What do you do if you don’t understand something?
Keep reading the same sentence over and over again? Maybe that will work. Maybe it won’t.
Or you could grab some coloured pens and mind map out the content.
This is what I do when I’m struggling to understand something. And this has worked for me without fail for the past 10 years.
Whilst I’m sold on mind mapping, I realise you may not be. Common barriers to mind mapping are time (“It takes too long”) and the perception of a lack of artistic ability (“I can’t draw”).
But here’s the thing: I’m time poor and I can’t draw particularly well but I haven’t let that stop me.
You see, mind mapping is actually insanely easy to do and if you practice and silence your inner critic you can save a whole heap of time studying.
A student recently said to me –
“I thought mind mapping would take a lot of time to do but actually it saves me time because I don’t have to read my notes over and over anymore”
Mind mapping helps you to study less because you understand the information at a deep level as a result of creating mind maps. If you just read your notes over and over chances are you’ll only understand the content at a superficial level and you’re going to waste a lot of time.
So if you’re serious about reclaiming your time and being able to study less and do more of the things you really want to do, then it’s worth giving mind mapping a shot.
Below are 5 important things you should keep in mind when you first start mind mapping.
1. Draw Pictures, even if they look rubbish
Draw lots of pictures. When you get sick of drawing, take a deep breathe and continue to draw some more pictures.
The Picture Superiority Effect shows that humans retain more information about an idea when it’s conveyed as a picture than just using words on their own (check out this 30 second explanation).
You don’t actually have to draw pretty pictures on your mind maps. Pretty, intricate pictures are actually a distraction from doing what you have to do when you mind map: learn information at a deep level.
And if the picture is absurd and exaggerated, that’s even better for aiding memory retention and recall.
2. Create your own mind maps
A year 11 student got really annoyed with me a few years ago because I didn’t give her a copy of a mind map I’d created before her human biology test.
Here’s the thing: it wouldn’t have made much difference if I had given it to her.
Why? Because she didn’t create it.
You don’t learn complex information very well (if at all) by looking at someone elses mind map and absurd images. You get the edge by taking the time to think through the different ideas and map them out.
Sorry, there are no short cuts. You have to put pen to paper.
3. Be proud of your mind maps
People can be patronizing and even down right rude when they see you mind mapping. I experienced this several times in law school. “Isn’t that cute!” students would say as they saw me mind map out legal ideas. But looking back, I can’t help but think that maybe these people were slightly insecure.
If someone makes a comment like “Cute pictures!” or “That technique doesn’t work for me. I need to take notes on my laptop” just smile politely, say something like “You have to do what works best for you” and carry on mind mapping.
4. Pen and paper works best for mind mapping (not a computer or iPad)
Don’t get me wrong, I think technology is great but just not for mind mapping. When you mind map you want a sense of freedom to explore ideas. You don’t want to be limited in any way and you certainly want all your senses to be engaged.
As Luc Glasbeek offers –
“It [mind mapping by hand] provides more cognitive stimulation than, say, a smart phone which reduces our world to a sterile and odorless screen barely the size of a coaster. This is limiting, whereas creation should be about expansion and freedom and discovery and roaming.
There’s something meditative about making a mindmap with a fountain pen, seeing the ink flow and watching it dry as we pause to gather our thoughts from time to time. Paper doesn’t crash. Paper is quiet, paper is patient.”
That’s right, paper doesn’t crash. Paper also doesn’t beep to notify you that you have a new message or email.
Despite all the amazing technological advancements, when it comes to efficient learning I believe simple methods (e.g. working with pen and paper) are often the best.
5. Use colours on your mind maps
Let’s face it, everyone loves a rainbow, especially a double rainbow. All those colours are nice to look at.
Just like your brain appreciates a rainbow, your brain prefers to look at lots of different colours on a page than just one colour (e.g. black or blue).
Using different colours for the branches on your mind map helps to separate out each of the ideas as well as highlight and group together similar ideas.
Above is a mind map on how to mind map. Whilst this mind map looks nicely illustrated and has been touched up on a computer, just remember your mind maps don’t have to be. Your mind maps can be as messy as you like. In fact, I recommend that you give yourself permission to create messy mind maps, especially if you’re a perfectionist.
So here’s a challenge for this week: set aside 20 – 30 minutes to understand some information you’ve been grappling with by creating a mind map. Grab some coloured pens, a sheet of A3 or A4 paper, a timer and work through the information (follow the tips on the mind map above). When a little negative voice says “That looks like rubbish”, keep going. When you get bogged down, create another branch. The key is to keep moving.
Treat it as a fun experiment. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t. But like anything in life, you won’t know unless you try.