Using Mindmaps in a GTD System

This article describes a “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system based around FreeMind Mindmaps and FreeMind|GTD Next Action lists.

David Allen’s GTD methodology is a highly effective way to handle event driven work. At its core is creating a “trusted system” for collecting stuff, processing it, and organizing the decisions into the actions needed to get things done. Since it is a generic methodology, you can implement it in a variety of ways, from fully paper-based to all-digital. This article will focus on an implementation that uses mindmaps as a core tool for organizing the stuff you collect and process.

Collecting Stuff

The key goal of GTD is to get “stuff” out of your head and into a system you trust. This frees attention that is wasted mentally cycling through everything on your plate. My collection system is shown below:


Email can appear across laptops, desktops, and my smartphone. I tend to convert voicemails and audio notes from the recorder into written notes, rather than processing them directly. The recorder (Olympus VN-5200PC) is perfect for the car- it is a device designed for a single purpose so there is much less distraction than trying to fumble through smartphone functions or leave voicemails to yourself. Often something like an NPR story will trigger some idea you want to remember which is then easy to do with the recorder. The Note Jotter (M by Staples) holds 3″x5″ cards and a pen- essentially a Hipster PDA that works really well for capturing ideas and tasks. The In Basket holds the usual pile of papers, clippings, Post-It notes, etc. Taken together, these tools collectively form my GTD InBox. I trust that “stuff” I need to deal with will get captured by one of my InBox tools- a necessary condition for getting things out of your head.


Processing the “stuff” in the above InBox follows the standard GTD methodology:


As you process each item in the InBox (from whichever collection tool it resides), the first decision to make is whether it is actionable. Non-actionable items are either tossed, saved for future reference, or “incubated”. For example, you might store the datasheet for a new component in your reference file system and put a note on your Someday list about how it could be used.

If an item is actionable, you need to gauge whether this is really a multi-step project. You can add it to your project list if it is not there already. In either case, the key thing is to decide on the next action required. This is the heart of GTD- it is what breaks procrastination and keeps things moving forward. If the Next Action can be accomplished in a couple of minutes, then just do it! If it really belongs on someone else’s plate, then delegate it to them (even if it is your boss). Otherwise, the item must be deferred until you can work on at a specific time (schedule it on your calendar) or specific place (place it on a Next Action list sorted by place or context).


OK, so where does the Mindmap come in?? Mindmaps are excellent organizing tools because they are hierarchal structures. Using FreeMind|GTD with a FreeMind mindmap allows you to combine all four lists (Projects, Waiting For, Next Actions, and Someday) into one place. This makes it easier to review and manage.

Begin by creating your GTD mindmap organized by your areas of focus (or roles):


Note that a Someday node was added for capturing non-actionable items that you may want to think about (incubate). For example:


The Someday category gives you a place to collect stuff that you are not going to deal with right now. It is important that you periodically review these items to decide on whether they will acted upon or dropped.

You may want to further breakdown areas of focus before including projects. For example, under Home a sub-category of Improvements holds the project to remodel the kitchen:


From this simple example, you can get a sense of how Project and Someday lists are capable of being captured in a mindmap. Next Actions are then captured under projects, for example:


Next Actions should be written as a complete, stand-alone actionable task. Note that the format includes the elements required for FreeMind|GTD to parse and compile a Next Action list.


During the course of the week, I periodically run FreeMind|GTD to generate a Next Action list from my GTD mindmap. I find it useful to print the Next Action list so it can be consulted in different contexts to help decide which item to work on next. In the above example, the Next Action list would have a task to contact contractors for quotes when you are working on your email. The Next Action list (and Calendar) are reviewed many times daily.

The mindmap is a really useful for weekly reviews- you can look across several levels of hierarchy to determine if there are any other “stuff” that needs to be captured or removed. These things may come from longer term goals, for example.


At the end of the day, nothing happens unless you actually execute on your next actions. There is a definite satisfaction crossing off a completed next action from the printed list (I use a Sharpie marker to really cross it off!). When you are “in flow” and moving forward rapidly on next actions, it is better to physically cross of completed items on the printed list- you should use a review to update the mindmap, rather than trying to do it real-time. Often completing a next action will put the ball in someone else’s court. In these cases, just make a note of what you are waiting for this person to do right on the printed Next Action list. Later, during a review, you can update the mindmap to reflect that the context for the new next action is with someone else. In the remodeling example, after you solicit quotes via email, the next actions will be to review quotes you are waiting for from contractors. The mindmap becomes:


Running FreeMind|GTD will then list these next actions under the contractor context- which is a Waiting For list. Thus, the mindmap has also combined the Waiting For and Next Action lists.


I have found the above system very helpful for getting things done- hopefully you will too.

  • Ramesh

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