Challenge / Change / Creativity / Sorting it Out / Transition / Writing

How to Catch a Fish (or Idea) in a Bubble (Chart)

Pictured here are Beta Splendids (a.k.a. Siamese Fighting Fish) developing in a bubble nest. (image from:

Pictured here are Beta Splendids (a.k.a. Siamese Fighting Fish) developing in a bubble nest. (image from:

Today’s dilemma: How does one catch a fish when there are so many fish in the sea? “A peculiar question,” you say? “Since when does abundance leave you starving?” you ask? Well, if you have ADD, ADHD, or are just a creative type with a zillion ideas in your head, you might see the reason in this riddle. If you are like me, you see a ton of opportunity (a ton of fish) but you’re so busy trying to capture them all, you come home at the end of the day empty handed. Impossible? If you think so, then you may not need to read any further. And, oh, by the way, I envy you.

For the rest of you who are still with me, I know how you feel. Since I’ve opened the floodgates to creative writing (fiction and nonfiction) writing, I cannot capture all the ideas rushing over me. I spend a lot more time than ever before organizing my notes of creative tips, tricks, ideas, methods, styles, structures, sources of inspiration . . . Oh, the list goes on and on. All these notes amount to buckets of bait that attract far too many fish–more than I can handle.

Struck with the realization I simply do not have enough years left of my life to pursue everything I wish to, I’ve decided to try a new approach to reviewing my ideas and my life. My intention is to complete as many pursuits/projects as possible. My chosen method: to catch my “fish” in a bubble. That is, a bubble chart.

bubble chart, mindmapping, tools for clarity

When you’re done, it’ll look like this but worse. That’s a good thing.

I’ve used bubble charts for many brainstorming sessions before and they’ve always given me clarity. There are online and purchasable software options for bubble charting, but I go about it the old-fashioned way. As a rule, my best brainstorming is done when I’m far away from a computer, maybe at a campsite or in the middle of a day hike. Wide-open spaces encourage wide-open thinking. I usually start with a large pad of paper (8-1/2″ X 11″ minimum!) and try my best not to write too big. I start in the center of the pad and jot down the overriding topic I need to explore and circle it when done. Then I draw ten or so lines from the circle outward, like the rays of the sun. At the end of each ray, I jot down subtopics representing the next level of thought or detail on the main topic. Each bubble from there on follows the same process with rays shooting out from bubbles as ideas arise. The process is also called mindmapping because the intention is to create each bubble as your mind naturally thinks of it.

When I start the process, I usually have the main topic in the center, a few subtopics around its perimeter, and then I head off in one direction with one subtopic, spawning a sea of bubbles as I go. When I’ve exhausted my thoughts on a topic, I’m done. It’s out of my head. EVERYTHING I can possibly conjure on the topic in the moment is captured in bubbles. I can return days or months later, look at it again, and add to it easily and naturally. And if I’m very lucky, one of the bubbles will contain a “fish”–a particular idea that I want to dedicate myself to pursuing. And this idea will exist in a framework of what led me to it. I don’t have to rehash the topic; I can pick up where I left off.

I especially like to study the overall results of my efforts and look for anomalies or patterns:

  • The most telling result is when I’m hot on the tail of an idea, when I think it’s the best thing since sliced, smoked salmon, and it turns out to be chum. I pursue the idea, expecting something great, but it kinda fizzles out. Whereas other ideas spawn 50 bubbles, this one spawns only four. I pay attention, because it might mean this idea is not worth my time. It is possible I don’t know enough about the topic, or it doesn’t capture my interest as much as other topics. It is up to me whether I want to research it more or let it go.
  • A pattern worth looking for is crossover topics–bubble contents that show up in more than one area of the finished chart. If crossover topics emerge, they deserve further examination.
    • Can and should the associated subtopics be grouped together somehow? The benefit of spending time on crossover topics is that time spent within one subtopic area complements knowledge/experience/time spent within another related subtopic area.
      Often, in these cases, I capture the related subtopics on a new bubble chart. When I transfer them to the new page, I redraw it so I can more easily connect lines to the one crossover topic, or I’ll designate a unique number to the crossover-topic and notate each instance of it on the chart. My goal is to give consideration to how the subtopics might be merged. For a fresh point of view, I might start a new bubble chart altogether with the crossover topic serving as the main topic in the middle of the page and see where it takes me.
    • Is the crossover topic better suited in one subtopic area over another? If so, after careful analysis, I remove it from the misplaced subtopic area on the bubble chart. The next time I review the bubble chart, I want the chart to accurately reflect where I left off.

Bubble charts are quick and effective. They provide clarity, spawn creativity, and allow me to walk away with a fish or two in my net that are worth eating; that is, a project or two worth pursuing. With all the fish that have been clobbering me in the head lately, it will be a welcome treat to sit and finally enjoy a complete meal.


