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Productivity Tools: Personal Dashboards


One of the problems of working online is keeping track of your life. It doesn’t matter whether you are researching for an offline job or are a hardcore web worker. In the past, a lot of us have used paper day planners, but if a significant part of your day is spent online, you likely have digital information to track. One of the most powerful and flexible ways to do this and stay productive is with a Personal Dashboard.

A Personal Dashboard doesn’t have to be just for your personal affairs but can include aspects of your life and work on or offline. There are actually a number of web applications that are considered a type of web dashboard, including Pageflakes and Netvibes. Some people even use an RSS reader such as Google Reader, or a calendaring tool such as Google Calendar as a sort of web dashboard.

The drawback is that these sorts of apps are very narrow in their feature set, especially Google Reader. Sure, you can track all the sites you like to read daily, but that’s about it. With portals like Pageflakes and Netvibes, you can do a bit more. Yet you cannot track other types of information, images, links, lists, etc. Most of all, it’s not necessarily in a handy format.

A much more suitable application choice for a proper Personal Dashboard is to use a mind mapping tool. You have your choice of desktop or web-based packages, and even the latter are starting to offer sophisticated feature sets.

What’s a Personal Dashboard For?

A personal dashboard is a sophisticated way to digitally track your offline and online life, both for work and personal. Here are some possible bits of information you might keep in your personal dashboard, in no particular order.

  1. Personal goals – career, relationship, etc.
  2. Tasks by time period – daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, long-term.
  3. Personal tasks – meetings, appointments, reminders.
  4. Work tasks.
  5. Schedule.
  6. Work log – a record of what you did, by day or even by hour.
  7. Reading list – online (URLs), or print (list of magazines, books, authors).
  8. Passwords.
  9. Notes in full text.
  10. Links to finished documents, including word processor or spreadsheet files.
  11. Design snippets

Why Mind Mapped Dashboards?

Why use a mind mapping tool? A mind mapped personal dashboard allows for high productivity, for all the same reasons to use a mind mapping tool at all: flexibility and diagrammatic representation, stimulation of thinking processes, and more. You can view mind maps in detail or at a high level, use different shapes, colors, line styles, text fonts and so on. Mind maps stimulate both sides of the brain, logical and creative. So you could take your personal dashboard and expand it to link to other mind maps where you’ve worked out solutions to work or life problems.

If you think you’ll miss your RSS reader app or your favorite portal, no problem. Most desktop-based mind mapping tools allow you to link a map node to an application. So a mind map becomes more of a meta-dashboard that can provide hooks into your desktop applications and documents, as well web pages, and store snippets or even large blocks of text.

So it doesn’t replace portals, calendars, to do lists, etc. What you have instead is a central area where you can access what’s important to you each day, arranged in some diagrammatic fashion that is optimum for your use.

Here’s a summary of the value of using a mind map for your personal dashboard in more detail:

  1. Radial thinking – the visual structure of many mind maps forms a radial pattern, which supports a more open type of thinking pattern.
  2. Hierarchical structure – any information that has hiearchy can be well-represented in a mind map.
  3. Flexible structure – easily reorganize information.
  4. High or low view – ability to expand/ collapse map nodes so that you can get focused view or a bird’s eye view, respectively.

An advanced mind mapping tool allows:

  1. Active linking to documents (web pages or on hard drive) and applications. Clicking a linked map node starts up the application associated with the attached document type.
  2. Synchronization with MS Office, including Excel, Word, Outlook, MS Project and other files.
  3. Inclusion of native spreadsheet blocks (as an alternate to linking to a spreadsheet file).
  4. Creation and linking to sub-maps.
  5. Attachment of notes to map nodes. In terms of workflow, this is a productivity boon. This makes it easy to find associated notes.
  6. Inclusion of images in map nodes.
  7. Floating nodes that represent peripherally related information which should not be part of the main map.
  8. A variety of map styles.
  9. A type of diagramming, using map node shapes, lines, borders and relationships.
  10. Building of complex mind maps, depending on the tool used.

A Sample Personal Dashboard Mind Map

Depending on which mind mapping tool you are using, you can get pretty sophisticated with a personal dashboard. A great example of a personal board is in MindJet’s library. The snapshot above shows an overview of this dashboard, but I recommend you see it in full. To view the mind map, you’ll need a copy of MindJet’s MindManager Pro 7 (free fully functioning trial) or their free MindManager Viewer 7 map viewer. The Windows version of MindManager offers a 30-day fully functioning trial. For Mac, it’s 21 days.

The drawback, at least as far as I found, is that MindManager can get addictive, and if can’t afford the steep price (which is worth it if you are a hardcore mind mapper like myself). What you might want to do instead is start with a copy of the free multi-platform (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux) FreeMind. Work with FreeMind, get used to the process, if you haven’t used mind maps before.

If you like the general feel of using a mind map, then consider downloading a trial version of MindJet MindManager (Windows, Mac OS X). This should give you enough time and feature variety to determine if you like mind mapping enough to purchase software or stick with FreeMind. Or a relatively expensive desktop option that I’ve used extensively, amongst several dozen, is MindApp, though it’s nowhere nearly as sophisticated as MindManager.

If you prefer using something web-based, there are several options, including Mindomo, Mindmeister, or Comapping. However, don’t always expect the full sophistication of a desktop, especially the ability to fire up desktop applications.



