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Use Mind Maps to organise your thoughts, and life

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5th Dec 2007
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Mind Maps® are almost unmentioned in accountancy circles. I don't know why. They’re an extraordinarily useful tool, and they can be easily generated on a computer. Mind Maps can reduce the time taken to achieve some tasks by as much as 80%, so it is staggering that they have attracted so little attention in a profession where, quite literally, time saved is equivalent to money made.

In essence Mind Maps are simple. They are a graphical way of organising your thoughts. The simple rule is "one big idea, one Mind Map". Whatever that big idea or subject is, you write it in a box in the middle of your screen if you're using software, or the page if you’re still living in the age of the quill. It looks something like this:

Starting a Mind Map to do list

Then you began to draw more boxes radiating out from that central one, each of which is the title for a theme you wish to explore related to the subject you're considering. So, to expand the to do list you might draw the following radial boxes:

Building a Mind Map to do list

Of course, you may not get these right first time. On paper you correct that by using a pencil and rubber, or Tippex, or by starting again. Using software is different. You can amend any box at any time, or drag them around your screen until you're happy. And there's no limit to the number of times you can do that.

You may not know you've got it wrong though until you've begun to explore each sub theme. This is done by adding "branch structures". Each should represent an increasing degree of detail, so that as the branches get more remote from the centre the more developed the branch is, but the less significant it also is in the overall plan. So, the to do list might begin to look like this:

Basic Mind Map to do list

This Mind Map does, by itself, show what the method is about. Put simply Mind Maps have a wide range of uses for speeding the production of many routine tasks.

And all this can of course, be spell-checked (as the above sample needs). And inserting a new item is easy. You just click on the branch header where you want it to go and a text box appears in which you write the entry:

Add an urgent task to your Mind Map to do list

Then you push enter, and it appears:

 AccountingWEB Mind Map article

Mind Map meeting minutes
One task that benefited from this technique recently was minute taking. Most accountants will face situations where they have to take minutes at a board or other meeting. I did so recently during a two-hour telephone conference. In doing so I understudied for a colleague who I know hates the process, as he generally reckons it takes five hours to write, edit and get out the minutes after such events.

The first thing I did was dump the agenda into the Mind Map. This was a simple matter of copying and pasting each agenda item into a separate radiating boxed from the centre, which had the meeting details that would form the title of the minutes in it. Something like this resulted, and you will notice that automatic numbering makes reading easier:

Mind Map meeting minutes

In some cases it was easy to guess a minute in advance. So before we even started I used the agenda paper to write some introductory comments, such as:

Expanded Mind Map meeting minutes

And as the meeting progressed I sat in front of my computer and typed as we went along (easy when using Skype for a telephone conference, which this happened to be, but I’ve done it in live board meetings too). As a result the issue discussed is noted immediately. The concerns raised and who raised them are noted (if necessary) and the action issues are recorded. The result is that the minutes were being produced pretty much in real time.

When the meeting finished I read through what I'd written, spell checked and edited it a bit to ensure it all made sense. And then I exported it. The MindGenius Business software I use has various export options including to PDF, Word, PowerPoint and RTF. Of course the file could be distributed as it is if others had the software to read it. That was not the case in this meeting. Since this was a set of minutes, I chose to send it to Word.

Immediately a set of numbered minutes was produced, with sub branches indicated by progressive numbering. You can tidy the layout if you wish; but it's almost invariably usable as it arrives, quite literally, on screen.

I distributed the results 40 minutes after the meeting closed, including making a cup of tea, which is a big gain on the five hours it would have taken to transcribe hand written notes into ordered text.

There are many other important uses. Almost every Mind Map program I've seen is good at dumping output into almost perfect, ready to use PowerPoint presentations. I'd now never think of writing a presentation any other way because I can so easily edit it, move things around and finesse it in a trial run before committing to the final presentation slides, which are so much more laborious to change.

And don't let your imagination limit you. Really long agendas, such as those for new client meetings where you what a very high degree of control over the completeness of the information collected and the timeliness of it being recorded can be managed completely using standard Mind Maps. You don't believe me? Download this client meeting PDF and see the possibility. It's not complete, and you’ll need to blow it up to read all the detail, but that won’t matter when it's exported to Word.

Nor will it matter on screen. All Mind Map software gives you real power to control what you do and don’t see at any time and in what order you wish to see it. There's no doubt that this map looks absurd on screen:

Client meeting Mind Map

And that’s before it is anything like complete. But this doesn’t matter. You can, for example, close down every single branch but the one you're working on, and then easily move onto the next to ensure a smooth flow through a meeting despite recording all the data as you go in one seamless document. And of course, when it is exported, it will all be there to read.

