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Brainstorming And Mind Mapping

It's been really helpful to do some consistent brainstorming that's nothing more than getting everything that has attention out in front of me.
10/22/2007 08:00am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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On the second morning of a recent seminar, a participant shared that she had been talking enthusiastically with her family about her epiphany from the first day - how much her stress level had gone down and how much more energy she was feeling, having gotten so much off her mind by just putting it on a list. She related that her seven-year-old son then said, "That sounds like a really good idea," and he proceeded to grab some paper and started writing enthusiastically. "Wow, this is really great!" he exclaimed. She said he seemed to both light up and calm down. Obviously curious to know what he'd written, she took a peek. He had been jotting down all the names of Pokemon characters he could think of.

Now I can't say that this particular exercise in "distributed cognition" (as the psychologists might call that) would do the same thing for you. Maybe your thing would be listing all the birds you can remember seeing on your property, or all the cars you've ever owned, or all the things you might want to do on your next vacation. But rarely has any kind of "getting stuff out of my head" - silly or sublime - not been at least a little bit uplifting and relaxing. And more often than not I realize, notice, or experience something new, interesting, and/or useful. Though I've taught this to thousands of people for years, I'm still humbled when I realize how much more, and more often, I could do this for myself.

In the last few months I've been using a salutary version of this attention catharsis. I call it my "world according to..." exercise. I discovered it because lately my life and work has been rampant with infinite opportunity - much more so than usual. Tons of way cool things have been blooming from seeds we've been planting for many years - but it seems it's all happening at once! And it's been easy to experience my own brand of feeling over-committed and under-resourced - stressed out, frankly. Mind you, as the author of a book about stress-free productivity, it's always slightly embarrassing when I wind up with my own dose of anxiety-filled confusion, numbness and avoidance behaviors. (I pretend that I just let myself get into that state so I can update my research!)

But it's been really helpful to do some consistent brainstorming that's nothing more than getting everything that has attention out in front of me (I'm using mind-mapping software and a data projector - seems to make a difference to experience it "on the silver screen"). I've mind-mapped for years, but the new spin is to do it with my wife, for instance - the "World according to David and Kathryn." What has our mutual attention? Projects, home stuff, work stuff, etc. It's actually a different mind-map than one on my own. There are things that I think of, see from a different angle, because Kathryn's there. There was a subtle but very real clarity in the air, afterwards, that I'm not sure we could have experienced without the mutual mind sweep.

Here's how you can try this with yourself and the people in your world. Get some blank paper or a pad that gives you enough room to write things that may branch in all directions. Get a pen that feels good to you, or even colored pencils or markers. Make some time with yourself, your significant other, your co-workers. Ideally it's a time when you've insulated yourselves from outside interruptions. Now just let yourselves talk about your common interests -- projects, ideas, goals. It may help to walk around your house, yard, or office to stimulate more ideas. Write things down as they show up. Draw lines to connect things that are connected. You may see new connections that weren't obvious before. The key is to be accepting, even enthusiastic like that seven-year-old. You may end up with a list, a diagram, a map, or some combination of those. You can review it to see if there are projects or actions you want to commit to accomplishing. Those can be transferred to your computer, or PDA, or paper planner -- wherever you keep your lists. Beyond that, there may be things that you aren't going to move on right away, but you might at some time in the future. I have a list called Someday/Maybe where I keep all kinds of wonderful things I might want to do eventually.

I bet you'll find that this process reveals new dimensions and gives you a valuable perspective on what's important to you.

My theory is that there would be similar value for any group of people that have overlapping interests, investments, and attention. The world according to your staff, your senior team, you and your family (with each one separately, too), your hiking club, even your favorite cartoon characters - with whomever you have something in common.

The more complex our lives have become, especially as we engage with others, the trickier it is to keep our optimal perspective. Anything that helps in that regard is a very good thing. There's nothing like catching up with the present.

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You can find out more about David Allen and GTD at Davidco.com.

The David Allen Company is a professional training, coaching, and management consulting organization, based in Ojai, California. Its purpose is to enhance performance and improve the quality of life by providing the world's best information, education, and products in the fields of personal productivity and work/life balance.