Mind Mapping

Patrick Foley, CFP

Author, Winning at Retirement

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I would like to share a tool that I personally utilize in my job as a financial advisor, and that I advocate as a life planning tool in the book Winning at Retirement. “Mind mapping” is a simple but powerful form of note taking. It provides clarity of thought, while facilitating brainstorming and creativity.

First, let’s take a moment to consider how the mind works, and how that can relate to the way we organize information. In traditional note taking we make lists, or outlines. We compile information in a linear and ordered fashion. But that’s not how our brains organize things.

The information in our head can best be described as a web of interconnected memories, one that calls upon a mix of senses to encode the memories and make them available for recall.

The interconnection is key. One memory can be used to pull up another, a smell may conjure up a visual memory, the spark of an idea can lead to many more, and so forth.

It is a complex indexing system, not a straight line of data.

As a note-taking system, mind mapping more closely aligns with this idea of a web or cloud of thoughts. You start with a central idea, then you build outward to various topics, and then further into subtopics. This works for any subject you want to brainstorm, or strategize.

My business partner and co-author Kristin Hillsley and I build maps – we call them family profiles - around our clients. We start with the name of the individual or couple, and then we build out topics like family, goals, values, and interests.

From there, using an interview process, we sketch out a family tree, record what they would like to achieve, and what is important to them.

In time we have developed a sense for who they are and the kind of guidance they could use, and we have recorded the information in a way that allows for easy recall, reconsideration, and future editing.

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A mind map can be drawn using a large sheet of paper (some people do it quite artistically, in an approach that mirrors journaling). Or it can be created using software that runs the gamut from simple and free, to highly sophisticated and capable of handling complex project management.

On the companion website for our book there is a “Tech Tools page” that lists, under Resources, a number of free and paid mind mapping software options. Or, if you are more manually or artistically inclined, head to an office supply store and buy yourself a big pad of easel paper.

Do not take our example above as the only form of mind mapping- it’s just one example. The possibilities are endless.

You can build to-do lists with each topic, representing a different realm of your complicated life: charitable endeavors, family needs, house projects, finances, and so forth. Or, you can create a map to brainstorm a new career, or a new place to live.

There are a number of books out there –such as Mind Mapping by Kam Knight– that can teach you the technique in detail.

As our family profile example illustrates, the mind mapping technique is a great way to organize information. But it’s also a way to challenge yourself to come up with new ideas, and to think freely and creatively about a topic.

Mind mapping is a form of exploration, so good luck and happy mapping!

Benjamin Hotel
Benjamin Hotel


Patrick Foley, CFP

Patrick Foley, a Certified Financial Planner™ certificant with Baird, has been advising clients toward happy retirements for nearly 30 years.

With his partner Kristin Hillsley, Pat co-authored Winning at Retirement, and Winning at Retirement: First Responder Edition.

He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two daughters, and their two crazy dogs.