FreeMind is a great free software program. It is identified as “mind mapping” software, for brainstorming or whatnot, but is also a general productivity/organizational tool. It’s early days for me, but I think it may help me organize my notes and projects more effectively. It’s basically just arranging things in a tree structure, but the visual/spatial layout seems to help me.
I tried it out a couple of years ago, but didn’t really give it a chance. Now with version 0.8.1, it seems very polished. It’s a Java program, which may suggest sluggishness to some people, but it’s very snappy and responsive for the maps I’ve created. It’s very easy to use: easy to add nodes and move things around and format them. After a day or two of use, I felt pretty comfortable with most of the features. It comes with help documentation that is itself a mind map, which helps in exploring how you can do things.
Let’s check out a sample map:
Pretty! One of the key features is “folding.” You can quickly open and close nodes of parts of the map that you’re not using. Here’s our map closed down a bit:
And there’s more! You can link to external web pages and to files and folders on your hard drive, and there are encrypted nodes, and there are plugins for calendar features, and etcetera. You can have large nodes with lots of text. You can use HTML formatting in nodes. You can export the whole thing as a web page or an image file. You can bake bread with it. (Well, no, not that last thing.)
I’m just really impressed with how nicely it all works, and how easy it was to get running with it. (More on that in a minute.) I’ve not experienced any crashes yet, and I’ve been using it a lot, with one of my maps growing to 50KB already. The maps are saved as simple XML files, which I think is another great feature. And saving them has been instantaneous as far as I can tell. There has been no discernible delay when I hit the “save” keyboard shortcut. (There are a lot of keyboard shortcuts to speed things up.)
I’ve seen where a commercial mind map application, Mind Manager, costs $350 for a license. I’m guessing that it may do a few things that FreeMind doesn’t do, but I’m also guessing they are comparable in many ways. Except for in price. FreeMind costs $0, and you can freely share it with your friends and family.
There are installers for GNU/Linux distributions, Mac OS, and Windows. On my Ubuntu machine it was as easy as typing
sudo apt-get install freemind to get started. Although that gave me version 0.7. Then it was as simple as downloading a
.deb install package for 0.8.1, the latest stable release. I also tried it out on my work Windows machine. There I can run it off a USB drive and avoid crossing the Powers That Dictate All Authorized Software. Simple to get that version running also.
One thing that helped make my installs easy is that I use Java at work and at home and have recent versions installed and in good order. Depending on your machine, you may have more work to do in this area. But maybe not — I hope if you try it out, it’s as easy to get started using as it was for me.
What am I using it for?
One use is as a virtual desktop. I tend to write a lot of ideas and reminders and “to do” items on post it notes. They pile up on my desk. I don’t want to store them in a file on my computer because then I’ll look at them even less and have no chance of acting on these hastily scribbled thoughts. With the physical sticky notes, I do glance at them from time to time and occasionally take action on them and cross things off. Now I’ve transfered them all to a single map that I keep open all the time, and it seems more effective than a flat text file for keeping all the threads spread out in front of me. My mind does much better with spatial hints.
At work I also have a single file with everything: projects, software tools notes, bureaucracy notes, pointers to various reference material.
It’s just so easy to use (and fun to use!) and visually appealing that I have high hopes I’ll keep using it and it will make things easier to keep track of and actually take action on, and that I’ll be able to find things when I need them.
Finally, for non-work use, and potentially of interest to all you loyal readers, I have another map that I’m using to capture and organize notes on a story I’m writing. Whenever I try to write fiction, I get all bogged down in process: how to manage all the ideas and notes I generate. I’m hoping FreeMind might, er, free up my mind more in this area. Now I have a map with areas for characters, places, action, and possible directions to take.
What was that? Yes! I’m working on some fiction. And I’m excited about it and can’t wait to start posting it here. It will be free as in beer and culture, and I hope you’ll enjoy it and be patient with my early efforts as I practice and learn the craft. I have much to write and revise first before I start sharing it. Regular posting will continue to be light while I turn out pages of rough draft every day. For all you long-time and short-time readers, please stick around and give the new format a try this fall. I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself by announcing this. So many of my writing plans fall by the wayside. But then again, maybe it’s a good thing to announce my intentions as a spur to my efforts. Stay tuned!
Back to FreeMind
I highly recommend taking a look at the FreeMind project home page. The front page has more screenshots and gets into the different uses of FreeMind.
I want to throw about a hundred more unqualified superlatives out there about this thing. I’m just that impressed with FreeMind. I love the ease of installation and ease of use and the power and elegance of it. I think the developers and overall community have worked together to make a great program, and they seem to be focused on the right core values like simplicity and performance. Programs like FreeMind renew my excitement in the potential of free software and bolster my faith in its principles. It just seems right that software should be free, and when I see “GPL, v2 or later,” I feel like I’ve come home. Thanks, FreeMind community!