How long does this take to learn? In my experience, much less than a day if you really want to learn. What's more it's actually quite enjoyable when you begin to realise the time it can save you and the things you can do with it. I've still found no better way to organise a "to do" list, for example. Combine it with Versomatic and you'll also never lose track of versions either. Which is amazing.

So, which software to use? I've tried a lot. I now prefer Mind Genius because the business version does everything I ask of it, and the price is reasonable (about £145 which is a snip for the productivity gained). That’s also cheaper than many of the competitor’s full blown products. As important though, the home edition has almost all the functionality except export to Word and PowerPoint and costs about £29. So if you're a bit mean you can have a full copy on a few machines for occasions when export is needed and the much cheaper but highly functional version at a snip of the price for all members of the team. And, like almost all Mind Map software, you can try it for free. No other software seems that cost effective to me, but most allow free downloads. My answer then is simple: try them.

Names, links and some quick comments (because this tool is fantastic for note making) are in this map:

Mind Map software notes

My suggestion is simple: try this for Christmas. You’ll have a better New Year.

Mind Maps® is a registered trademark of the The Buzan Organisation Ltd

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Replies (20)

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By carnmores
05th Dec 2007 13:45

Not for me
i tried using another program visual mind that appears to be similar -seems to me that an excel spreadheet sorted using autofilter is much better

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By kuriyan
06th Dec 2007 12:44

Try the free version
It is worth trying the free (open source) version before purchasing a package - in case mind mapping is not for you. Link:
http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

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By suzina
06th Dec 2007 11:24

Try several...
I resell this and several other mind mapping tools, and provide training. Most of my clients absolutely love the programs, and like you say it saves them lots of time. (we only sell into the educational sector so not touting for business!)
Whilst I can train others to use them, personally I hate using them all! If brainstorming something complex like a report I get an A1 bit of paper & start scrawling with arrows, keywords etc.
So I guess I'm just underlining the point about downloads, it's definately a try before you buy concept / product and give it a proper go for a week or so. Others to trial are MindManager & Inspiration (the latter is our best seller because of the way it flips between word layout & map, but it's all personal choice)
ttfn

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By NeilW
06th Dec 2007 11:34

Paper everytime
Unfortunately the software limits the power of mind maps to simple hierarchical trees.

As you can see from above the output is dull, and that limits right brain activity.

There is nothing better than getting a sheet of A3 and a pack of felt pens and going at a Mind Map the old fashioned way. You are not constrained by arrows and can cross link efficiently between branches. You can use different colours and generally jazz up the picture.

And most importantly you can doodle.

If I'm using a computer I'd rather just have a copy of some graphic package and a Wacom tablet. You can always augment with the text tool then.

For meeting minutes, I just use Outline mode of the word processor.

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By listerramjet
06th Dec 2007 12:21

there is a theme in the responses
with which I agree.

Trying to create a mind map on a computer kind of misses the point. Personally I think that the benefit of a mind map comes from the processes used to create it rather than what is actually created. It helps you to explore a problem visually and unstructured, in a way that your mind probably finds difficult. The process of drawing, doodling, playing with colours and linking helps you to understand in a way that otherwise you might not. And it can be powerful both individually and in a group context, although making something like this democratic can significantly remove the power of it. Or to put it another way, doing it helps you make use of the creative part of your brain to think. The output will look colourful, and may be useful to you as its creator, but actually by presenting it (particularly in a powerpoint) as a finished article it loses much of its power

Using mind maps as a documenter really does miss the point, but I also think that mind mapping software can provide a really good way of documenting something. I am clear that this is not mind mapping - perhaps if they changed the name of the software ,and sold it for what it is, it might actually sell better?

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Nigel Harris
By Nigel Harris
06th Dec 2007 13:24

Or do it online
It's pretty basic, but http://www.bubbl.us/edit.php is an interesting online mindmapping application. Handy for remote working and sharing mindmaps. Actually, I find the pared down functionality makes it more useable than the more sophisticated programs - maybe it's a bit closer to the rough and ready pen and paper mind maps that we used years ago!

