

    Regards
    Charlotte

  7. Hello Charlotte. Yes, you certainly may reference the material in this article!

    Regards,

    Mark Dykeman

  8. Hello Mark,

    Have been pursuing articles on mind map for the last few weeks and am definitely impressed with its overwhelming response.

    My comment – since mind maps have so much to do with computers, this technique will be more useful only with computers. A person does not have his comp everywhere. Isnt that a limitation to thinking process ?

    Lata.
    India.

  9. Right now, my main client is a major mind mapping software company, so I’m really focused on the link between creativity and mapping. Thanks for a great introduction to the topic–one that, like mapping itself, covers a lot of ground simply and fluidly.

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