Overcome Information Overload with Mind Maps

    August 20, 2003

For people who work with information, the problem used to be finding enough of it. If you were analyzing a subject, or writing a report, most of your time was spent finding the information you needed.

Today, finding information isn’t the problem – avoiding drowning in too much information is. With the Internet and other new information technologies, the biggest problem for knowledge workers today is organizing information and staying focused. If this problem sounds familiar to you, you should investigate mind mapping.

As a freelance technology writer, I use mind mapping extensively. It helps me to organize masses of information in ways that make sense to me, and simplifies the job of designing the articles and books that I create. Mind mapping is also a powerful tool for note taking, where it engages the visual side of your brain to help you remember.

So what is a mind map, anyway?

A mind map is a visual representation of chunks of information and the relationships between those chunks. Starting with a central topic, idea, or theme, you create a mind map by writing a phrase that identifies the central theme in the center of a piece of paper. Next, you write words or phrases identifying key topics on the page, arranging them around the central theme. Draw lines between the topics and the central theme to show that they are related. You can also connect topics directly to each other.

A topic and its connection to the central theme or another topic is called a branch. Branches graphically indicate the relationships between topics. This representation is one of the significant benefits of mind mapping. Such relationships are seldom clear in more traditional means of note taking, which don’t have such a clear and obvious way of representing connections.

To expand the map, you repeat the process. Treat each topic as if it were the central theme, and create branches containing information related to that topic. In general, each iteration of this process leads to branches containing more detailed information, until you have a map of all the important information related to the central theme. This is your mind map.

Some of the benefits of creating a mind map include:

* It engages the visual part of your brain in understanding and organizing information. * The relationships between chunks of information are explicitly stated. * By mapping short phrases that represent larger chunks of information a simple mind map allows easy recall of large amounts of information.

A concrete example will make this clear. I created a simple mind map to help me design this article. I started with the words “mind mapping” in the center of a piece of paper. Around that central theme I listed four topics, “benefits”, “information overload”, “What is mind mapping?”, and “example”. The fact that two of these topics are single words, one a short phrase, and one a complete sentence is irrelevant. What’s important is that these topics mean something to me.

I connected each of these topics to the central theme by drawing a line between the two. This shows that the topic and theme are directly related. I also drew a line connecting the topics “benefits” and “information overload.” This reminded me that the topics were related, since I was looking for mind mapping benefits relative to the subject of information overload.

Next, I started developing each of the topics by adding subtopics related to each particular topic, and linking those subtopics to the main topic. For example, the subtopics “once too little,” and “now too much” are connected to the topic “information overload.” This allowed me to keep track of the things that I wanted to say about each of the main topics.

Given the length of this article, that’s all I really needed to do. In just two or three minutes I had a mind map of the entire thing. Then all I had to do was write it. The map made it easy to keep track of all the topics (information) I wanted to cover in the article, and the links between them made it easy to keep related chunks of information together.

The amount of information contained in this article is relatively small. You could easily organize it in a traditional outline form, or even keep it all sorted out in your head. But as the amount of information grows, traditional methods break down. Keep the information for a course or a book in your head is a question, and even traditional outlining becomes too clumsy.

Mind maps are easily expandable and engage your visual memory, helping you to grasp and organize more material at once. Give mind mapping a try the next time you need to memorize or organize large amounts of information.

Bill Mann writes regularly about mobile technology and is author of “How to Do Everything with Your Tablet PC,” McGraw-Hill, 2003. For more information on Tablet PCs and what they can do for you, visit Bill’s website at http://tabletpc.techforyou.com.