Thinking spaces and note-taking methods

I’m working on new tool for intellectual workers — RedForester. It’s a workspace based on mind mapping principles, but I prefer to call it a thinking space.

Below are some thoughts about the thinking space idea, note-taking methods and and how they affect our thinking.

What is a thinking space?

Caution: Thinking space is a metaphor; I don’t mean to imply this term has any scientific bearing.

A thinking space could be a real or virtual space intended for the visualization of intellectual processes and recording the results. It could be a paper notepad or blackboard, or it could be apps like Notepad, Miro, Notion, Roam, Obsidian, and others.

Many of these kinds of apps call themselves workspaces, but in fact we do our actual work in other spaces (other apps or even physical spaces). So what should we call the apps or tools we use for experimenting, figuring things out — for thinking? Rather than ‘workspaces’, it seems more accurate to name them ‘thinking spaces’.

For example, Microsoft Visual Studio, or Salesforce CRM, or Facebook Ads Manager are workspaces for programmers, sales and marketers, but no one uses these tools for thinking (I hope!)

I’ve done little research on these terms — “thinking space” and “think space” — to see how people use them.

People write about “thinking space” in psychological papers like this one — Psychology of Exceptional Learning: The Thinking Space / John Munro

Whenever we learn, we use part of our existing knowledge. <…> A useful way of thinking about this is to think that part of what we know is ‘under the learning spotlight’. This existing knowledge operates as a system of information processing units, that detect, organize and manipulate ideas. They differ in how they do this.

<…> In other words, we are talking about what we are conscious of at any time, our awareness of a set of ideas at any time. A metaphor that we use for this phenomenon is the ‘thinking space’ or ‘short term working memory’.

Whom and how would ‘thinking space’ help?

If you do a lot of intellectual work, then you’re likely to work with projects that have nonlinear roadmaps or uncertain plans at the outset. This is a clear instance of when thinking spaces are useful.

If you have feelings like the ones listed below, then you should try to help yourself by using thinking space:

  • I get overwhelmed by new information
  • My research problem is too complex and I can’t see a clear way to solve it
  • I need to brainstorm with my team to design a good way to move the project forward
  • I’m often distracted by urgent and unimportant work
  • I don’t have time to do everything, I need help prioritizing what’s important
  • I feel buried by all that work coming from everywhere; I need a way to manage it
  • I rarely end the work day feeling satisfied with my progress
  • I’m overworked and worried about burnout

A slightly ironic review from a Notion (an example of a thinking space) user, but it’s a true statement:

So true! Notion has done more for my mental health than hours of therapy

Specifically thinking spaces should help you with

  • Note-taking
  • Brainstorming alone or with a team
  • Writing and expressing your thoughts more clearly and in strong position
  • Planning
  • Structuring communications and collaborations with others.

Why note-taking is important and how it connected with thinking space and attention

When we try to internally track our thinking process we might get the feeling that we are shifting our attention like a spotlight from one idea to another. This is rough simplification from a cognitive psychological point of view, but nevertheless a good illustration of the fact that attention is a very important aspect of the thinking process.

Thinking spaces are tools for controlling and concentrating attention.

We populate these spaces with our ideas, notes, results and so on. Essentially, anything we keep in a thinking space is simply a note; something we give our attention to.

Let’s take a look at note-taking from another angle. From a cognition point of view, when you read or research something you construct a concept network in your mind. And as a result, this network draws your attention to other concepts. So reading and note-taking are highly dynamic processes — a fact we often underestimate.

Linear Outlining and nonlinear Cornell notes and Charting
More visual nonlinear methods: Zettelkasten and mind mapping

*Above pictures are from this and this web pages

Everyone uses linear methods like Sentence and Outlining.

Nonlinear methods are more interesting to intellectual workers. Some of these methods include:

  • Charting or spreadsheeting
  • Cornell notes
  • Zettelkasten (and Evergreen notes)
  • Mapping

As Tony Buzan write it his book [Buzan, Tony. The mind map book: how to use radiant thinking to maximize your brains’s untapped potential] some linear and nonlinear note-taking methods like outlining and charting are widespread, but they don’t use such features like:

  • Color
  • Pictures
  • Dimensions
  • Visual pattern
  • Templates
  • Visualization
  • Spatial imagination
  • Gestalt (integrity)
  • Associations

All these features are very natural ways of processing information for our brain, so their absence affects the quality of thinking.

