FreeMind and project planning

Over the past couple of weeks I've been trying out FreeMind, an open source mind-mapping) tool, and I think it's got a lot to offer.

Now, I should make it clear from the start that I'm a word person. I'm not really an image person -- I can't draw, I don't visualize things easily, and I often have trouble deciphering icons (on computers, in airports, etc) because I don't understand what they represent. Even my dreams often have voice-over narrators or subtitles. But because I know I don't use that part of my brain very often or very well, I sometimes think that I should at least try.

My only previous exposure to mind-mapping was (1) from some personal-growth book I read years ago which used maps as a tool for exploring aspects of the self, and (2) as a "brainstorming" exercise to use with beginning writers. Although profitable in a very localized sense, I didn't continue to explore this approach to generating or organizing ideas both because I didn't see how it could be applied to more complex situations, and because I found the process of drawing wiggly lines on the page very frustrating. (Go back to my inability to draw.) I was always anxious about running out of room on the page, I couldn't read half of what I'd written on the lines, and it was messy.

So when I read about FreeMind recently (somewhere -- lifehacker or 43 Folders or one of the other productivity blogs I allow myself to read at work) it seemed worth a look. Maybe with the expansion, revision, and precision that the computer would offer I could get something more out of mind-mapping.

So far, I've been using it mostly to generate ideas and organize sub-projects for my research. One of the things I've always struggled with in adapting GTD methodology to academic work is that I find it spot-on helpful in dealing with the day-to-day email flow, administrative tasks, etc. But planning a book, say, is a project on a very different level than even "write article" or "write grant application." Managing projects and subprojects, and especially projects with a variety of Next Actions that could be done concurrently, has always been difficult for me. In part I realized this was because reading through a list or outline imposes a linear order even to tasks which are actually potentially concurrent. For example: "look up bibliography on Topic X" and "look up bibliography on Topic Y" could be done in any order. And I need a way of organizing those sub-projects (in GTD-speak, a Project is anything that will take more than one Action to complete it) that lets me see their relationship to each other as well as to the larger project(s) of which they are a part. FreeMind has so far been really useful, both for generating/capturing ideas and also for organizing my workflow.

It's fairly intuitive to use -- the only weird thing I had to dig in the wiki to solve was that you have to start the program from the program icon each time, rather than simply clicking on an associated file in windows explorer -- something about how the java loads in means that you'll lose PDF capability that way. But that's a pretty small thing to have to remember to do. You can choose lines or bubbles for your map, color code text and bubble backgrounds, add connector lines, and even supplemental notes. Plus you can easily fold or unfold particular levels of your hierarchy, depending on what you want to see. Some people around the web are using FreeMind as an overall GTD information manager, using it to track all their Actions, Projects, etc. That's of little interest to me, but it suggests a range of ways to use this free tool to sort and capture whatever stuff you've got floating around in your head, whether for a particular project or for your whole life.

I've just begun reading one of Tony Buzan's books -- he's the MindMapping guru -- and I'm definitely intrigued. I hadn't realized how extensive was the theory behind this approach. (Nor how McLuhanesque some of it was.) What I've been using the maps for doesn't exactly fit into his scheme, which emphasizes using only single words (for concepts, ideas) on each associative branch, but I'm willing to give his style of mindmapping a try for some other purposes. My very reservations about it (not being able to draw, not liking messy documents) go against his whole philosophy, which is about unlocking all parts of your brain. Which probably means I could benefit from giving it a try. Buzan sells his own proprietary mindmapping software (which I haven't looked at yet) so computers are allowed, at least.

There's a lot out there about using mindmaps for younger students and teachers...I'd be interested to hear about people using them for scholarly projects as well.