Whether you have ADD, ADHD, or run-of-the-mill unbounded creativity and energy, how do you tackle the plethora of distractions or attractions vying for your attention to get the most important and meaningful things done?

For more on this topic, check out my post:  URGENT! Princess in Need of a Whiteboard!

12 thoughts on “How to Catch a Fish (or Idea) in a Bubble (Chart)

  1. Sue, I use a giant chalkboard and try to keep goals I set for myself. Somehow seeing it up there and writing things down instead of tapping on a computer calendar or notes software works better for me. I’m old school that way. I’ve heard mind-mapping works for some but I’ve never tried it. Maybe I should!

    • Hi, Brigitte. Mindmapping and bubble charts are different from the Things-I-Must-Do list(s). I use mindmapping when I’m fairly perplexed about a topic or project that has many possible avenues to reach the same end and requires I consider every possibility before proceeding. I’ve used it to help mastermind my “Swimming in the Mud” category structure, to explore the possible topics and therefore structure of a new blog, “Teardrop Adventures,” and to determine possible career-path routes. The Teardrop blog was actually born while I was camping on New Year’s Day and started mindmapping my New Year’s direction on an 8-1/2″X11″ pad. I’m primarily a visual person, but if a list just blows my mind for particularly large topics, the bubble chart usually saves the day!

  2. I have LOTS of bits of paper, diagrams, and note-books. I do a lot of drafting on paper or in books as I find it cements ideas better than computer. In my diagrams I have probably used a hierarchy system or a progression system, rather than bubbles, but these are much the same principles.
    Some of these things you can do on computers. For example, WORD has ‘smart-art’ options for this sort of thing.
    Speaking of WORD, have you used ‘outline’ view for structuring chapters, sections and sub-sections. You can make up to 9 children generations under a parent category. The 2013 version allows you to bring up a navigation bar down the left-hand side and shuffle chapters and sections around easily. The 2007 version has a ‘document map’ but you could not shuffle them around without going into ‘outline’ view. The new version makes it a lot easier. I have only just looked into this the past two weeks so I am no expert. However, it does appear to open up a lot of possibilities in organising creative work more effectively.

    • The WORD 2013 versatile document mapping sounds interesting for developing outlines, Elizabeth. I can see the value in it. I have the 2007 version at the moment. Definitely get back to me when you’ve had a chance to explore and let me know what you think, and whether it’s worth considering an upgrade. I have plenty of outline-driven projects that might benefit from it, technical writing straight through to novels and such.

      I agree that many of these tools can help to achieve the same end, but with the bubble method, there is no real hierarchy. You could use it in that way if you wish, but then it’s no different than a standard outline or hierarchy chart. It’s best to pick what works best for the individual, but there is an unstructured quality to the bubble method that allows me to chase my thoughts down a trail. When I go to town on it, it’s a bloody mess on the page, but I’m completely satisfied that EVERYTHING in my head is on paper–logical and illogical, orderly and random, all residing together. Ideas will appear in a thought (bubble) stream as they come to me, which sometimes has no relation to the stuff that came before it. It’s an approach that encourages being messy. Messy allows creativity to emerge.

      It harkens back to flow charts in the Information Systems and Technology field where we used pictorial symbols to represent a decision to be made, directions to take, a flow to follow, cycles to repeat. You may have used them yourself. When I used to do programming, it was easy enough to lose one’s place in a program, especially if someone else wrote it. By mapping out the living/breathing program, I was able to ‘see’ what the whole program looked like (vs. the lines and lines of meticulous, cryptic programming language) and could understand the overall logic surrounding the piece of code I was attempting to fix. My brain is much like a computer–lots of programs living alongside tons of random and linked pieces of information. Gosh! Come to think of it, my whole life is one big computer program in the making. Everytime I need to use a bubble chart, I’m at a decision point in the program!

  3. I love Bubble Charts, similar to you I use them frequently. Sometimes to pursue ideas and other times simply to establish focus. I need focus right now, perhaps I should do this exercise just for life.

    • That’s what I was thinking, too, Val. I’d like to apply it to some life challenges. I haven’t really done that before. There are plenty of things I’m trying to figure out right now. It’s good to have this one technique in my bag of tricks.

    • Thank you, my friend! I’m trying my best to make creativity a priority. Not easy to do when the practical, traditional mindset keeps vying for attention. Creativity, though, is as alluring as a candy store. 🙂

      I keep coming back to bubble charts; they’re rather unique in that they encourage you to keep running with your thoughts. It’s pure brainstorming. Anything and everything you can think of gets on paper. I really love that.

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