productivity :: balance :: freelancing :: notebooking

In Parts One, Two, and Three of this series, I told my stories about using mindmaps to help sort out what’s happened during the year that’s ending and making a plan for the year that’s about to start — and about, how, as I recovered from a very bad depression, I was able to use these mindmaps more productively and go from vague ideas to actual action plans.

In this post, I’ll outline the steps for making your own year-end mindmap. Give it a shot, it’s cathartic and satisfying, and can be really fun.

Step by step

  1. Get some big paper. You can tape sheets of regular paper together, use packing paper or butcher paper, use the back of wrapping paper, or buy a roll of cheap “easel” paper for kids.
  2. Find a place to work. I roll out paper on my big dining room table and tape the corners down. You might want to work on this over the course of a few days, so if your kitchen or dining room table is used for other things — like dining — you might opt to put your paper up on a wall or the back of a door (and work vertically).
  3. Gather some writing implements that make you happy. It might be your favorite black gel pen, it might be a set of colorful markers. Whatever you feel excited to write with at the moment.
  4. Pleasant-i-fy your work environment. This is going to be a longish, inward-looking creative marathon, so get comfortable. As few distractions as possible, some nice music, mood lighting, coffee, tea or a glass of wine… you know the drill. As the nice man on my sleep meditation app says in his soothing Scottish accent, “This is your time. Time for you.”
  5. Center yourself. You can take this literally, figuratively, or both. For the former, write something at the center of your paper that will be the topic of your mindmap. I usually put the date of the coming year. But anything’s fine. For the latter, close your eyes, take a deep breath and clear you mind of other things.
  6. Start one way or another. You can begin by making the first bunch of “main branches” that occur to you. Maybe there are a bunch of areas of your life you know you want to brainstorm about (family, health, money, home, work, etc.). Make a branch off your center for each of those. Or, maybe you want to just dive into them one at a time. Draw your first branch and start making twigs off of it.
    • I find it pleasing to use a different color for each branch and its twigs, but you don’t have to, by any means.
    • I find it handy to draw out a bunch of main branches, so that even if I’m focusing deeply on one, I can jump to another to stick in something that occurs to me.
  7. Keep going until you’re empty. You can take breaks of course. I usually do this over several days, myself. But the idea is to draw twigs out of each topic for everything that occurs to you until you don’t feel like you’ve left any direction or thought unturned — and maybe, though you shouldn’t pressure yourself — you’ve come up with some stuff you want to pursue.
    • Be as un-self-censoring as possible. Let yourself go. Don’t worry what it looks like. Don’t worry if it’s a huge mess and you tape extra bits of paper on or cross things out. Don’t worry if it says stuff that, if you were to look at objectively, you might decide is dumb. You can be as whimsical as you like here. Write down possibilities that don’t seem remotely feasible. Write down things you want to remember even if they don’t seem important. Get everything out of your head, and let that stuff spark other stuff. You don’t have to show this to anyone. You don’t have to read it over when it’s done, and you don’t have to keep it. Just GO.
    • You can create an offshoot for a topic that reviews what happened in the past year. It could contain just the facts, or also your interpretation and analysis. You can even ask yourself questions within your map. Mine often have sections that are a bit like flowcharts with boxes asking “Why?” or “What if?” and multiple possible answers.
    • You can focus only on the future if you’d prefer. I like to make min-branches for all the possible futures of a thing, exploring the feasible and fantastical options. Maybe a goal for the year is to exhibit art publicly. I could have a branch-lette exploring putting a photograph in a low-stress local art show at a community center and I could have a branch-lette figuring out my guesses as to what it would take to put on a highly publicized solo exhibit in a city gallery. And other branches looking at options in between.
    • You can mix new years resolutions with vague ideas. You don’t have to commit to anything in this map. Just let it all out.
  8. When you don’t feel like there’s anything left in your head to write, wrap up in one of these ways:
    • Look it over. Highlight the items you want to actively pursue. Transfer these to your to do system. You might have items that go with different project lists, or a “someday/maybe” list, next week’s to do list or a future log. Put the items where they go so you’ll be sure to take care of them, or at least reconsider them at the right time.
    • Or, don’t look it over at all. roll it up, wrap an elastic around your scroll, write the date on the outside, and store it away somewhere. Look at it next new years and see what happened and what didn’t. Consider it your transcription of possible intentions.
    • Or, keep it on your wall and check in on things throughout the year. Add notes, check things off.
    • Or, think of it as a exercise in emotional release and burn it up in the fireplace. Or paper shredder. Or tear it up and recycle it. Use it for hamster bedding.
    • Or, do whatever feels right to you. There are no rules.

Big paper is your friend

Of course, the mindmap technique works for lots more than just annual reviews. I make mini ones sometimes to weed through tricky problems or to generate ideas — from the technical to the creative to the emotional.

I grab big paper when I start complicated projects and make all kinds of hybrid mindmap/diagram/bullet list messes to sort things out and ideate. I’ve done this for websites, for a film I was working on, even for ways I wanted to improve my apartment. The big paper makes me feel like I have more room for a problem and permission to think more expansively.

I know someone who always has an easel and a pad of big paper set up in their workspace to make notes and lists and work through problems. You know I love my notebook, but sometimes big paper is the magic you need.

I hope this has given you some ideas or the motivation to roll out some bigger brainstorms as the year comes to an end.

I’m looking forwarded to doing a new mindmap this year, during the last week of the year, which is coming up soon. I’ll let you know how that goes. How do you use mindmaps? Do you have a yearly wrap-up/planning ritual?

Happy mapping!

Also published on Medium.

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