Effective Brainstorming on OS X

I’ve always had a problem brainstorming into a computer. Word or TextEdit seems the logical choice (you need to input text, those are text editors…) but before I can get more than a couple ideas down, I get caught up in how I should be organizing this brainstorm, what is each piece of information categorized as, etc. So I went back to pen and paper, which works well except that it’s not searchable. And when you’re used to everything being accessible via Quicksilver/Spotlight, flipping through pages of old notebooks looking for *that page* seems a bit antiquated.

While I still utilize pen & paper way more than any other solution (especially on the go), the top way I’ve found to brainstorm into my laptop is with FreeMind. It’s an open-source brainstorming/mind-mapping solution with the best user-experience I’ve found.

My favorite part of the application is the speed with which you can get your ideas down. When I’m brainstorming, ideas usually come in waves—so one minute I’ll be doodling in the margins and the next trying to furiously scribble down everything in my head before I forget it. With FreeMind, **tab** gives you a new child node and **return** gives you a new sibling node, so you can create new thoughts that are organized from the start without any delay. If I’m in the middle of a stream of multiple thoughts, I usually create a few nodes with a keyword or two in each that will trigger the full thought relating to that idea so that I can flush each one out without worry. Moving around between the nodes is easy with the arrow keys and the app is really responsive and “snappy”.

Using the mouse (usually after the fact for further organization) is a decent experience, but not near as satisfying as the keyboard. My biggest problem with the mouse operation is that whenever the mouse passes over a node, it automatically becomes the active node. This proves to be really annoying when you have a large mindmap and need to make a change to a node at the bottom of the map via the menu at the top of the screen. Basically, you either have to weave the mouse between nodes or go all the way around, neither of which is very intuitive.

The interface is decent—the default is the one I use, and while the buttons have some definite spacing issues, I still like it better than the other skins. FreeMind ships with 9 different “Look & Feel” skins. Being a picky person about such things, I could go on about what I don’t like aesthetically, but since I’m not contributing to the project, I’ll keep my mouth shut. The app follows nearly all basic OS X keyboard commands (CMD-H hides, CMD-, is preferences, etc) which makes me happy. You can remap keyboard commands if you so desire—the only one I changed was the Node Edit command to CMD-E. What the program lacks in finish, it makes up for in customization.

I was hesitant at first but figured I had nothing to lose trying out a free solution; reading over the features I doubted I would adapt it to my workflow. But if you can type at a decent clip, there is something really satisfying about the experience of FreeMind—the speed with which I can jump from node to node and mash out new thoughts definitely brought my brainstorming to a whole new level.