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Rico Clusters: An Alternative to Mind Mapping

Rico Clusters: An Alternative to Mind Mapping
Rico Cluster

    I’m not a big fan of mind mapping, though I concede that it does have its uses. Recently, I learned of a different approach to brainstorming that seems both more practical and better grounded in the way the mind works than traditional, Buzan-style mind mapping. This approach, called the Rico Cluster after its developer, Dr. Gabrielle Rico, focuses on the creation of a “web” of related and interconnected ideas, rather than radiating out from a central concept, and is intended to leverage the brain’s normal processes of communication between the right and left hemispheres. The idea is to work towards a kind of “critical mass”, where the language- and process-oriented left brain takes over from the visual- and pattern-oriented left.

    What is a Rico Cluster?

    Rico clustering is a brainstorming tool that emphasizes the connection between left-brain openness and connection-making and right-brain verbalization and ordering. Although it is intended primarily as a writing tool, it can also be applied to teaching — and Rico herself has written about its use as a therapeutic tool, as well.
    Here’s the basic idea:

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    1. Write a word in the middle of a sheet of paper.
    2. Circle it.
    3. Write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind and circle it.
    4. Draw a line connecting the second circle to the first.
    5. Repeat. As you write and circle new words and phrases, draw lines back to the last word, the central word, or other words that seem connected. Don’t worry about how they’re connected — the goal is to let your right-brain do its thing, which is to see patterns; later, the left-brain will take over and put the nature of those relationships into words.
    6. When you’ve filled the page, or just feel like you’ve done enough (a sign of what Rico calls a “felt-shift”), go back through what you’ve written down. Cross out words and phrases that seem irrelevant, and begin to impose some order by numbering individual bubbles or clusters. Here is where your right-brain is working in tandem with your left-brain, producing what is essentially an outline. At this point, you can either transfer your numbered clusters to a proper outline or simply begin writing in the order you’ve numbered the clusters.

    By the time you’ve started reviewing your clusters, your brain has done much of the work of fleshing out your ideas; all that remains is to put these relationships into words, which is what your left-brain excels at.

    The Rico cluster grabbed my attention because I’ve lately been thinking a lot about how to brainstorm alone and this seems to fit the bill. I suppose “regular” mind mapping would do the trick, but I was pretty put off by the extravagant claims made by mind-mapping advocate Tony Buzan; clustering seems much more down-to-earth and homey than Buzan’s elaborate, multi-colored, goal-oriented mind maps. Maybe that’s just me, and I’ve bought into mind mapping under a different name; so be it.

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    Rico Clusters as a Teaching Tool

    While my interest is in clustering as a brainstorming-for-one tool, it is easily adapted to a group situation, where ideas are thrown out and jotted quickly on a whiteboard. What’s missing, though, is the patterning — someone needs to draw the lines that form the clusters.

    A teacher or facilitator could do this, using the role of pattern-maker to subtly guide the discussion, but another option would be to have a student or, in a business setting, one of the brainstormers, take on this role, perhaps rotating and having a series of people draw in connecting lines. When the ideas start drying up (or the board is full) begin the process of sorting out and numbering ideas, with input from the group.

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    There is some evidence that brainstorming as a group is actually less effective than several people brainstorming individually and just combining their results, so I’m not sure I advocate this as an idea-generating tool. Instead, I see it as a way of helping a class draw lessons from a body of work — a book or play, a movie, a trip, or an experience. In a business setting, this might be a way to draw lessons out of a strategic failure, or develop new ways of applying existing processes.

    Clustering as a Therapeutic Tool

    Rico’s book Pain and Possibility: Writing Your Way through Personal Crisis suggests another use for clustering: using them to draw out unconscious sources of pain in the context of recovery and healing. While this is exactly the kind of extravagant claim I generally reject, it might be useful for other people so it at least deserves consideration. A feeling or source of pain is listed as the “seed” and ideas free-associated off of that. The process is akin to automatic writing, where the mind starts calling forth language and concepts without conscious filtering; hopefully we surprise ourselves with connections we hadn’t been aware of, or conflicts that we had carefully concealed from our conscious awareness.

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    Like I said, this isn’t the kind of thing I think generally works, but for some people this kind of emotional work proves very uplifting, so who am I to judge? For myself, I think I’ll stick with trying clustering to deal with the more mundane problem of generating and capturing writing ideas. If nothing else, it’s at least worth a try, especially if you’re the kind of person for whom traditional outlining is a real chore.

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    Last Updated on March 13, 2019

    How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

    How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

    Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

    You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

    Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

    1. Work on the small tasks.

    When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

    Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

    2. Take a break from your work desk.

    Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

    Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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    3. Upgrade yourself

    Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

    The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

    4. Talk to a friend.

    Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

    Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

    5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

    If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

    Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

    Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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    6. Paint a vision to work towards.

    If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

    Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

    Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

    7. Read a book (or blog).

    The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

    Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

    Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

    8. Have a quick nap.

    If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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    9. Remember why you are doing this.

    Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

    What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

    10. Find some competition.

    Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

    Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

    11. Go exercise.

    Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

    Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

    As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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    Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

    12. Take a good break.

    Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

    Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

    Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

    Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

    More Resources About Getting out of a Rut

    Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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