Mapping what I’m learning

I want to learn about more than I can fit into my working memory, so I need to take notes and I need to relate those notes to each other. My sketches, blog posts, and Evernote entries are great for remembering things, but I also want to see overviews so that I don’t miss the forest for the trees. This is where mapping comes in. Mapping is about organizing topics so that I can see the relationships, find the gaps, and keep moving forward.

Mapping what you know

For example, I mapped out what I wanted to learn about learning, and I frequently refer to it while planning my next steps. 2013_10_09_17_05_50_005

I also have a few other maps at lower levels of detail. For example, this is a rough map of topics related to taking notes:

Note-taking techniques

Mapping helps me look ahead, and it also gives me a framework for connecting what I learn to what I’ve learned before.

One way to practise mapping is by mapping what you know. This helps you review your notes, identify any gaps, see how far you’ve come, and connect ideas (and discover interesting relationships you might not have come across before). Your maps can also help other people learn.

To map what you know, you can start from the bottom level (detailed notes answering specific questions) and work your way up to overviews. Alternatively, you can start from the top (an outline) and then work your way down to the specifics. Combining these strategies can help you get around mental blocks.2013_10_14_23_12_00_003

I’ve been working on mapping what I know. I’m still trying to find a good set of tools to help me do this. Instead of getting intimidated by the task, I’ve decided I’m going to start in the middle, mapping out things I recently learned and things that I’m learning next. Once I get the hang of doing that, I can start adding older entries like my blog posts.

I haven’t quite found the perfect tool yet. Evernote is great for personal notes, but even though it has public notebooks (see my sketchbook and my sketchnotes), people aren’t used to following or discussing new notes there. Flickr is good for exposure and a little discussion, but it’s not as easy to search or back up. Neither tool is good for overall non-linear organization.2013_10_15_21_39_36_004

Most note-taking systems focus on indexes for paper notes, either with straightforward tables of contents or mindmaps that refer to pages by IDs. Evernote and OneNote have been around for a long time, so I’ll probably be able to find people who have thought about how to organize lots of information using those systems. In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with using mindmaps to organize hyperlinks and next actions. I’m testing Mindjet MindManager, Xmind, and Freeplane. So far, I like Freeplane the most because:

  • the GTD add-in lets me quickly get a list of next actions
  • customizable keyboard shortcuts let me tweak the interface
  • filtering lets me focus on a selected branch
  • and hey, it’s free and open source

image

To make this, I added each item in my current public and private sketchbooks to my map, creating nodes when necessary. I don’t have a lot of topics in my sketchbook yet, but if I find myself with more than twenty or so items in a single category, it’s probably time to split that. I’ve split the categories in my blog index a few times, and I’m long overdue for splitting some of the others. It’s much easier to reorganize things in a map instead of editing each item, although I should come up with some kind of bulk interface so that I can update the categorizations.

The arrows are hyperlinks to either my blog posts or my Evernote entries (using evernote:// URLs from Copy Note Shortcut). I included private notes as well, so the map works only for me. Sorry! In the future, I’d love to make a version of this that omits private URLs and information. Freeplane supports lots of export formats, so maybe I’ll be able to process XML or HTML and make something that’ll help people browse too.

I’d like to get to the point of having a smooth workflow for drawing, scanning, publishing, organizing, browsing through, and following up on these thoughts. Do you know of anyone who’s doing something similar to this? This kind of visual thinking isn’t quite like the visual recording that most sketchnoters do. There are plenty of mindmaps at Biggerplate, but they look more like templates rather than thoughts-in-progress.

Reaching further back, parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are online, and Prof. Carlo Pedretti’s introduction to the Codex Arundel has some notes on the structure: unnumbered loose sheets, usually one page per thought. That’s encouraging, although it doesn’t tell me much about overall structure. Part of Galileo Galilei’s notebooks are online, too. He numbered his pages and usually left plenty of whitespace. There are plenty of examples of note-takers throughout history, but it’s hard to find ones explicitly talking about how they map the connections between ideas. How to Read a Book briefly mentions building a syntopicon, so I checked out the resulting volume (A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas). It’s a huge project, but it didn’t give me a lot of clues about the process of building such a thing. More recently, there’s How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, which described the process of making and updating a global subject map of contents. Books on study skills also talk about how to condense a lesson into successively smaller cheat sheets until you can fit everything onto one page (or an index card, or whatever the teacher permits), and that’s somewhat related to the kind of summarization and overview I want to do.

On the non-graphical front, I’ve also had fun making a huge outline of blog posts I want to write (and therefore things I want to learn about). Org Mode outlines work better than Freeplane maps for large amounts of text or fine-grained detail, so I’ll probably switch over to outlines when I’m drafting the post and then update the map with the hyperlink to the post when I’m done. It’s all tied together.