12 Comments

  1. Andrew Wilcox Says:

    Great blog Raj. I have used MindManager for years. One dashboard is no longer enough. I have a master which links to finance, customers, projects etc.

    P.s. the current version of MindManager is 8. Some new features which work well with dashboards are:

    - applications and browsers opening within the MindManager window
    - displaying of database records
    - and if make sense you can send someone else an active copy of your dashboard in a PDF file.

  2. Matthew Lang Says:

    Great article Raj!

    Using mind maps as dashboards is a great way to stay organised, but I do think that mind mapping software could do more to allow users to be more creative with their mind map dashboards.

  3. Jacques Turbé Says:

    I like your criteria for mindmapping for dashboards.
    I myself never got mindmaps for general use : I found I was loosing too much time for esthetics and tweakings of all sort (as you say, it's addictive).

    I'd add to your software list an app which could be seen as part of mindmappers family, but goes much further : PersonnalBrain 5.

    You can use it as a dynamic straightforward mindmapper, too,

    but :
    (see you items connected as thoughts in a brain, with no top, no bottom but top, bottom and related items of the thought on which you focus)
    You can make any item a "home" item, and the map is instantly redrawn according to your new focus.
    You have Parent/child links, but also "related" (items you usually work with for that)
    You get color coding and fast selections through items "types" and item "tags".
    You just enter some letters, and you instantly get a zoom of the focused area
    Thus you can afford thousands of items, pim data, reference data, contact data, writings data, .. anything that come through your brain (hence the name).
    As (behind the scenes) every item is a folder, you can not only link but even move in any doc, even apps (I've embedded in my "Brain" my whole former EverNote database as well as my Datebook dynamic scheduler ). So everything I need is into the single database I always carry with me.
    When I call a topic, I instantly get a dedicated "desktop" displayed with all I might have to use with this topic.

    I afforded in january the pro version :
    You can drag Outlook posts, web pages, files straight into it.
    You get html outputs or outline outputs of selected area
    It has now a Calendar/reminder where to display items with a deadline or which are events.

    Just to say, as you guess, I'm sold to it : it is now my main UI on my machines, and I have my Brain database on a USB to use it on my Tablet as well ason my Laptop

  4. JL Says:

    Just what I want from a mind mapping software, the ability to be THE dashboard for my PC worlds! However, I haven't found one that can automatically organize my Windows desktop and all my folders, with me having the option of course to modifier the suggested organization the tool creates. If such a mind mapping software exists and I don't have to send more than an hour creating the entire base (basic) dashboard, please tell me where and how it's done. I've been on several sites asking for this capability for over a year and have been dreaming of it for over five plus!

  5. Kamal Syed Says:

    Mindmapping is a great tool, and I really liked MindManager. Moving over to the Mac however last year (mostly), I've found that MindManager for the Mac is a poor cousin to the Windows version. Its a lot less intuitive to use, it doesn't come with nearly the same features, and doesn't seem to come with the same number of icons/graphics and formatting options (or maybe its just less intuitive and I can't find them).

    If you're on the Mac, NovaMind is a great option, and its available feature-parity on Windows as well. They're about to release a new version, which sounds very interesting.

    My challenge is that a personal dashboard is only as useful as its ability to integrate information from other sources, and MindManager Mac is not there yet.

    I've been using Things from CulturedCode both on my Mac and my iPhone, and its a great tool for organizing not just my goals, projects and tasks, but also some reference information.

    I've been using BaseCamp on the web too for simple projects, but haven't played with any of the mobile clients yet.

    MKS

  6. kiatlc Says:

    Your snapshot is too small to see it clearly, should put a link to a larger image

  7. Ben WElls Says:

    For Mac Users - it's all about Curio. I'm building a dashboard with a picture of my desk as teh background, a picture of my log book, etc... - point is, you can go graphic crazy with it by using, for example, a picture of a journal which opens up your Log Book MindMap from your personal dashboard. I tried them all - while Curio is sort of weak at actual mindmapping (I liked NovaMind much better) but for the other stuff it can do - curio is awesome.

  8. Lola LB Says:

    Is there an updated link for that mind map you referred to? They changed to a new site but didn't put in a redirect.

  9. Harry Says:

    Great post.

    For goals and tasks, dashbard tool, you may also want to check GoalsOnTrack, http://www.goalsontrack.com, which has a dashboard can show all your goal progress, todo list for the day etc.

  10. JWilson Says:

    Great article. Has anyone found if apps for mobile devices now have the same or simular funcationality as those mentioned here? (Apple or Android)

  11. Jerre Says:

    I see people using PD either bottom up starting with everything on their mind dumping it in the mindmap and than start structuring, clustering and planning. The other group starts with their (work/life) goals making break-downs to month's and weeks and than manage their tasks in the cloud so they have them always with them on their device. For the lastest group I can recommend the kanbanflow.com but with an other design e.g.

    Master | Today | Nxt Mo | Nxt Tu | Nxt Wo | Nxt Th | Nxt Fr | LATER | Done

    This fits on your screen and helps to plan your weeks and tasks better using a PD plus smart phone and/or tablet. My PD works with 4 branches Think - Decide - DO - Learn. Drop a mail and I will send you a template.

  12. Connie Says:

    i just downloaded FreeMind and can't wait to try it out. This will be my first experience with this sort of software. 2013 is going to be the year of productivity and organization.

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