Current work environments are quite often very complex. Our jobs are no longer about working on one specific task at a time. No matter what role you are in: developer, manager, leader, QA, project coordinator – it is pretty common that, everyday, you have to deal with:
- interruptions from several communication channels,
- tracking things blocking you that depends on other people actions,
- managing lists of requests promised to be delivered at or up to a specific time,
- maintaining a list of small tasks that needs to be done, both ASAP and at a specific time,
- keeping checklists that help you perform repeatable activities,
- storing lists of ideas, concepts, stuff that is not worth forgetting,
- and possibly maintaining relationships between all of the above!
The list can be easily expanded depending on your working environment and position. For someone not used to it or not working in similar conditions it might look a little bit exaggerated. Trust me – many of us work in the exact same conditions.
There are classic, well known ways to tackle the problems encountered by many individuals. You are pretty familiar with creating to do lists (digital and analog), maintaining specific email labels, using Excel sheets for more complicated matters and planning your activities with calendar applications. However, as the number of topics rises it becomes harder and harder to maintain it properly. Without a centralized place and strict handling rules, chaos slowly seeps into the system, increasing frustration, lowering productivity and causing more and more to fail. So how do you easily setup a flexible system binding all your staff together? One of the worthwhile ways to try is to simply use a digital mind map.
Before I dig into details, let me elaborate a little about the idea behind a mind map (if you are familiar with the concept, just jump to next paragraph). A mind map is a diagram with the intention to visually organize information (check out the example below). With the main idea in its center, it expands in all directions, getting into specific areas of the core thought. It has the same structure as a graph whilst quite often also being a tree (just ignore this sentence if you do not have an IT background). The further the node from the center, the more specific it is. Such organization allows you to easily add new information and concepts in any chosen place. Thanks to its specific structure mind mapping is claimed to have increased effectiveness over other forms of making notes.
There are several desktop and web based tools that allow you to draw mind maps. Here are a few popular ones:
- Mindmap – free, desktop based,
- Freeplane – free, desktop based, 2007 forked from Mindmap,
- Docear – free, desktop based, 2011 forked from Freeplane
- mindmeister.com – freeware, web based,
- mindmup.com – freeware, web based,
For a more detailed list with feature comparison check out this article. I personally prefer Mindmap due to its simplicity.
Lets show in practice how you can use the mind map concept to get all your staff under control. You can start with the draft displayed below:
Name its center whatever you wish – I usually use the project name that the mind map is about. Branches defines categories that incoming stuff falls into. I am used to putting everything I am unable to easily categorize or handle immediately into the inbox. Just make sure you empty your inbox often (at least once a day) so you don’t end up with an unmanageable list again! Most of the other categories are quite self-explanatory:
- actions – put only actionable items here, that you can handle whenever you would like to,
- promised – do not forget to include due date and to whom you have promised the task,
- waiting for – it is good habit to include your last interaction date here. Due date and who you are waiting for are a must,
- reminders – stuff that is not too important to put it into a calendar, but still worth remembering about,
- incubation – all ideas, thoughts, possible actions – whatever comes to your mind and things you would not like to forget about,
- reference – all stuff which might be needed some time. Depending on size, you can put it into a new mind map.
I encourage you to modify, add and delete any nodes. Use it in the most suitable way for you. Just keep in mind that each node shouldn’t branch too much. 7 children is border line after which you should consider an additional branching level and new grouping. That’s why I have divided actions node into several categories. A filled and currently used for work mind map might look like this:
As you can see, a lot of ideas are easily caught and bound in one place. What’s very important – it scales. It is possible to triple information presented above and still have it clear and maintainable.
The aim of mind mapping is increasing effectiveness of learning, remembering and organization. The whole process is easier, faster and less mundane in comparison to traditional ways. Moreover, instead of creating dozens of lists and notes, it is possible to easily bind them together in one system. Check it out for yourself and let me know your feelings.