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By The Minion
06th Dec 2007 13:57

mind maps are brilliant
mind manager is the one i use and it can be set up to do presentations, business plans etc. It is also a good way of getting clients to formulate exactly what it is that matters to them and their business.

just takes a while to get your head around thinking in mind maps

www.mindjet.co.uk

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By John Snowden
06th Dec 2007 14:23

Mindmaps are great!
Since being introduced to the idea (and software) through my son's school I have become quite a convert. As others have said, the great thing about the software is its visual versatility - you are not constrained by font sizes and page sizes, it is easy to move things around, emphasise things and make connections between different bit of the map.

I have used them for planning and noting meetings, to do brainstorming with clients, I have set up a business strategy planning map, and I have used them to communicate complicated tax rules to clients and to work out tax strategies.

I have even experimented with them as a hub of an accounts production file. That is, they can connect very easily with documents and files of any sort and can also show content from other files (excel), without becoming the enormous beasts that excel files do when images are pasted into them or when sheets become too numerous. I am also using the software to control accounts production queries and review.

As somebody has already commented, clients (well, the boys, anyway!) really like seeing the software being worked in front of them.

I cannot recommend mind mapping too highly. I also use MindManager.

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By listerramjet
07th Dec 2007 09:30

Hi Richard
have you not heard of scanners? Technology is grand don't you think.

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Richard Murphy
By Richard Murphy
06th Dec 2007 21:06

What is paper?
Can someone remind me? I'm being serious.

What the heck do you do with it when you've done a Mind Map on paper? Frame it?

I'm baffled - and I used to do them. Not any more!

Richard Murphy

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By User deleted
07th Dec 2007 09:22

So what's new?
I have been using mind maps for many years now - mainly when writing reports or putting together presentations, but also when preparing for meetings or formulating negotiating tactics.
The fact that Richard Murphy is "introducing" the techniques to accountants now just goes to show what a conservative, inward-looking, and unimaginative profession we really are.
(Contrary to Richard's comments, I still prefer to use paper for my mind maps. If any one wants to know why, they should refer to any of the books written by the master of the genre, Tony Buzan, to discover the true potential of mind mapping).

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By carnmores
07th Dec 2007 15:28

you know where you are with Richard
once his mind is made up thats it - a bit like a record that wont move on...

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By User deleted
07th Dec 2007 19:38

I do like my lists, especially paper ones...
I put them in the front of my, er...files. Obviously some of us are some way off being paperless.
I have tried playing around with hand drawn mind maps but I have always ended up with unimportant things appearing in the wrong places, and being fascinated how pretty they looked, yes, and loads of doodles. I now use a basic matrix of 4 squares instead:

Important/urgent (top left)......Important/non-urgent (top right)

Not important/urgent (bottom left)...... Not important/non-urgent (bottom right)

You organise your random thoughts/ideas/lists, by putting each in a box, and so all the really important things end up in the top left.
As you go through your day/week you aim is to concentrate all efforts on top left items then top right, bottom left before finally getting to bottom right which contains such dross as "Update profile on facebook", or "email jokes to mates on a Friday afternoon."

Simple but effective, at least as far as time management goes, but I if you could somehow combine the matrix within mind maps it would be even better. Might need to be 3D, and it would be quite handy if you could just click your fingers and it would flash up in front of you without the need for a screen too.

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Richard Murphy
By Richard Murphy
07th Dec 2007 17:12

Nicholas
Not true!

I'm just on the next track :-)

Richard

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By carnmores
07th Dec 2007 21:48

ok Richard boom boom
i just have always flakey and lateral!

NRM did you schotts almanck insert in the sunday times sounds you are using that sort of model - that really is adventurous..

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By User deleted
08th Dec 2007 10:12

Useful comment...
but what does "did you schotts almanck insert in the sunday times" actually mean?

I googled it and found that "Schott's Almanac is the biography of the year."
The matrix is a classic time management tool.

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By User deleted
11th Dec 2007 16:47

Is there an echo in here?
Tim Piper took the words right out of my mouth - or rather right out of my posting of 7 December.

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By listerramjet
11th Dec 2007 17:14

hi Tim
not sure I agree with your "stifle" comments - 18 responses suggests a significant interest, and they are positive comments even if there are a selection of different angles. I think the time management angle is worthy of further exploration - wonder if perhaps AWeb might commission an article from you?

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By carnmores
12th Dec 2007 19:19

NRM
ah indeed yes more indicitave than any thing else

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By User deleted
13th Dec 2007 10:11

Alastair
My sentiments entirely, and having not trained with "the late great..." I have never been on a TMI branded course so I for one am intrigued. As a good friend of mine always says "You can't ever say that you are too busy for a time management course".

Interesting article, Richard, thank you. I think I might well try this out.

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