Productivity – Lists vs. Mind Maps – Keep It Simple!

A mind map promotes free thinking, and I’m a big believer of free thinking. With free thinking, there are no preconceptions and no prejudgments about any of the ideas that come up.

Armand Morin

Any discussion or training regarding productivity will cover lists and that brings up the “List vs Mind Map” debate. If you know me, you know I love to stir up this debate.

In reality, this is more of a misunderstanding than a debate. We all hear people raving about their mind maps and how it details all the stuff they are doing or need to do. My question is, “Does it really?” I know you may be thinking, “Don’t mess with my mind map!”

Let me make one thing clear—mind maps are fine for what they are, but you need to understand what they are, how they work and how they came to be. Once you understand the background of a mind map and understand the process behind the Mind map, then you’re going to understand the difference between the two and purpose of each.

I admit a mind map can be used to do certain things if you like them. For me a list is better, but I’m not opposed to mind maps for certain tasks.

Let’s look at the origination of a mind map and how it actually works.

Originally a mind map was not a productivity tool; it was designed to be a creativity tool.

A mind map was designed as a brainstorming tool. And, it’s a perfect brainstorming tool.

Let’s say you have a project. You start to think of all the things that need to be done for the project, all the different pieces of the puzzle… task number one, number two, number three, etc. Then list all the things associated with number one.

Then I might have a different idea, so I go to number two, and I have a bunch of things that are associated with that, as well. And then I go to number three. And I have a bunch of things associated with it then I go to number four.

I’m sure you get the point. I list all the things associated with each task and then each of these can have their own little nodes each with its own tasks.

One idea leads to another which leads to a couple more etc., and so on and so on and so on. Some of the ideas tie together and some of them don’t…that’s generally what we call a mind map and as you can see it’s GREAT for brainstorming because it lets you release your creativity.

black flat screen computer monitor

A mind map promotes free thinking, and I’m a big believer of free thinking. With free thinking, there are no preconceptions and no prejudgments about any of the ideas that come up. I just list everything that comes into my mind using a new node for each new idea.

The mind map easily lets me organize and expand those thoughts.

But if we want to keep track of time or tasks for a project or schedule out the tasks to promote productivity, you need a list. A list lets you focus on individual pieces and tasks.

A list is designed for productivity.

A mind map allows us to go in a lot of random directions and allows us to free think…this is the exact opposite of a list. I’m not just talking about a simple list; I’m talking about an ordered list. An ordered list requires you to do something in a certain sequence.

Think about it—your body operates in an ordered sequence. For example, if I see a pen laying on the floor and I want to pick it up, there is a specific sequence:

person writing bucket list on book
  1. I see the pen
  2. My mind tells me I should pick it up
  3. My brain then tells my arm to move to pick it up
  4. My mind tells my fingers to grasp it
  5. My mind tells my arm to bring it back to and what to do with it
  6. Etc.

All this happens in nanoseconds, but each step is an ordered sequence.

The fact is that our bodies and minds are trained to go through things in an ordered sequence, and it ensures if we use the correct sequence, it will go the right way. If we use the wrong sequence, things will go the wrong way.

The way we accomplish most things in life is through an ordered sequence.

For example, if you were in school and wanted to kick a ball. There is a process that you go through in order to make that happen. You step your foot…you follow through with the kick…Boom. You kick the ball, and it works. Basically, what I am saying is that using a list is actually very natural.

Right now, I’m not trying to say that lists are better than mind maps (even though they are). The point I’m trying to make is that lists are for productivity and mind maps are for creativity.

The problem I have with mind maps is that many people utilize them for something other than what it is intended for. While it’s true that certain parts of a mind map can be used as a list, it is not ideal for a list.

The reason I’m taking the time to talk about this is because the rest of this productivity article is going to be based on an ordered list. That is the way, we as humans, work. We naturally operate to do things in a very specific sequence.

In life, in the world, in nature…everything has a sequence.

By understanding that, we understand that everything has a specific order to it. And the second part to that sequence is that it’s chronological.

So, here is my list of how I do a sequence for a project.