Many note-taking apps and workspace apps implement nonlinear methods. I’ve found a good post on a forum where you can read reviews of some note-taking apps. It isn’t strongly connected with our topic, but I want to share it with you in case it’s of interest.

My project is connected with the mapping method and it helps to manage attention, which, as I said before, is very important to thinking. Mapping methods connect with the spatial aspects of our perception. Let’s take a closer look at why this is important

Why spatial <….> is important in thinking

Whether it’s a physical or a virtual workspace, spatial organization of our workspace is very important to everyone. It follows that spatial organization of a thinking space is also important

Manuel Brenner writes a detailed post on Medium about The Geometry of Thought and how the brain creates conceptual spaces. The main highlights for us is that:

spatial thinking is the foundation of abstract thought

From a practical point of view, we can get furious if someone makes even a slight effort to tidy up our workspace in our absence. The position of our things and the way we have our space organized corresponds directly to the thoughts and ideas important to us — that’s the influence of our spatial environment on our thinking — remember the spotlight analogy of attention.

Spatial limitation is also a very important aspect of organization. If we have no limitation we quickly find ourselves in a very unproductive state.

Bigger table is bigger chaos

All this gives me confidence that a thinking space should be well organized spatially. That is why I chose the mind mapping note-taking method as a base method for the RedForester project.

If you’ve ever used a mind map, you will know that just like a real map, a mind map will help you to:

  • See the whole large topic or project;
  • Think over a “route” or make the right choice, see where you have already been, and choose the right direction;
  • Gather together large amounts of information;
  • See new ways to solve the problem;
  • Remember the information you need;
  • Reflect on the mental map, make changes to it, read it.

When I introduce RedForester to someone who’s had an experience with mind mapping, it’s often caused doubts. Could mind mapping, with all its drawbacks, be a poor way of representating thinking space? I try to cover that on next section.

Overcoming the drawbacks of mind mapping

Like every method or tool, mind maps have drawbacks. Below, I outline RedForester’s approach to overcoming them:

A mind map is just a drawing; it’s difficult to move data from a mind map to other services to process or manage it. With RedForester, however, you can work with nodes like with objects (similar to Airtables or Notion). Objects have a type and properties. So RedForester’s mind map isn’t a drawing, it is an information system.

Typed nodes

With RedForester, you could create really big mind map. For example, my team has a map with more than 50,000 nodes!

Sounds overwhelming, but it’s not.

If you are one of creators of the map, you know its structure and can navigate it fluently. If you mostly read and modify map nodes you start working on some local parts of the mind map, where you can find your topics of interest. Then you gradually broaden this area and get to known new map’s regions, a little like exploring a new town.

Of course, with RedForester you could just use the Search function to quickly find something. You even could filter the map’s nodes by type (like tasks, contacts, papers and so on) or use the search by node’s property feature.

Search function to quickly find something

Looks same as the previous point but is slightly different. If you personally hate to use maps and prefer to research new places by some random walking, you also could hide whole mind map and pay you attention to just one branch. This feature could also help boost your concentration on that specific topic.

Show only current branch

Mind maps have one main hierarchy, but what if you need multiples of it? Here, nodelinks could help you.

Nodelinks

Also, you could just use links to connect different nodes together.

How to work with table-suited data, or a timeline, Kanban board, or many other kinds of representation? There are many instances when note-taking and thinking isn’t a first priority process. In these cases you could use other forms of representation like a table, Kanban board, Timeline and so on. And they will be automatically synchronized with the mind map.

Multiple representations

Conclusions

Everyone has their own thinking space. Some just stare at a point on the wall and dive into their “mind palace”, others use random drawing on a piece of paper or writing down a whole story in a diary. Online services could also be provide a thinking place that could boost your intellectual process and give you a feeling of control over the project.

We implement our vision of thinking space in RedForester. We are at an early beta stage, but open to first users. It would be nice to meet you, if you want to try — just click here and request access.

Next time, I plan to share my experience on using RedForester in several case studies like personal planning and time management; writing a post, paper or grant proposal\report; staying on-topic and problem solving; project planning; team collaboration and communication. Follow me and keep in touch.

See you, Alex

p.s.

If you don’t agree with this text or want to share your own opinion and collaborate, please comment. I’m waiting for your feedback!

Cofounder of RedForester.com (workspace for intellectual workers). Computer science and psychology diver

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