Is your head full of ideas or thoughts?

Do you have any confusion around an idea, project or problem? Do you simply wish to get them out of your head quickly and in an organized manner?

Traditionally, you would open a Word or Text document, or take a sheet of paper and start writing in a linear fashion.

Word Document - Plain

This type of document quickly becomes overwhelming. It obviously lacks in clarity. It also makes it hard for you to get a full picture at a glance and see what is missing.

By converting the list above into a hierarchy with a bit of formatting, you are making progress towards organizing your thoughts:

Word Document - Hierarchy

However, even with a hierarchy like that, you quickly lose sight of the big picture.

You always have too much information to look at, and most often you only get a partial view of the information. It’s hard to zoom out, figuratively, and to see the whole hierarchy and how everything is connected.

There is a better way: creating a mind map.

A mind map is a simple hierarchical radial diagram. In other words, you organize your thoughts around a central idea.

Mind map structure

This article explains how to mind map in three little steps.

This technique is especially useful whenever you need to “dump your brain”, or develop an idea, a project (for example, a new product or service), a problem, a solution, etc.

By capturing what you have in your head, you make space for other thoughts.

Creating a mind map with software is very effective and you get none of the drawbacks of pen and paper. You are only limited by your typing speed.

With mind mapping software, you can easily:

  • make changes;
  • grow your map as big as you want;
  • copy and paste elements;
  • move things around;
  • insert images, documents and hyperlinks.

Mind map software

You can focus in on a branch:

Focusing on a branch

You can zoom out and show a limited number of levels of branches:

Showing one level

In this article, we are focusing on the basics: mind mapping using pen and paper.

Let’s Focus on the Basics

The example mind map below is in its simplest expression. It was created using one pen and as fast as possible, without any drawings, colors or emphasis on words or sections.

The simplest mind map with pen and paper

As you may notice, though, it looks plain and boring. And you don’t know really where to look.

The opposite of this is to go crazy and use all sorts of pencils, pens and markers in various colors.

Markers and pencils

Some invest hours in creating complex, visually appealing and time-consuming mind maps, such as those on

Mind Map Art

To add Oomph to your map very easily, keep it simple by using a black sharpie, a red one, and a regular pen (blue or black).

With very little extra effort compared to the plain original mind map that was done with only a pen, you can produce something much more interesting and clear.

By using markers, the hierarchy of information becomes obvious. You immediately understand what this map is about, and what the main ideas are.

Pen and paper mind map with sharpies

By following the three next steps below, you will be able to create such mind maps easily and quickly.

Three Little Steps to Creating Your Mind Map

The three steps are:

  1. Add the central topic
  2. Add branches
  3. Add sub-branches

Step 1 : Add the Central Topic

Take a blank sheet of paper.

Using a red sharpie (or another bright color), write down the topic for your mind map. That topic can be anything: a problem, a person’s name, a decision to make, an idea to develop, or a project to clarify.Word it in a clear and concise manner.

In our example, we’re brainstorming about Fluent Brain’s new home page video.

Now circle it with the black sharpie.

Step 1 - 2

Step 2 : Add Branches

What is the first idea that comes to mind when you think of the subject for your mind map?

In our example, the first thing that came to my mind regarding Fluent Brain’s home page video was that it needs to give an introduction to what visual facilitation is.

Using the same sharpie (black) than for the circle, draw a line (straight or curved) from the central topic, and write down that idea.

Step 2

You’re done with step 2. That was easy, wasn’t it?

Step 3 : Add Sub-Branches

Then, what does that idea make you think of? What is related to it? List it out next to it in the same way, using your pen. Step 3

You can always add more to it later, but that’s good for now.

In our example, we could detail the sub-branch “Benefits” by listing those benefits in sub-branches of the branch “Benefits”. Unfortunately, we already reached the side of the sheet, so we’re out of space to do so. You could always draw a line to a white space on the page and list them there, but it’s awkward.

Since we created this mind map on a regular letter-format sheet of paper, the quantity of information that fits in there is very limited. That is one of the main reasons why I recommend that you use software rather than pen and paper for most of the mind mapping that you do.

Repeat Steps 2 and 3

Repeat steps 2 and 3 as many times as you need to flush out all of your ideas around the topic that you chose.

Repeat step 3 - 1

Repeat step 3 - 2

Repeat step 3 - 3

Repeat step 3 - 4

Repeat step 3 - 5

You might have noticed that I added first-level (main) branches around the central topic mostly in a clockwise fashion, from top-right to top-left. That is how, by convention, most pieces of mind mapping software work, as well as how a mind map is read.

Additionally, we added main branches one by one. That is one strategy for creating a mind map.

In the next section, we are covering the three strategies to building your maps.  

Strategies for Building Your Mind Map

You can go about creating a mind map in various ways:

  1. Branch by Branch: Adding whole branches (with all of their sub-branches), one by one. You can add those branches in the order that you wish, although most people add them in a clockwise fashion.
  2. Level by Level: Adding elements to the map, one level at a time. That means that firstly, you add elements around the central topic (main branches). Then, you add sub-branches to those main branches. And so on.
  3. Free-Flow: Adding elements to your mind map as they come to you, in no particular order.

Let’s explore each approach.

Let’s take the following map as an example of the outcome. Let’s explore how we would build that map with each strategy.

Mind map example

A) Branch by Branch

Start with the central topic:

Branch by branch - 0

Add a first branch. Focus on that branch and detail it as much as you can by adding all the sub-branches that you can think of:

Branch by branch - 1

Item for the next main branch:

Branch by branch - 2

Item for the next main branch:

Branch by branch - 3

That’s the last main branch. Now the mind map is complete:

Branch by branch - 4

B) Level by Level

Start with the central topic. This is level zero:

Level by Level - 0

In this “Level by Level” strategy, you first add all the elements that you can think of around the central topic, one level deep only. So here you add elements on level 1:

Level by Level - 1

Then, go over each branch and add the immediate sub-branches (one level only). This is level 2:

Level by Level - 2

Idem for the next level. This is level 3. You can have as many levels as you want in a mind map. In our example, we only have 3 levels. Now the map is complete:

Level by Level - 3

C) Free-Flow

To keep this section concise, I bundled steps together. So each image shows a few additions to the map. Start with the central topic:

Free-flow - 0

Two new branches, and one new sub-branch:

Free-flow - 1

I added a sub-topic to that second branch, as well as a new main branch:

Free-flow - 2

I added sub-branches to two different main branches:

Free-flow - 3

Three new sub-branches for the branch on the left:

Free-flow - 4

And so on:

Free-flow - 7

And so on… Now the map is complete:

Free-flow - 8

I recommend using a combination of the “Branch by Branch” and the “Free-Flow” strategies.

What I normally do is I add one branch at a time, and later on I review the mind map and add elements in various places to finish it.

I also sometimes build level 1 (the main branches) first, then use a “Branch by Branch” approach, and later finish the map in a “Free-Flow” manner.

Try each strategy and combinations of strategies, and see what works best for you.

Some Other Things to Consider…

Even though using mind mapping software has a lot of advantages, you might find it easier to think on paper – especially when you’re feeling stuck or when you’re just starting to think about a particular idea or project.

In that case, what works well for me is to start a mind map on paper, and then transfer it to the computer and continue working on it there.

Also, you can apply these steps and strategies just the same when using a mind mapping tool on the computer.
Featured photo credit: Coffee and Abstract Mind Map on Napkin via Shutterstock

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