  • It’s ordered.
  • It’s chronological (what comes first, second etc.).
  • The chronological order is then arranged from complex to simple tasks.

I start with the most complex task and progress to the simplest or easiest tasks. This method is for people who aren’t afraid of taking on major tasks. You are not afraid of jumping in and getting dirty.

The advantage of starting with the complex task and progressing on to the easier tasks is that it gets easier as you progress. You have more incentive and desire to keep going. It’s like getting your second wind as start each simpler task.

It enables you to progress at a faster pace as each step is completed. This is a GREAT incentive to keep going.

Now some people just don’t think or work that way. If they tried to start with the toughest task first, they would never get going. They need to get their toes wet before they jump in. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Each task you complete makes you feel better about yourself and the project and the next, more complex task, no longer appears so daunting.

You have to know what type of person you are and progress in that manner. Trying to do it any other way will not work for you in the long run. Be aware that if you start with the simplest task first, each subsequent task will get harder.

One thing remains constant regardless of which method you use…you need to take breaks from time to time; you need to remove yourself from the project. You have to take breaks to relax by getting your mind on a totally different subject.

For me it may be as simple as stopping and checking the news. Then I get up and stretch a bit. It doesn’t need to be a big break but it’s important to periodically remove ourselves and our minds from the project.

Keep It Simple

To be productive you need to keep track of things that you have already accomplished and what still needs to be accomplished. I like lists as I mentioned. I want to talk about some very low tech item that can be used when creating a list.

Index cards. You can take a simple $2 or $3 pack of index cards and utilize them as one of the greatest productivity tools ever invented!

Let me explain how I came to discover the value and genius of using index cards.

Those who know me best know that I am a total geek, so you likely won’t be surprised to hear that I discovered their value while doing some coding.

As I was coding, I had random notes scattered all over the place on sheets of paper, backs of envelopes, scraps of paper…pretty much whatever was handy at the moment. I’m sure you’ve been guilty of the same thing.

I could never find the note I wanted and when I did, it was scattered across several pieces of paper that I now had to sort into the proper order.

In desperation I asked Marianna to buy me some basic index cards. You know the ones…three by five inch with lines on one side and a blank back side. I then used them for each aspect of the software I was coding.

I had broken down the software project into multiple pieces. Each of these pieces was a feature that I wanted in the software once it was completed.

So, I listed the title of each feature on a separate index card. I then would describe the feature and how it was intended to work. I then listed everything listed I needed to do in order to complete this feature. This was all on one card.

All I had to do was pick up the card for whatever feature I was working on, and at a glance, I could see what needed to be done. I would cross off each task as it was completed which gave me a record of what I had accomplished.

That piece of software took me six months to code out, and it comprised of a large number of cards. My high-tech software was completely spelled out, step-by-step, on low tech, easy to read index cards. The stack of cards that comprised the project was neatly held together for future reference (or to later throw away) with a rubber band.

I’m sure you’re now thinking, “You’re a techy, geeky guy. Why didn’t you use some online piece of software?”

At the time, there weren’t any good options. Everything was too complicated and/or didn’t do what I wanted. But more importantly, I never saw it. If it was on my computer desktop, it was out of site. I had to go and pull it up each time I wanted to look at it.

With index cards, they were always in sight; all I have to do was glance down to see them.

To make it even easier, my wife gave me a small card stand that I put on my desk and stacked the cards vertically in. I put the cards in it in the order I wanted them and could just glance down at the first one and work on that piece. Once it was completed, I would move it to the back and work on the next card.

That’s how I got started using index cards. I now have multiple stacks of cards on my desk. I have a stack of 3×5 cards and a stack of bigger cards because some projects may need bigger cards to spell out each task. Those stacks are on the left side of my desk.

black laptop computer on brown wooden table

When I need to get something done, I grab a card and write down what I want to accomplish. I start with the title and then list all the different features or steps needed to accomplish that project. I now put that card in the holder which is in front of me.

All the things I need to accomplish are sitting in that holder. At any one time I may have eight, nine or ten cards sitting there.

I cross it off the individual tasks, on each card, as I complete them. Once I’ve completed the entire project, I move the card to the right side of my desk. Actually, most of the time the cards go into the trash can, which sits on the right side of my desk.

