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Mindmapping Versus GTD


Image by: Austin Kleon

Choosing an organizational system can feel a little like picking your favorite cult. Whatever system you’re weighing up, you’ll always find teams of people ready to tell you how it’s changed their lives, made them more efficient and allowed them to achieve more than they ever thought possible. That’s particularly true when one of the systems you’re considering is Getting Things Done (GTD), David Allen’s “productivity principles for work and life.”

But despite what GTD’s fans will tell you — and they’ll be ready to tell you a lot — David Allen’s methods aren’t the only organizational system in town. Mindmapping can be no less effective in planning what needs to be done, filling in the gaps and creating a workflow that takes you from concept to product. So which is the most effective tool and which method should you be turning to as you’re planning your projects?

Mindmapping Keeps Students Awake

Mindmapping is said to have been created by psychology author Tony Buzan, although others have argued that the method has actually been in use for millennia. The motivation is supposed to have been the difficulty of creating lecture notes. They’re a pain to write at a time when students would rather be listening (ideally, and if they’re not sleeping) and they have to be reviewed before the student can make sense of them. Buzan thought that mindmapping would be a much more efficient way of remembering what the lecturer was saying. His brother, Barry Buzan, then described in his book The Mind Map how entrepreneurs and managers could use the same techniques to develop their ideas.

The principle is very simple. Mindmappers begin by placing an image or a word at the center of a page then extend branches around the page leading to single words describing individual aspects of that idea. Multiple colors can be used to show different areas of the concept, the branches describe how those ideas are related, and the distance from the center can be used to express the priority of those aspects.

The result, say mindmap fans, is easy brainstorming and a representation of an idea that’s free to grow organically, instead of being forced into the kind of linear structure that might restrict natural growth.

As an added bonus, the visual characteristics of a mindmap are supposed to make its contents easy to remember. One study found that mindmapping increased recall in students who used it by as much as 10 percent. The same study though also found that students really didn’t like to use it.

GTD Needs a Road Map

There’s really not a huge amount to mindmapping then. It doesn’t take long to get to grips with and it’s very easy to understand. GTD, on the other hand, needs a road map to understand. Designed by coach and management consultant David Allen, GTD works on a number of different levels. It uses a five-step information workflow made up of: collect; process; organize; review; and do. Plans are divided into six focus levels: current actions; current projects; areas of responsibility; yearly goals; five-year vision; and life goals. And then there’s the five-level “natural planning” process which organizes action by: defining a task’s purpose and principles; envisioning the outcome; brainstorming; organizing; and identifying next actions.

And it’s all centered on lists placed in 43 folders for monthly and daily planning. Plus a “tickler file,” which is a kind of procrastination box used to push nasty jobs to a definite point in the future.

In a straight scrap then, Occam’s Razor would make pretty short work of GTD. If the simplest solution is always the best, then Tony Buzan always beats David Allen into a messy pulp.

But it’s not that simple. GTD is more complex than mindmapping because it’s trying to do a lot more. Mindmaps have two functions: they draw out thoughts, allowing creative thinkers to dream up new concepts and link them together; and they make it easier for those thinkers to remember what they’ve been imagining. Mindmaps generate ideas, structure them, organize them and help people to become familiar with them. And then they stop.

It’s the next stage though that’s much harder. You still have act on those ideas, and that’s always going to require far more organization. A mindmap for a new iPhone app, for example, might place a bodybuilding image in the center then have different branches leading to areas for exercise regimes, diet-tracking features, updates from bodybuilding events and motivational slogans. The branches would contain words that remind the developer of the different features the app would contain and inspire him to add new ones.

Creating the app though, would mean hiring a programmer, designing the navigation system, deciding on the look and the designs, fixing a sales price, writing the copy, submitting it for approval, and finding ways to market it. That’s a lot harder than sitting on a sofa and scribbling single words on a page then connecting them with wavy lines.

But if it’s hard, it’s not always made easier by trying to figure out what David Allen meant by a “mind-sweep” (it appears to be collecting then ditching thoughts you don’t need), deciding whether to write one list or multiple sub-lists, and trying to figure out whether you should “do it, delegate it, defer it, or drop it,” another of Allen’s set of task rules.

In theory then, mindmapping and GTD aren’t really in opposition. Mindmapping is about concepts and ideas. It’s for brainstorming and thinking, not for planning and doing. GTD, on the other hand, is supposed to make action more organized. While it does have elements that are supposed to help creativity, it’s main role is to ensure that the thoughts you’ve already had are turned into plans — and that those plans are turned into action.

In practice though, by the time you’ve finished coloring in the different branches on your mindmap and highlighting the various aspects of your idea, you’re already going to be fairly tired — and possibly fed up with your concept. Toss in the creation of 43 folders and the endless lists that David Allen will have you writing and you’ll be lucky if you have the energy to get anything done at all.

Fortunately, in the end it doesn’t matter which organizational system you use as long as the result is that you stop organizing and start doing.

One Comment

  1. 36clicks Says:

    Interesting article. One question/ remark - as both mindmapping and GTD share that they are tools to induce, stimulate and capture creativity - transforming a fuzzy process into something more tangible to assign actions to - shouldn't both tools be used where and when they have a distinct added value in effectiveness and productivity?

    It's the measurable output of the tools that should count, not promoting either tool to a goal.

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