Anyway, here we are. I think the sketches and maps I’m making are promising, and I’m looking forward to digging deeper. If you happen to have put a lot of thought into a similar system, I’d love to hear from you!

Mindmapping chat with Billy Waters (@vitaminsludge)

I’ve been curious about how people manage hundreds of maps. Billy Waters reached out to me over Twitter, gave me plenty of tips, and shared his Dropbox folder with hundreds of maps with me. (Neat!) Instead of pinging him constantly with lots of questions, I asked him if I could set up a Google Hangout so that I could pick his brain. He agreed, and he was okay with sharing it too. Here’s the recording!

Time Note
1:02 Started in 1990
1:14 Other tools
2:01 Mindjet
2:53 Building an archive of book notes
3:42 Mind-maps and to-do lists
4:02 todo.txt
5:09 Taking notes
5:23 Organization vs brainstorming
5:40 How to process a book
6:23 Don’t like linking maps
6:59 Mindmaps not a solution for everything
9:11 Keeping maps when you move computers
11:09 Forgetting what you have
12:21 I don’t really search them
13:26 Mapping for others
14:48 ~12 hours to process a book
15:18 Highlighting on a Kindle
17:00 Learning about mindmapping
17:52 Other techniques: Major system, spaced repetition
18:33 Learning Chinese
20:43 Unwieldy maps
21:54 Favorite map
22:34 Printing and laminating maps
25:11 iPad and iThoughts for mindmapping on the go
26:34 Ikea
28:51 Mindjet vs Freeplane
32:20 Learning from other people’s diagrams
38:21 Copyright and book summaries
42:03 Paper, digital; ScanSnap
43:58 Dropbox
45:09 Backups
46:19 Teaching English in China for three years; visual thinking
48:04 More creative mindmaps
50:52 Biggerplate and sharing mindmaps
52:22 Two people: Jamie Nast, Michael Deutch
53:25 Use Your Head (Tony Buzan)
54:05 Unwieldy map, unwieldy thoughts
54:32 Floating nodes

The main things I picked up were:

  • Don’t worry about all those fancy features or about losing track of what you have. It’ll work out.
  • Check Biggerplate and other mindmap collections for inspiration.
  • Check out these other role models and books.
  • Structure + detail

Power user of mindmaps? I’d love to hear your tips too!

You can download the MP3 from archive.org.

Sketchnote about mindmapping: Rock the Monkey: Visual Facilitation Skills and Brain-based Learning–Chuck Frey

Learn more about mindmapping in this sketchnote of Chuck Frey’s Jan 14, 2013 webinar on Rock the Monkey: Visual Facilitation Skills and Brain-based Learning. Click on the image for a larger version.

20130114 Rock the Monkey - Visual Facilitation Skills and Brain-Based Learning - Chuck Frey

Feel free to share this! © 2013 Sacha Chua, http://sachachua.com (Creative Commons Attribution Licence)

Learn more about mindmapping on Chuck Frey’s blog, The Mindmapping Software Blog. You can also follow him on Twitter (@chuckfrey).

For more sketchnotes, see http://experivis.com/ and http://sachachua.com/blog/category/sketchnotes . Enjoy!

This post originally appeared on Experivis, the company I’m building around the idea of turning experiences into visuals.

Trying out MindManager 2012 – Almost but not quite the right fit for me

Mindjet MindManager 2012 - Sacha Chua

(Click on the image for  larger version.)

I love the way that mindmaps let me get lots of information down quickly without worrying about organization. It’s easy to organize things after as the structure emerges. I often make mindmaps on paper, but I prefer to do my mindmaps on the computer. Working on the computer lets me reorganize items, expand and collapse branches, and read everything instead of rotating the map so that I can read text written at odd angles. (Besides, my scrawls tend to be hard to read the day after.)

I’ve been a big fan of mindmapping software ever since I came across FreeMind, a fast and free mindmapping tool. XMind became my new favourite when I found out about it. I wanted to give the premium mindmapping programs a try, though, so I gave iMindMap and MindManager a spin.

iMindMap was colourful, but didn’t quite fit the way I wanted to work. It’s definitely skewed towards maps with just one word on the branches, and I tend to write whatever I want to.

MindManager fit me better. I was delighted to find that MindManager had a good pen mode, allowing me to create, edit, and organize my map with my computer in tablet mode (look, Ma, no keyboard!). I could scribble things down, then convert ink to text and have fully-searchable and more legible notes afterwards.

I tried using MindManager in pen mode to capture a panel discussion. This was a bit of a challenge as I was actually on the panel in question, but I wanted to take notes anyway. I probably wouldn’t have tried this with other (non-tablet) mindmapping programs because the keyboard clicking sounds would have been distracting even if I had my screen tilted down (removing a barrier between me and others). The smooth gliding of a pen across a tablet screen is unobtrusive, and not all that different from writing on (somewhat glowy) paper.

