Mind Mapping: A Mental Tool for Generating Ideas and Solving Problems

When doing creative work, you need a reliable system to capture, organize, develop, and connect ideas. In law practice, it is common to start with linear note-taking or list-making before you move to project implementation and delivery. In standard outlines, you have a main point that is followed by a sub-point and related sub-points. But making connections in a purely linear way is hard, because the human brain processes information more intuitively and randomly.

Linear note-taking is common in meetings, conferences, lectures, and brainstorming sessions. It’s what most analytical and rational thinkers use to capture ideas, summarize key points, and outline action steps.

But mind mapping is a more effective note-taking method to connect ideas around a central topic, recall and retain information, activate creative thinking, and see the big picture. In this article, you’ll learn what mind maps are, when to use them instead of linear notes, how to make one, and whether to go with digital or paper/whiteboard mind mapping to generate ideas and solve problems. Mind maps more accurately reflect how the brain works—jumping around between thoughts, ideas, and concepts, instead of thinking linearly from point A to point B.

Although the use of visual diagrams to display information dates back centuries, the late Tony Buzan is credited with popularizing Mind Maps, starting in the 1970s. An educational consultant and author of The Mind Map Book, Buzan commented:

“I used to take formal notes in lines of blue, and underline the key words in red, and I needed only the key words and the idea. Then to bring in connections, I drew arrows and put in images and codes. It was a picture outside my head of what was inside my head—‘Mind Map’ is the language my brain spoke.”

What is Mind Mapping

Even if you’re not sure what a mind map is, you’ve probably seen one before. Does the graph below look familiar?

mind mapping

A mind map is a visual diagram that connects ideas and information around a main topic or subject. Like a brain cell, mind maps have a core in the center, with dendrites (lines) branching out from the core to connect different concepts. The lines may incorporate images, words, colors, numbers, and other visual representations of concepts. Each idea usually has a circle or square associated with it, which is akin to headings and subheadings in linear notetaking.

When to Use Mind Mapping

Mind mapping has a wide range of benefits and purposes. Some of the ways you can use it to enhance your memory, increase focus, and organize your thoughts include…


In meetings, conferences and lectures, linear notetaking has its advantages. Most of us are taught to summarize information in the order it is being presented, especially when it relates to analytical concepts. But sometimes you need to zoom out and process the information with a more free-flowing method. Traditional notetaking has a rigid structure, while group discussions are rarely linear. Concepts, ideas, questions and comments pop up in circular ways. Visual learners, in particular, grasp new knowledge more quickly when they use mind maps instead of linear notes.


To overcome writer’s block or avoid staring at a blank page, use a mind map to think through and develop your ideas. A mind map is a creative technique you can use for any writing project, such as a legal memorandum, an article, a blog post, a book chapter, a speech or a report. When you draw out ideas on one page in a mind map, you are more likely to connect dots that would be less obvious in linear notes on multiple pages.

Brainstorming and Choosing Ideas

If you want to inspire or motivate work on a project, mind mapping will help. It is a flexible tool to brainstorm ideas, explore different paths, and activate both the left side and right side of the brain. You could write the problem statement in the center, and then map out the various paths to a solution.

When you write down a central theme and then draw lines branching out to nodes with related themes, you can dig deeper into the creative well. With mind mapping, you allow your mind to jump around and freely make connections. You can also more readily combine divergent (creative, expansive) thinking with convergent (rational, linear) thinking. A mind map helps you to capture various ideas and then hone in on the ideas that work best.

Planning and Strategizing

Mind maps can be used to visually show a system or a process for planning events, setting goals, preparing presentations, building strategies and managing projects. They help you see the moving parts and multiple steps within a whole. If you would like to tell a story in a presentation, for example, you can draw a mind map to create the overall picture of things to share.

A mind map improves your perception, and helps you spot gaps in information that needs to be collected and researched. It allows you practice radiant thinking, in which your mind makes connections in different directions and relays how they all tie together.

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making

With mind mapping, you can frame and reframe problems, find multiple pieces of information, and present ideas more clearly. A mind map may come in the form of a decision tree, which lays out the various strategies to solve a problem, the possible outcomes, and the costs and benefits of each path. The flexible layout of a mind map creates links between thoughts that make it easier to spot the most effective route or efficient path to reach a desired result.

Mind mapping improves creative problem-solving and reduces decision fatigue. You can use it in the exploratory phases of a project where you reflect on different parts of a problem and generate innovative ideas. You can also use it in the implementation stage to expand on the details and make progress toward completion.

Learning New Information

In representing clients, lawyers need to know key facts, and understand the existing obstacles and possible solutions in each matter. Information overload is best tackled with having a structured overview of how important parts of a case intersect. As a visual-thinking tool, a mind map enables you to analyze information, learn the main points at a glance, memorize details, and connect the multiple elements within a complex problem. It helps you to be both focused and open-minded by showing core concepts in one flexible layout.

Collaborating with Others

When you use mind maps to capture information and connect ideas that you get over time, you may then share them with others in collaborative projects. Individual, chaotic thoughts can be converted into an organized mind map that is logical, comprehensive, and detailed enough to implement a project from start to finish. A mind map is a visual tool for all team members to share their ideas and use as talking points for discussions.

How to Mind Map

The structure and format of your mind map depends on personal choice. Overall, it matters very little whether you use text-only mind maps or use visuals. There is no one right way to create a mind map.

A mind map is like a tree: the root is the central idea and the branches are the related ideas. You can use words and numbers to stimulate the analytical side of your brain, and images and colors to activate the creative part of your brain.

You start in the center with a word, image or other visual that represents your main idea, concept or topic. Then, you build branches to create “parent nodes” that each represent a sub-idea, sub-concept or sub-topic. Next, you flesh out each node with its own set of sub-ideas, sub-concepts or sub-topics. These are called “child nodes.” Any node that is on the same level (i.e., share the same parent node) are referred to as “sibling nodes.”

Mind Mapping with Pen and Paper

With an (erasable) pen and paper or dry eraser marker and whiteboard, you can draw out your mind map in your own handwriting. You start with a main idea in the center, and build branches or nodes around it. Each branch or node represents a sub-idea that is interconnected with the main idea and other sub-ideas to make a whole plan.

To get started on mind mapping, you really just need pen and paper, especially in silo projects. Play and have fun with the process. Unless you need to present the mind map to others and impress them with it, you do not need impeccable penmanship or spectacular drawing skills. As long as you can read what you wrote, a hand-drawn mind map is enough to reap the benefits.

Mind Mapping with Software

Digitizing your mind maps with software has its upsides. One advantage is you are not limited by the size of the paper or whiteboard used in a hand-drawn mind map. It is also easier to modify and move things around on a mind map, save it, share it when it is digitized.

A wide variety of mind mapping software and apps are used to create digital mind maps. In terms of design, ease of use, portability, synching, and sharing options, the most popular are:

While mind mapping software has its advantages, the tool you use is not as important as the process itself. When you are just starting out, keep it simple, and go with the pen-and-paper method. Once you get the hang of mind mapping, you can switch to digital if you prefer.

About the Author

WilliamsDyan Williams practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She also is a productivity coach for lawyers, small business owners and other busy people. She blogs at dyanwilliams.com and dyanwilliamslaw.com.

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