Designing My Life | Part IV: Getting Unstuck via Mind Maps

The fourth activity in the process described in Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans is called 'Getting Unstuck'. It depends on the activity logs I shared in my previous post and uses a technique called mind mapping.

The purpose of the exercise is to gain insights and develop self-awareness about what engages you, gives you energy and cultivates flow.

Mind Maps

If you haven't tried mind mapping before, I highly recommend it. It's a simple technique that is great for visual thinkers like myself. The idea is to think visually by connecting related ideas in a map that is similar to how the brain works, via nodes and synapses (connections).

I read Mind Maps by Ken Arthur when I was just getting into design thinking. It's become my go-to ideation technique since.

Below are the three mind maps I generated as reflections from my activity logs. I tried my best to use 'blink' thinking by doing it quickly, with no mind traffic or judgement. I wrote the first things that came to my head and continued by free association.


I found three clear insights which were:

  • Collaborating with others in-person, thinking visually
  • Feeling empathy for other people, hearing their stories and being empowered to solve their problems
  • Expressing myself in writing, sharing what I've learned


The energy mind map felt completely different. I wrote mostly individual words as opposed to phrases in the Engagement map.

I had a strong sense that my personal lifestyle plays a key role in providing me with energy.

Words that stuck out to me were:

  • Working outside, creating things by hand and sunshine
  • Overcoming challenges, having a plan, structure and constraints
  • Friendship, learning, positivity, connection and shared purpose

There are all definite possibililties in the exciting life ahead that my wife and I have planned. After a year or so of feeling less than optimistic about our rural lifestyle, I was suddenly starting to get excited again.

We could really do something great with our home by inviting other people to live with us, working on the land towards shared objectives and serving others in need through food and friendship.

More on that later...


Flow is super important to me as it takes the 'work' out of work and brings so much enjoyment and pleasure. I haven't had much flow in my professional context of late. I think a lot of that is to do with the remote nature and the fact I don't have co-located collaborators.

There was something really special about collaborating with other designers during my time at Clearleft that I've missed since being a remote freelancer. There's something that just cannot be experienced in front of a screen. Something special that I've been lacking...

Insights of importance were:

  • Playing music, writing music songs
  • Visual, collaborative problem definition, discovery, ideation, prototyping and testing
  • Co-located design thinking

I've been pleased to experience flow on multiple occasions while playing music and writing songs late at night. I often finish up conference calls and go straight to my guitar, plug in and start playing. It seems to soothe the tension of living behind a screen and working in another timzeone.

Music's a discipline that I very much look forward to investing in over the years. If this is how I feel about an instrument I've played for 18 months, I can only imagine how I will feel after 18 years of consistent deliberate practice.


There were a couple things that cropped up which I felt necessary to describe as anti-flow. Hopefully I can make changes to reduce those activities in my life and increase the flow states...


These mind maps brought great insights about what engages me, energises me and cultivates flow. I thought I had good self awareness before this exercise, but now I have a clear and simple understanding of what I need more of in my life and what I need less of...

Now, comes the task of designing alternative life plans based on the insights in these mind maps.

I can't wait!

What do you think? Can you relate?

I benefit from articulating my thoughts in words. If you're reading and have any thoughts to share, please do send them my way. I'm always happy to share ideas and hear where other people are along their journey.

You can reach me at or find me on twitter (@iamjohnellison).