A Guide to Creative Mind Mapping and Brainstorming
Mind mapping can be put to use for just about any task. Whether you want to come up with new ideas for your business, organize your thoughts when planning a big event, study a new subject, build better habits, solve problems, set goals… the list is almost endless.
But have you considered using mind mapping as a way to loosen up the creative side of your brain?
All too often we find ourselves frazzled and unable to open our minds to new ideas. This is completely understandable when we’re taking in so much new information on a daily basis. This is why it’s a good idea to regularly set aside time to brainstorm and mind map creatively.
The following exercises won’t necessarily be directly related to your end goal — whatever that may be — however, you’ll quickly see how they can open the mind to ideas you may never have thought of otherwise. Use them to improve your life and your business.
Why Use Mind Maps for Brainstorming?
These exercises can all be done with traditional pen and paper, or using a whiteboard. However, mind maps are suggested as a way to see all of the information from a new visual perspective.
Using the mind map form, you can easily see how one idea links to another, and you can see the bigger picture all at once. Using mind mapping software — such as Freemind — also means you can save and edit your mind maps at a later date.
First, Understand the Rules of Creative Mind Mapping
If you really want to make the most from your creative brainstorming sessions, then there are a few “ground-rules” to abide by. True, creativity shouldn’t be limited by rules — but have faith that these rules will actually help your creativity flourish.
- No Editing: If you really want to encourage ideas to flow freely from your mind, be careful not to edit as you go along. Who cares if you make a spelling mistake, or if something is badly phrased? This is a creative exercise and letting your inner editor out will only hinder your progress. If necessary, edit later.
- No Multitasking: Studies have shown that multitasking actually hinders productivity. Not to mention the fact that keeping your mind fixed on too many tasks won’t give it much freedom to come up with creative ideas. Set aside a fixed time period for your creative mind mapping session — e.g., 30 minutes — and focus on nothing else until that time is up.
- No Judging: Now is certainly not the time to judge your ideas. Some might seem completely random, some might seem stupid, others might seem dull, but none of that matters. Each idea — good or bad — may lead on to something else if you let it. So don’t judge them before you’ve seen the session through to the end.
- Set a Time Limit: It’s important to set a time limit for every creative session. If you don’t, you might find yourself giving up before you’ve taken the idea to the limits. You might also find that having a relatively short time limit in place — say, 10 minutes per session — will force your mind to work quicker and to come up with more ideas than you would have otherwise.
- Change Your Surroundings: If you find yourself struggling, then consider leaving your normal working space and going outside. Changing your surroundings can make a huge difference in the ideas you come up with!
Now it’s time to get started.
Exercise 1: Mind Clearing
This first exercise is something you can dedicate around 10 minutes to just to warm yourself up before getting into the deeper exercises.
No matter how much you like to think otherwise, your mind is probably thinking one way right now — the logical way. Logic is good, but it can sometimes be the enemy of creative mind mapping and brainstorming.
Use these techniques to shift gears before you move onto the other exercises:
- Free writing: Before you even start brainstorming and mind mapping, grab a pen and paper (don’t do this on your computer) and write whatever comes to mind. This means literally writing down whatever pops into your head. Do this for a set time e.g., 2 minutes.
- Here’s an example: “I’m feeling quite cold right now, it’s pretty unusual for me to be writing with a pen and paper but it feels good not to be on the computer for once. I’m not sure what to write, writing has never been my thing. Trying to think of something to write. Oops I just made a spelling mistake but who cares, I’m opening up my brain…”
- It can be as mundane or as weird as you can think of in that moment. The key is not to stop and think about what you’re writing, and not to go back and edit it (for example, don’t go back and correct that spelling mistake as in the example).
2. Opposites: First, write down 5–10 random words. Go through each of them and come up with three opposites for each word. This can be super simple, or it can be a bit tricky. The key is that it’s getting you to consider things in a different order, which will help open your mind for future brainstorming.
3. Metaphors: Choose a random set of words and come up with a metaphor that describes each one. Some examples:
- The air feels like… “being trapped inside a tumble dryer”
- My lunch tastes like… “elves massaging my taste buds”
- My feet feel like… “a baby swaddled in a blanket”
You might feel like the ideas you come up with are terrible, and that’s fine. It’s not about being a great writer, it’s about changing the way you think.
4. Creative Uses: Look around your environment. Pick an object, and list as many uses as you can for that object. These can, and probably will be, as crazy as you like. Here are some examples of uses for a pen:
- To write love letters,
- To draw on sleeping people’s faces,
- To cut through sealed boxes when you don’t have scissors,
- To playfully poke people with,
- As a spoon/ knife,
- To reach something you’ve dropped,
- As a ruler,
- And so on.
Remember, you don’t need to worry about whether the pen will actually work in these situations. The idea is to take the idea as far as you possibly can. It will probably get hard after a while, but that’s good. Make sure you set a time limit so you know how long you need to think of new ideas for.
Exercise 2: Inside the Box
Brainstorming “outside the box” is a very popular technique, and well worth doing to help you come up with completely new ideas. But you can also flip this around and brainstorm completely inside the box. Doing so can really focus your mind, since you won’t have unlimited possible answers to choose from.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Write your idea or problem in the center of the mind map, e.g., how to be more productive.
