Speeding up visual thinking: mindmaps

If you are an engineer, mindmaps are kind of easy. But they feel kind of slow. Do not worry, we can speed them up in no time.

The methods below are less suited for advanced students who often need to combine mindmaps with mental palaces. They are also somewhat different from the methods discussed in our other resources. Try them. This variation might be just what you need.

The humble origins on mindmapping

As an engineer, I prefer to work with the flowcharts rather than multicolored multidimensional biomorphic mindmaps we occasionally see in popular arts. This means: I build up a tree of concepts and follow it. Trees are not very economic to draw on board but great for computerized approach and similar visualizations.

In fact, mindmaps were inspired by various mental trees like the tree of life with all the species on it. The people who build mindmaps, like Tony Buzan, noticed that these trees do not cover paper particularly well and leave a lot of empty space. So they started building up radial structures. They also noticed that adding color and details make the mindmaps more memorable: there is much more stuff for the mind to grasp.

Speed from structure

As an engineer, I feel somewhat disoriented by more decorated mindmaps. I want very simple mental trees, and I want to travel them FAST. So I start by using very simple radix 5 trees, ground left to right. This means that each branch has 5 smaller branches coming out of it. For less than 5 branches I keep and reuse an empty branch visualization. I do not add color to the branches. This way, if I need to move the branch somewhere else, it simply moves. I might add different colors to the beginning and the end of each branch to ensure connectivity with branches before and after it.

Such a structure is easy to construct and easy to travel. It is somewhat less memorable.

Reduce dimensionality

An additional thing helping with visual thinking is a reduction of details. Unlike mental palaces, mindmaps are essentially two-dimensional objects. The things we place on them can be very simple. For example, we can place very simple formulas like E=mc^2.

We can also use various stylized images like comics figures and brand logos. Remember the S sign of the Superman and the hydrogen sign of Dr Manhatten in DC comics? The comics figures are great for mindmaps. We can use complete comics squares with a person performing an action on an object, maybe up to four figures per square.

2D figures and simple left-to-right structure simplifies revisiting the mindmaps. We can fly above them, seeing the branches expand as we go.

Ghost maps

Suppose you read something very fast and remember 10% of what you read. It makes no sense building an elaborate mindmap, but it makes no sense to forget either. So we build ghost maps. They are less detailed than the regular maps and easier to manipulate. No color coding for the map, and do not try to control the radix of the tree. All you need is a sort of structure and some placeholders for the visualization you right.

The ghost maps are not memorable. When you review the article either by thinking about it or by rereading it, do not try to follow the ghost maps as-is but build good maps using the materials you savage from the original constructs. It is much easier to construct a mindmap when you have an approximate understanding of its structure.


Another computer-related aspect I introduce to my maps is hyperlinking. Some visualizations are associated with actions. “Clicking” such a visualization navigates me to a different visualization on a different mindmap.

Our visual thinking is not linear, and we do not need to adhere to the structure of the text we read. The visual constructs we create can be more active, effectively linking different content worlds.


In the middle of the mindmap we find a big fat visualization that explains the whole mindmap. Usually, it encodes between 5 and 9 words. We should spend some extra time building this anchor visualization. Typically we start building it when reading the title but, we do not finalize it. After reading the entire article we revisit this visualization, modifying and adding details.

Adding roots

When we think about an article, we often build a second mindmap. I suggest adding it as “roots” for the mind tree. Basically, this is another tree growing from the anchor in an opposite direction. Only this time we encode our own thoughts and not what we read. I would suggest using a different texture of lines (like adding some curliness to them) to distinguish our own ideas from the original stuff.

To build roots faster it makes sense progressing where imagination takes us. Sometimes we add depth, and other times we focus on breadth considering multiple options. The speed comes from allowing visual thinking to roam freely.

Do not be constrained

Occasionally it makes sense ruining the perfect structure of a tree. If there is a feedback do not be afraid to add it. Natural trees also not always have the most perfect shape.

Your mindmaps are there to allow your visual thinking to generate associations and place them very fast in prepared slots.  As your visual thinking may take strange turns, it might be better to follow the way it takes you rather than making it go in a certain direction.

If you have a visual association and do not know where to place it, make a ghost map. If you get a structure but not what is in it, you may leave blank branches. The focus is on speed and convenience.

Remake your mindmaps

Since mindmaps are very flexible, you can modify them later, adding curtain visual properties of more memorable structures: texture, connectivity, personalization.  You can do this after finishing the original map. If you want you can combine multiple maps. Just do not do this too often, and try to minimize the added modifications.


If you want to write at 10000 words per day, one of the best ways is constructing the mindmap first and then writing from it. Take branches from several trees into your new tree and revisit it until it gets reasonable. Then simply describe your mental tree on paper.


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