If you're like me, you've probably been spending a lot of time alone with your thoughts lately. You might be building palaces in your brain to escape to or you might be deep in the trenches of anxiety and doubt. Wherever your mind is taking you lately, it's bound to feel a little chaotic in there. Just the simple act of checking the front page of the New York Times is capable of making anyone have a panic attack over all of the problems facing us. As humans we have an innate need to fix problems, so you're probably generating ideas at the speed of light lately. But where is all of that brain power and energy going? Probably nowhere. It's sitting in your head, rolling around like a bowling ball and keeping you from actually getting anything done or just being able to sit down, relax, and pay attention to an episode of Gilmore Girls (too specific?).
This is not a new problem for me and many others who struggle with anxiety. I like to describe my anxiety as someone banging the same key on a piano over and over, unable to start an actual melody. Once my brain encounters a problem it is unable to move onto anything else until that problem has been solved. It also unfortunately has a tendency to race around an endless track of uncertainty and fear with that problem and spiral down into what Anne of Green Gables would refer to as, "the depths of despair." After going down several of these spirals in quarantine, I decided to revisit an old tool of mine from undergrad: Mind Mapping.
If you've never heard of Mind Mapping before it can sound very cerebral and pretentious, but in practice it is anything but. Mind Mapping is a way to visually express questions and ideas and map the train of thought that follows them. It's an exciting, interactive way to develop ideas and keep the clutter in your brain to a minimum (although my parents and roommates have had a tendency to complain about that clutter ending up all over the walls).
Mind Mapping was popularized in the 1970's by Tony Buzan, a British TV personality and author. Buzan argued the Mind Mapping had the potential to help people with reading comprehension, developing ideas, and following lines of logic. Though Buzan may have popularized the idea, Mind Mapping, Concept Charting, and Modelling Graphs have been around since the Middle Ages. One of the first Mind Maps was created by Porphyry of Tyre and shows him trying to make sense of Aristotle's Categories.
The standard Mind Map centers around a single concept and the questions and ideas surrounding it branch out like tree roots. Below is a Mind Map I made in the preliminary stages of writing my undergraduate honors thesis:
But a Mind Map doesn't have to look exactly like that. Currently, I have become pretty obsessed with Post-It Notes (seriously, someone give me an advertising contract already). I like to start with one central question or idea and then organize my train of thought in colorful notes on my walls, so I can follow my own line of logic. Here's some examples:
In this Mind Map, I was working to create an intentional morning routine that revolved around my ultimate goal: starting a pay what you can theatre company. I started with a single question and then added on prompts as I went. I left myself an open ended question to answer everyday, so that I have to consistently interact with the map. This not only helped me speak my truth, but it also gave me a joyful thing to take part in each morning.
In this Mind Map I took four categories I wanted to focus on: my social and web presence, my graduate school application process, my reach out plan (blog post to come on this topic), and my creative career. I then broke those categories down into goals and actions, making sure every goal had an action step that correlated with it. This map helps me break down large goals into bite-sized pieces that I can manage. It also helps to keep my anxiety from taking me on an unplanned vacation to the "depths of despair" when I think of my to-do list.
This Mind Map is just starting out and its job is to help me write personal statements for graduate school applications. It starts with helping me define my core values, then looks at what experiences in my life helped shape those values and continues on to explore what goals I am setting to help serve those values. I can't stand following an outline when I write, so I create Mind Maps instead. I feel like I get a much clearer picture of what I want to write and I also love being able to visually track how my ideas evolve.
Finally, this isn't really a Mind Map, but it's a result of Mind Mapping and a necessary final step in the process. Each week the Mind Maps I create help guide me to the meetings I need set, the projects I need to focus on, and the people I need to reach out to. This final step makes sure that my Mind Maps aren't just pretty fixtures on my walls; they're leading to something.
If you're feeling overwhelmed right now, please know that is completely normal. If you're feeling like you can't make sense of the world in its current state, me too. I would implore you to start with just one question or just one idea and go from there. You can't solve it all and you can't make everything make sense, but if you can make sense of one thing or create a plan to tackle one goal, then you have created a little piece of calm in the middle of chaos.