The human brain is truly incredible in its ability to conceptualize, organize and store information. So powerful is the human brain in fact, that Albert Einstein was able to come up with a working model of the universe that would fundamentally change the way we think about physics using nothing more than a pencil and a piece of paper.
But while the human brain is powerful, it is also limited in its capabilities. Our ‘working memory’ for instance – which is our capacity for storing information that we are ‘currently working with’ – is limited to roughly 7 +/- 2 (meaning 5-9) ‘bits’ of information – whereas our long term memory is subject to being lost or distorted and is by no means completely reliable.
It’s for this reason that we have developed numerous tools and systems that we can use to ‘extend’ the capabilities of our brains and to get more done. Using a pen and pencil, or perhaps a computer, there are numerous different systems that can be employed in order to help us organize our thoughts, visualize them and recall them. Here we will look at some of the best systems that have been developed by businesses, psychologists, memory masters and productivity gurus so you can start using them to learn and retain more information in your own life.
Mind maps are diagrams of ideas and concepts that are all related under the same subject heading. These images start with a single word or picture that represents the central concept and from there will then have lines or tendrils radiating outwards to show all of the ideas that exist under that subject.
For instance then, if you were learning German nouns, then the central word might be ‘common German nouns’ and the categories coming out from that might be ‘furniture’, ‘animals’, ‘food’, ‘tools’. From here you would then have further lines radiating out from those words showing the individual nouns. Color coding and images can then further aid in making the words stand out more and be easier to identify.
What makes mind maps so effective, is that they organize information using a similar structure to the way your brain organizes information. In other words, they use an interconnected ‘web-like’ system, which mirrors the way that neurons interlink in the brain. This means that you get to see the individual terms alongside related topics and in turn can ‘jog your memory’ when you’re remembering the layout of your map and allow you to store the information logically in your own mind.
Mind maps aren’t just useful for learning a new topic though, they can also be useful for ideation. The generation of new ideas is largely thought to be the result of seeing connections between existing concepts that had previously been missed and by using mind maps to write down all your thoughts and the way they interlink, you can potentially encourage this. Create your mind map, then try drawing lines between items that wouldn’t normally be ‘linked’.
Likewise, you can also use mind maps for problem solving as they let you put all your thoughts on one page, you can use them for outlining articles, you can use them for note taking and you can use them for inspiring creative design decisions.
A mood board is essentially a collage that you create in order to get ideas for a creative project. Say you were designing a website for instance but didn’t have any idea of the color palette you wanted to use, what you wanted your logo to look like or what the layout should be. In this case, you could then browse other websites and take screenshots of those pages you like the looks of in order to create a mood board filled with inspirational images. Then you could additionally add images of interior room designs, natural scenes or magazine covers – anything that you feel has elements you like the looks of.
From here, you would then be generating a collection of inspiration and when you take a step back from it to look at the page as a whole, you should see a design ‘direction’ begin to emerge. By combining all the elements you find inspiring, you can then create something new that will put you on track for your own web design. Alternatively, you can show this mood board to a professional designer who will then have an idea for the kind of things you’re going for. Mood boards are perfect for expressing abstract, creative concepts and also work well for interior design, wedding planning and more.
Flow charts are designed similarly to mind maps but with one major difference – they are directional and intended to be read in a certain way.
Essentially what a flow chart allows you to do is to create a guide to aid decision making that can guide you or someone else through the right decisions in a variety of situations. Flow charts can aid your memory and automate processes so that you don’t need to think about them. When using them in this capacity they can work in a similar manner to a checklist, making sure that you don’t forget anything important. They can also aid decision making.
This will use a branching system with each branch representing the answer to a hypothetical question. A flow chart that explains how to choose the best workout program for instance might start by asking if you want to lose weight or build muscle primarily. Answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would then lead you to one of two different questions, each of which would have more optional answers.
Spreadsheets are relatively new tools compared to the other items on this list and require a computer or smartphone/tablet of some form in order to work. Nevertheless though, they are incredibly flexible and powerful and should not be underestimated.
Spreadsheets are effectively tables, except the individual ‘cells’ are ‘dynamic’ meaning that they can change depending on the content of the other cells. The most simplistic example of this might be to have one cell contain the sum of a column which could be used to calculate how long a series of tasks will take, or how much a selection of purchases will cost.
In more complicated examples though, they can provide much more useful information and save you a lot of time doing complex math. If you were planning a wedding for instance, you could create a spreadsheet that told you the overall price of catering dependent on the number of people you invited, the menu options you provided and the amount of alcohol. This could contain complex equations to work out how many tables you would need per person and thus how many bottles of wine you would need if your aim was to provide four bottles per table.
Spreadsheets require an investment of time up-front to create but once you have done this, you will be able to save countless hours. They are perfect for budgets, for expense sheets, for diet plans and for schedules.