It’s come to my attention that the way I brainstorm has a lot to do with my ADHD. Brainstorming is kind of a superpower of the ADHD mind. It takes some work to go deep on a single topic, but we’re great at the surface level associations and development. I believe that the techniques I share can apply to anyone’s brainstorming, the ADHD connection just helped clarify for me why the things I do (and the tools I use) work for me.

I’ve said it before: I like mind maps because they make it easy for my thoughts to come out in whatever order they happen to come up, and as disorganized as they are in my head. I don’t have to know what my top level groupings will be. I don’t need to know how things are going to be sorted at all. I can just spill them out into something I can assess and manipulate. Being able to start churning out ideas before I start pondering organization — before I even have to decide what it really is I’m brainstorming — gets things rolling with zero delay.

Side note: if you read Tony Buzan (RIP) and subsequent mind mapping purists, they often talk about the need for mind maps to be on paper. That does not work for me, I need things to be more malleable. Doing it on a computer or tablet where I can spill-and-sort my ideas is paramount. Just for the record.

So on to today’s method. This is separate from the process I use when beginning a project, where I have a very good idea what the main areas are going to be. This is for starting a map with nothing but a central topic. It focuses on a finite portion of my overall mind mapping strategy.

I start with the random flickers of ideas related to whatever the central topic is. As those flickers become map nodes and start to pile up, groupings start to become apparent, and I sort the ideas as they do. Once those initial groupings are in place, I can focus within the more finite scopes of the group to generate new, related ideas. And as those groups fill out, I can more easily see where the blank spots are. And I can, at any time, flit between groups as unrelated ideas strike.

Sometimes a node comes out that’s completely unrelated to whatever groupings have already materialized. That’s actually one of my favorite things about this process, these outliers that constantly make me reassess what I’ve created so far. Do I take everything I currently have and squeeze it into a new top-level branch, then start working on a whole new one with this node? Does it change the way I’ve categorized what’s already there? Or is it such an outlier that it belongs on its own floating topic, to be dealt with another time? These decisions can be left until later, but I usually find it conducive to the process to answer the questions in real time.

So I’m organizing while I’m thinking, letting the ideas themselves begin to dictate the organization. It’s imperative that I be able to perform this type of organization quickly and on the fly, which for me means I need a lot of keyboard shortcuts. iThoughtsX has full keyboard accessibility, which is one of — no, it’s the first thing I look for in a mind mapping app. iThoughts on iOS has great keyboard shortcuts, too, if you have an external keyboard connected. For completeness I’ll also note that I find the keyboard shortcuts in MindNode and XMind to be overall satisfactory as well.

The most common task in this process is taking a bunch of ideas and putting them into a new parent node, creating a new group for them. Similar to working in Finder when you select files and hit ⌃⌘N (New Folder with Selection), it lets the contents define the container. In iThoughtsX on my Mac, this is done by selecting multiple nodes and typing Shift-Tab to gather the selected nodes as children under a new node. Holding down Command while clicking lets me select multiple non-contiguous nodes with my mouse, or I can use arrow keys to navigate, Shift-arrow keys to select, and Shift-Tab with some ⌘C/⌘V to gather and group items quickly using just the keyboard.

Here’s a GIF of the very beginning of working on my “Best of 2019” post. Not the deepest application of brainstorming, but it shows random ideas being quickly entered, grouped, and expanded upon in iThoughtsX.

Using Shift-Tab to encapsulate selection in iThoughts

Yes, all of this can be accomplished in any good outliner app, too. In fact, I used to use the now-defunct Tree to get much the same effect, and I’m a fan of OmniOutliner. Mind maps just provide me with a method that’s spatially closer to the thoughts in my head, which makes the translation faster. And speed is everything when you’re capturing ideas.