If, for some reason, I need to keep the card(s) for the project, I just wrap a rubber band around them and put them away.

That’s it…very low tech with high tech results.

Why does this work so well?

In addition to the simplicity and the handiness of it, I believe there is value in physically writing things down with a pen. I believe that writing it down causes it to become ingrained in your brain and you remember it longer.

I believe that by writing it down you make it more real than if you entered it on your computer. The task becomes something physical that you can touch, hold and relate to.

Also, when I complete a task the motion of my arm and hand as I cross out the complete piece gives me a sense of completion and accomplishment.

Let’s look at an example of what I might write on the cards.

Name of Task You Wish to Accomplish:
3. Item name plus description
4. Item name plus description
1. Item name plus description
2. Item name plus description

Notice that the items are not numbered sequentially. This is because I write them down as they come into my mind. Once I have them listed, I go back and number them in the sequence I want. This is the order they must be done.

As I complete an item, I cross it out. The crossed-out items emphasize a series of wins as I work on the task.

The correct sequence is critical in order to realize the correct outcome. For example, when I start my car, I have to…

black start engine button
  1. Get in the car
  2. Push the brake
  3. Push the “Start” button (or turn the key)

If I try to push the button or turn the key before I push the brake, it won’t work. (I know there are remote starts but for this example, we don’t have one). The steps need to done in the correct sequence in order for the task to be completed successfully.

As humans, we all have a certain “time span focus.” Some can focus for longer periods of time while others have shorter focus windows. My focus time varies. If it’s something I feel that I can’t move on without finishing, I may work all day on it. (Of course, I do take short breaks.) At other times or projects my brain is frazzled after 15 to 20 minutes. The cards help me with my focus.

Let’s say, for example, I have four distinct cards.

I start working on the items on card number one. If I continue to work on it until I complete every item, I’m likely to get burned out before I finish. At some point I lose focus, my brain is going to refuse to work on it. I now have a couple of choices.

I could take a break. That’s a good choice. Both my body and brain may need a break. Most of us need to take more breaks. If you have a complex problem and the solution eludes you, you might just need to take a break. Usually, after you come back from a pause, the solution seems simple.

Give yourself permission to take breaks.

If I can’t focus on the project on card number one even after I come back from a break, I move card number one to the back of the stack and move on to card number two. Depending on the day, I may move through several cards without finishing any of them.

Don’t try to force your mind to work on something that it can no longer focus on. You’ll accomplish much more by shifting your focus as needed.

In this case, I needed a break from card number one. My mind needed something new and fresh to focus on. You see, there are two types of breaks, one is where you get up and move around, get a snack, stretch etc. The other is where you just move your focus to a different project, issue or problem.

Now, if all four cards are different aspects of the same project, I am still going forward with the overall project, but I’m just focusing on a different aspect of it. And, if each card is actually an entirely different project, I’m actually moving forward on all of them, one step at a time.

The time you spend working on each card before you burn out on it will vary. Maybe you really like the tasks on card two and can spend hours on it without overdoing it. But you hate card three and can only spend 20 minutes on it before you have to move on to card four or even back to card one.

The important thing is that you are continually being productive and making progress.

Using cards makes it so easy to do this. I can keep my mind on fresh projects without losing track of the old ones; they just go to the back of the stack to be worked on when my mind is ready for them.

By using cards, I can accomplish all this with just simple, easy to use, low tech index cards. My cards are constantly in front of me as reminders. You could think of it as a “nag” system that is always reminding you what needs to be done… not to mention, what you’ve already accomplished.

Index cards may be the simplest yet most powerful, productivity tool I utilize.

This article is just one piece of my entire “Productivity” video series. In the series you can watch me actually demonstrate what I am talking about. And In many cases you can watch my computer screen as I work online. For more information on my “Marketing University” Membership Program just go to www.marketinguniversity.com

Armand Morin

Armand Morin is an Internet marketing industry expert who has built a multimillion-dollar international business. In 1996, he started with $1.83 in his pocket and no experience and has grown it into a multi-million dollar international business, which has done business in over 100 countries around the world.

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