As it turned out, the necessity of writing in the input box caused a bit more mental friction than drawing on a blank canvas in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. (The input box size is configurable, but there are tradeoffs as you have to make your gestures outside the box.) I also ended up redoing the whole summary in Sketchbook because I wanted it to have more personality and a more compact layout. So no time savings for real-time visual notetaking, at least for me, although it was good to be able to reorganize points as needed.

I’ve also been using MindManager for keyboard-based brainstorming. It has a number of nifty features for project management and map navigation, but I haven’t made them part of the way I work.

MindManager’s handwriting recognition and pen controls are high on coolness factor and they’re pleasant to use, but considering that I can get the other features I care about for free with XMind, I’m not particularly keen on the $399 price for MindManager. Might be a good fit for other people, but I’ll hold off getting it for now.

Still, good to know what’s out there!

Related links:

The work of self-understanding

I’ve been taking advantage of the company’s free e-counseling service to pick a counselor’s brain about marriage. When I told the counselor (Sue) about how I thought my way through tough situations by mindmapping, writing, and drawing, she asked me how I learned how to do that.

I don’t know. I remember reading books about mindmapping and note-taking when I was a grade-schooler raiding my mom’s books on productivity and learning. I found it to be a useful way of getting ideas out without having to put them in order first. Writing became my way of thinking through things I wanted to understand more, like my options for university or how I felt about a crush. Although this occasionally led to some embarrassment (like when my mom stumbled across my notes for the latter), it was a useful practice, and I’m glad I got into it.

I looked for interesting techniques, and I experimented with them. One of the classes in my mechanical and industrial engineering master’s degree turned out to have great insights into the limitations of the human brain and some tools for making better decisions, like decision tables. In Built to Last, I learned about the genius of the “and” – that even when it seems to be a choice between A or B, you may be able to find an option that combines the best of both. Books like Problem Solving 101 reinforced the value of making decision trees, examining your assumptions, and exploring your alternatives.

Diagrams, journal entries, drawings, and blog posts helped me think whenever I needed to understand something. When W- hinted that he liked me, I was so nervous, I prattled. It was only when I stayed up late to mindmap my thoughts and figure out what I felt that I could write my response in a letter. When my parents raged and wept with disapproval, I filled pages with mindmaps and lists of possible outcomes and ways to move forward. I use these tools for good stuff, too, drawing what an even better life might be like and writing about how I can help make it happen.

It’s not about driving emotion out of the picture. In fact, the logical structures of decision-making diagrams and tools can help you understand and harness emotions. By themselves, emotions can be overwhelming – a jumble of inchoate thoughts and inarticulate sensations. When you slow down and focus on a single thread, it becomes easier to untangle your thoughts. Even the seemingly logic-oriented process of listing pros and cons reveals your preferences and emotions, if you listen carefully to yourself. It’s not about the numbers of advantages or disadvantages you can list, or the objective factors you consider – in fact, you get even more valuable information when your instinctive reaction goes against what you think you should feel.

This is the work of self-understanding – of identifying and examining your assumptions, developing and articulating your intuition, and broadening your alternatives. Diagrams, journal entries, blog posts, and drawings are tools that you can use to externalize your thoughts, getting them out of your head and into a form that you can review and understand. They’re also useful when you need help remembering your reasons and sticking to a decision, or re-evaluating a decision when the situation changes.

Investing time and energy into learning how to make better decisions pays off, because you will make so many decisions in your lifetime. Reflection helps you separate external influences from what you really think and feel. If you ignore your intuition or bury your emotions under the pressure of external influences, it will be harder and harder to use those tools to make decisions in the future, and then you’ll wake up one day and wonder where your life went. On the other hand, the more you trust yourself, the easier it becomes to know yourself. Although making your own decisions means making mistakes along the way, those mistakes are invaluable because they help you learn more about your path.

Here’s where I like taking that one step further: I sometimes post these in-between thoughts and reflections (and mistakes!) to get more insights and to share what I’ve learned. This is scary. We don’t want to be vulnerable, and we don’t want to bore people with the details of our lives. But as it turns out, thinking out loud helps inspire other people. Like the way I learned to recognize assumptions, situations, and alternatives by reading books and blog posts about other people’s lives, people peeking into my life can use whatever insights they pick up to make their own lives better. It also helps other people see the value of reflection and self-understanding, and who knows what I’ll be able to learn from them if they build on that?

Good stuff. Try it out.

Visual organizers

I love visual organizers. 2×2 matrices, mindmaps, fishbone diagrams, even more interesting ways to structure and organize ideas… Just as a wider vocabulary helps you express more when you speak, a wider visual vocabulary helps you express more when you think and draw.

Here are some sources for inspiration:

Also interesting – tools: http://www.visual-literacy.org/pages/maps/mapping_tools_radar/radar.html