2. Choose something that limits this idea or problem, e.g., only having 15 minute chunks of time to work in.
3. Come up with as many solutions as you can, within the constraints, e.g., using your 15 minutes to delegate tasks to others, not multitasking and just focusing on one thing for 15 minutes, breaking up all tasks into smaller tasks that can be completed within 15 minutes, or even giving up some of your tasks altogether.
Why Is This Exercise Helpful?
Most of us are more than used to thinking inside our day-to-day boxes, but this task gets you to think inside a different kind of box. The limitations of that box will actually make your brain work harder to come up with more unusual ideas.
Being creative doesn’t mean that you can’t have rules — in many cases rules like this one will help take your creativity up a notch. This is particularly useful if you’ve been struggling to brainstorm ideas with no defined rules or limits.
One famous example of “inside the box” thinking was when Sony invented the Walkman. It was considered revolutionary at the time. Instead of taking the cassette recorder and adding new features, Sony actually subtracted a major feature: the recording function. But people loved it!
Exercise 3: Opposites
Here’s a fun creative exercise that will completely turn your current ideas on their head. In this exercise, you’re going to think of everything that won’t help in your current situation.
1. Start with your problem or situation in the center of the mind map.
2. Think for a few minutes about the logical solutions you would normally come up with. Write them down if it helps.
3. Now turn this on its head, forget everything logical or “right”.
4. Instead, write down every single thing you can think of that will ruin the current situation. Add each idea as a new branch on the mind map.
5. Go deeper into each brand and add sub-branches that take things through to their worst possible conclusion.
Why Is This Exercise Helpful?
Logically, we all try to see why things will work, and choose the most logical answers. Or, if we do come up with a negative idea, we’re quick to question it. However, by doing the opposite of that in this exercise you’ll actually open your mind up in a way you’re not used to.
Here’s an example:
1. Instead of thinking how you can get more done, think about what will hinder your productivity.
2. Some of the branches on your mind map will include: never making any kind of plan or schedule, allowing other people to distract you via email, phone calls and visits whenever they like, holding yourself to incredibly high standards, spending all your time learning about something but never putting anything you’ve learned into practice.
You might just find that this “opposites” exercise helps you see some of the biggest weaknesses you never knew you had.
Exercise 4: To The End
This exercise is all about taking an idea as far as you possibly can. Here’s how to do it:
1. First, write the problem or idea in the center of the mind map.
2. Then, on a new branch from the center, add the first solution that comes to mind.
3. Keep adding branches from this solution — imagine every step that will happen if that solution or idea is taken through to the end.
4. Keep doing this with each new idea or solution that relates to the central issue.
Why Is This Exercise Helpful?
When we come up with ideas, we often think we’ve thought them right through to the end. But there are usually further steps to be taken.
Here’s an example:
1. Your problem might be keeping on top of customer service with a small budget.
2. One possible solution is to hire someone else into your company, part time at first to save money. This would then: help your customers trust your business more when they know you respond to their queries in a timely manner, which in turn would mean that they’re more likely to purchase from you in future, which in turn would mean you increase your profits, allowing you to hire someone full time.
3. Alternatively, this could go a completely different direction — it’s important to consider all possible scenarios.
This is just a simple example, but you can already see in the first example how the original situation has been turned around into something more positive. You will probably find your answers get even more creative as you can see everything visually in mind map form.
How to Adapt This Exercise for a Group of People
This exercise can work even better within a group of people. Take it in turns to go through the group — each person has to offer the next logical step should the current solution be seen through to its absolute conclusion. In other words, each person in the group will be adding another branch to the mind map. This is a great way to see how your own ideas can evolve into something new when seen by fresh eyes.
Exercise 5: Unusual Answers
Asking seemingly weird questions can lead to amazing answers. Here’s how to perform this exercise:
1. Start with a theme in the center of your mind map, e.g., cars (it might or might not be related to your business or goal).
2. Create branches from the weirdest questions you can think of (see the examples below).
3. Then, answer those weird questions using sub-branches. There might be more than one possible answer for each question.
Why Is This Exercise Helpful?
Sometimes we’re so used to seeing things one way we forget that things don’t have to be that way.
Just because a car has always been used for driving, doesn’t mean it could never be used for something completely unrelated.
Here’s an example:
The main topic is cars. Here are some crazy questions you might come up with:
1. What if cars started thinking for themselves? How would people react?
2. What if people could attach wheels to their body and didn’t need cars anymore? What would cars be used for?
3. How would people react if cars were powered by exercise instead of fuel?
As you can see, this exercise can lead to some extremely creative answers.
If you’re in business, this could provide some excellent ideas for advertising and marketing. Even the “wackiest” answers could help you think of a new product or feature you haven’t tried yet.
As you can see, the point of these exercises is to get you thinking outside of your normal logical assumptions. Things don’t always have to be the way we’ve always done them, and recognizing this fact can lead to great things personally and in business.
Don’t write off these exercises as completely unrelated to what you really need to do — they will all teach you new ways to come up with ideas. Just think, some of the greatest inventions and ideas would never have happened if people didn’t learn how to think outside the box!