Use Mind Maps to organize your thoughts, and life

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By Richard Murphy

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 percent, 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 organizing 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 White-out, 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 center, 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 benefitted 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 box radiating from the center, 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 want 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 realize the time it can save you and the things you can do with it. I've still found no better way to organize 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 MindGenius because the business version does everything I ask of it, and the price is reasonable (about @285 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 $58. 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 Buzan Organisation Ltd

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