Mindmapping for…well, everything!

Lee Hachadoorian on Jan 15th 2011

It was probably a year-and-a-half ago, while participating in a Summer-long proposal writing workshop with other members of the New York Graduate Urban Research Network, that a fellow graduate student recommended the use of mind maps to help organize some of my ideas. (This after I sketched something that looked like a Venn diagram of overlapping literatures related to my research.) I checked out some open source mindmapping software packages at the time, but it was only this last Summer that I started using one in earnest. In this post I’ll describe some of the things I use mind maps for.

The occasion of this post is seeing the article Using Spreadsheets for Everything in Chronicle of Higher Ed. The article describes using spreadsheets for grading (something which I also do), and then goes on to describe several other uses of spreadsheets, including managing job applications “including due date, the research specialty of the position, the required documents for the application, and the ad’s text itself.” I’m on the market this year, and began using a spreadsheet for just this purpose, and quickly decided a spreadsheet was not up to the task. Instead, I turned to FreeMind.

I was already using FreeMind for several things. Here is an example of using it to document analysis procedures for my dissertation project. It will probably be unintelligible if you aren’t me, but it will give you an idea of what a mind map looks like, and the capabilities of the software. (There are many more examples in the FreeMind Gallery.) Each node (each distinct text phrase is a node) can have any number of “child” nodes. The nodes can be folded (i.e., all the children disappear) or unfolded, so that you can look at as much or as little information as you want. Makes it very easy to move from a mile-high, big picture view of what’s going on to a low-level, nitty-gritty engagement. You can unfold one branch to work with while all the other branches remain folded, so as to avoid distraction.

Initially, I started using FreeMind for these kinds of lists and outlines. I also used it to keep notes related to my dissertation. Then, as I tried to dissect a conference paper I had written and stitch pieces of it into chapters of my dissertation, I decided to give it a go with FreeMind. I was very happy with the result. I now have one mind map which contains an early outline of my project, an abstract of my project, my proposal, abstracts of every conference presentation that is related to this project, notes from emails and meetings with my committee, my dissertation-in-progress, and writing snippets that I have yet to find a home for (incredibly useful, because I used to just stick them at the end of the word processing document I was working on, which was not ideal).

The folding feature lets me “put away” branches of the mind map that I don’t want to be working with while I’m writing. The branch that contains my project abstract is hierarchical, built with my advisor’s recommendation that I should have a one sentence, one paragraph, and one page summary of my project. Since more or less the same chunk of writing might have started as a course paper, turned into a conference paper, a dissertation chapter, and a journal article, it is much easier for me to have all in one place than to have multiple word processor files floating around. When I’m ready, a chapter, journal article, or the entire dissertation can be easily exported to Open Office Writer.

The ability to create arbitrary structure, and to fold/unfold branches, is extremely useful for keeping track of job applications. I created branches for “Interesting Announcements”, “Not Applying”, “Will Apply”, and “Applied”. (Sadly, but not unexpectedly, I’ve already added a branch for “Rejected” under the “Applied” branch.) I also created a branch which contains a “base” version of my cover letter and statements of research interests and teaching philosophy, which I then copy to the branch for each job I am applying to and modify for the particular job announcement. Since all the applications are in one mind map, I have an easy way to quickly glance at past cover letters without having to hunt down and open separate word processor documents. I also use FreeMind’s built in icons to note, for example, which applications require hard copies of reference letters, or which announcements have hard deadlines (which I represent with a bomb, as opposed to those jobs announced as being “open to filled”).

FreeMind is not the only game in town. Among open source alternatives, Freeplane is a fork of FreeMind which has a built-in spellchecker, and SciPlore MindMapping combines mindmapping with reference management and PDF library management. A friend of mine who is a software developer prefers XMind, which he uses to outline articles he is working on. There are also proprietary options. Embodying the F/OSS spirit, FreeMind has a pretty neutral list of alternative mindmapping software, including proprietary options, as well alternatives to mindmapping, such as note-taking software and outlining software. There’s also an even more extensive Wikipedia list of mindmapping software, with many screenshots.

My main complaint about FreeMind is that its word processing capabilities are somewhat limited. It would be nice, for example, if OOWriter styles could be used in FreeMind and would be respected when the map was exported. As it is, I always have to do some work in OOWriter to format the document correctly. Maybe eventually I’ll switch to a different mindmapping software, but there are so many useful things that a mind map can do that I’m sure I’ll be using FreeMind or a tool like it for about as long as I’m using computers.

Filed in Computing,Productivity | 2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Mindmapping for…well, everything!”

  1. […] Every post has been a gem.  I’m ready to switch to Linux, start using Spider Oak and now mindmapping.  Admittedly, I’m quite fond of my trusted stack of legal pads here with their arrows that […]

  2. Ryan Holifieldon 18 Jan 2011 at 10:25 am

    This is great to learn about – I’m a big proponent of mental mapping techniques of various kinds (I’m constantly pushing them on graduate students, but I can’t get people interested for some reason), and I’m very excited to learn about this software. I look forward to giving it a spin.

    (I’m also a spreadsheet fanatic, so I look forward to reading the Chronicle article you mentioned.)

    And best of luck on the market!

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