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Environment Free of Distraction
Too Much Is Eventually Enough
Mind MapsI first encountered the idea of mind maps in a speed reading class that I took in college. (The class wasn't a college class, that's just where I was when I took it.) I'd been curious about speed reading for a while, about whether it really worked, and I took the class to find out. (The answer: sort of. It can be done, but it takes practice and intense concentration to do right, and even then you don't get as much out of the book as you would reading it normally. Since I mostly read for pleasure, it wasn't something I wanted to pursue further.)
I forgot most of what I'd learned pretty quickly, but one thing stuck with me, and that was the idea of mind maps. The idea has blurred and mutated for me since then, so I can't give you a complete description of the original form, but I can still tell you a few things about it.
Here's how it worked. Starting with an empty sheet of paper, first you'd draw a vertical line down the middle. Then, off that line you'd draw horizontal lines, and label them with the names of characters (or something). Then, off those, you'd draw diagonal lines representing something, maybe events, maybe in some kind of order across the line.
So, the idea was, you'd read for a while, then stop and write down what was in your mind, to make a map of it, you know, hence the name. The point, I think, was twofold. First, the process of making the particular map would help you organize your thoughts, and that, in turn, would help you retain what you'd just read and also focus on and absorb what you were going to read next. Second, the regular practice of map-making would make you more able to create the same kind of schematic representations in your mind, on the fly. If you want to read and understand quickly, that's what you need.
Now let me tell you how I currently use mind maps. Basically, I've discarded all the structure above, and am left with the raw idea of creating a representation of what's in my mind.
I know that's pretty vague, so here's an example, a mind map that I made a few weeks before The Matrix Reloaded came out. You can see that movie down in the lower left corner, indirectly connected to The Core, which I was also planning to go see (unfortunately).
Hopefully that gives you a better idea what I'm talking about. I censored a lot of it, I know, but a representation of what's in one's mind is a very personal thing!
So, that's a low-level description of how I use mind maps. Next I'd like to try a higher-level description, one that will also address the questions of when and why I use them.
The question of when is the easiest to answer. There's a feeling I get sometimes, of being confused and overwhelmed, of having too much going on in my mind. Are you familiar with that? I imagine it has to do with the limitations of short-term memory. In any case, that is an ideal time to make a mind map.
What I like to do, then, is sit down for a few minutes with pen and paper handy and just let my thoughts roll along, sort of as in that nice passage at the end of Environment Free of Distraction. Anything that seems important, that I think I ought to remember or be thinking about, I write down, then there's no danger of forgetting it, and I can let it go for the time being. In that way I figure out what's really on my mind.
And, usually, what's on my mind is just what you'd expect: some plans for the near future that I'm sorting out, plus maybe some events from the near past that I'm still pondering. When I write down the plans and events, I sometimes also write down the nouns that go with them, the persons, places, and things that are involved.
The whole process always reminds me of meditation. I really don't know the first thing about meditation, so take this with a grain of salt, but here's how I see the relation between the two. What I do is undirected thinking. If I do it for long enough, eventually my thoughts wind down … I sit for a few seconds not thinking about anything in particular, then I realize what I want to do next, and go do it. That state of not thinking, I imagine, is the goal of meditation.
The problem I have with staying in that state is that there's no natural end to it. If I'm going to get up and do something else, I might as well do it right away, otherwise I'd just be sitting there all day long. See what I mean? It's a tautology: if you've really managed to get yourself into a state of not thinking, it's surely not going to be an internal event that makes you get up.
Now, here's the funny thing. I haven't used it much, yet, but I did recently stumble on a workaround, a trick that, um, works around the problem. What happened was, I bought a kitchen timer (for other reasons), and then realized I could use it as an external event to make me get up. But I digress.
Mind maps have other uses, too. Instead of writing down everything that's on your mind, you can restrict yourself to one particular topic, in which case making a map is a lot like brainstorming. I do that sometimes when I'm programming, for example when I'm trying to write some code that has to satisfy certain complex conditions and I just can't seem to figure out a good design.
By the way, one thing that's especially fun about mind maps and programming is that mind maps will often end up containing fragments of other kinds of graphs: entity-relation diagrams, relations between modules and subsystems, flowcharts, function-dependency graphs, dependencies between files, network connectivity diagrams, and so on.
Another possibility is that instead of restricting yourself to a particular topic, you can shift the emphasis from thoughts that are currently active to thoughts that show up over and over, in which case you get something a lot like urticator.net. I'm forced to write it all down as prose so that it will make sense to other people, but basically it's just a giant mind map. (I just said more or less the same thing in the essay Understand.)
So, that's what I know about mind maps. It's not a technique I use every day, but when I do use it, it is just the right thing. So, maybe you'll find it useful too.
Or, maybe you already do find it useful. I have no idea how widespread the idea is, or where it originally came from. The one friend I asked about it said yes, she'd learned about them in school, and thought they were entirely commonplace. I'm not curious enough to investigate for myself, but if you know anything, I'd be glad to hear it.
In Other Contexts
@ June (2004)