Tips for technologists: The power of mind maps

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In this week’s Writer’s Room – a series of blogs and thought leadership articles written by Andela Community members – Danilo Barion Nogueira explores the importance of mind mapping for technologists, from creation to execution.

Danilo is a Senior Software Engineer based in São Caetano do Sul, Brazil. He has over twelve years of experience in his field.

As technologists, we often read a lot of articles about productivity and organization. Still, they typically only apply to more technical aspects of our expertise, like programming languages, code editors, source control, project management, etc.

Those types of subjects are indeed vital, but we tend to forget about important organizational topics, such as how to accomplish more in less time. That should be our first objective for personal projects, hobbies, and even our life goals, enabling us to achieve results while spending time with family, and friends, playing video games or engaging in other fun hobbies.

I’ve always tried to improve efficiency during the execution of my projects, either professional or personal ones, and I would like to take you through one of the most useful tools I’ve been using so far; the mind map.

To-do lists

Before exploring further, I would like to compare mind maps with lists, which help us to keep track of activities. Lists usually benefit us by acting as a “mind dump,” where you can just write down activities you need to finish and mark them off as they’re completed (hopefully!).

You can list places to visit, groceries to purchase, daily tasks, family commitments, professional projects, and much more in one single place. But, what seems to be one of the greatest benefits of lists can also become their worst characteristic.

Keeping track of the different types of tasks you need to complete requires a way to join them together, using groups (or tags), changing the order or creating sub-tasks, and marking some of them as dependent on a previous task.

With that, if you have too much to handle simultaneously, you’ll soon see the list grow out of control.

This is where mind maps come to the rescue!

Mind Maps

As the name implies, mind maps help you to visualize and represent your ideas or capture your thinking. Mind maps use words and images to create strong associations between your to-do list items or checklists that help you work through projects. In fact,  some people use mind mapping as a more ‘natural’ form of note-taking.

On many occasions, I’ve created a mind map (sometimes from a list), and within a few minutes, I’ve been able to notice links and associations that I’d missed before, and could easily connect these tasks with an arrow and some side notes.

The type of visualization that a mind map offers is so good, that sometimes I was able to understand that I would not be able to do everything I wanted to because I was cramming too much into a small amount of time.

By definition, mind maps serve more as a picture of all your tasks, allowing you to add images, workflows, notes, colors, and anything that your creative mind can imagine!

As I said before, it can even be used for non-professional projects. For example, I used a mind map to plan my wedding, and I can guarantee that, if I hadn’t created one, many details would have been lost during the planning, or I wouldn’t have met the deadline, turning it into a more stressful experience!

There are many online tools and apps that allow us to create our own mind maps, such as MindMeister. If this is your first time designing a mind map, I suggest you sit in your most comfortable chair,  grab a tea or coffee, and start with a blank page and a pencil (yes, you heard that right, not a pen, a pencil). Take a deep breath, relax, and start writing down everything that comes to your mind.

After that, take the initial sketches and scribbles, and tidy them up. Add details, and drawings, and then try to connect ideas and activities with arrows. Finally, add some color to understand everything at a glance.

Doing all of that by hand will:

  • Help you to create small drawings and images that are related to the text;
  • Give you freedom on the formats you want to use, and how to connect the idea and tasks;
  • Offer more stimulus to your brain by using the hand-writing process, helping you to remember crucial points.

Preferably, use a very large page, and colors (start with a few, and add more as you see fit); this will make a big impact during the development of your mind map as well as helping you to memorize parts that you may need.

Enough talking, show me the code map!

I’ll show you an example of a mind map, built step-by-step. I generally use the online tool, but as I said before, I suggest you start with the good-old paper and pencil:

Start by giving your project a name:

Add the first categories (or branches) of the main points:

You see that we already have a lot to take care of, but don’t stop here, let’s try to add more details. Choose the branch that you know the most about, and add branches to it:

In this case, some of the nodes are already the tasks you’ll need to complete, and they may not have any other subtasks. If they do have more subtasks, consider moving them to the upper level, connected directly to the root node.

That’s one of the advantages of mind maps: you don’t need to worry about following a rigid convention, and you can move, change, add, and remove things as you see fit. The goal here is to make sure you can see the whole picture, in a way that you can correctly estimate the amount of work required.

Continuing, let’s see how we can make use of colors to differentiate between low and high-priority items:

After some back and forth, redefining the levels or merging some tasks, and adding colors and notes, this is a pretty good example of how you can easily pinpoint your most important tasks, and how they correlate.

The process of mind mapping will offer you a lot of new insights into your work or projects that a basic list would prevent you from seeing.

Of course this method can still be used alongside lists and other tools, such as calendars, note-taking apps or notebooks, project management apps, and any other type that helps you be more productive.

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