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Leverage Mind Mapping to Manage Large Research Projects

Research is not about ideas but execution and perseverance or strategy. When reading a paper I often think: “Oh this approach is so self-evident”, but behind the red thread of an argument is a labyrinth of possibilities and dead-ends that the authors explored before publishing their paper – it is everything but self-evident. To get out of this labyrinth yourself you need a clear system of documenting what works, what doesn’t, and your ideas along the way.

Using Obsidian’s wonderful Canvas feature here is how you can organize your research to always know where you are at, and where you are going and publish that paper twice as fast.

The system builds on a few main ingredients that are tied together using Obsidians Canvas.

  1. Project Note
  2. Research Question Notes
  3. Progress Notes
  4. Research Canvas for organizing direction (i.e. next steps)
  5. Results Canvas for organizing my progress/insights

Let’s look at each of these ingredients and how they form an elegant system for organizing big research projects. If you want to learn the exact details of the entire process, check out my Academic Knowledge Management Webinar.

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1. The Project Note

Create a project note, which will be a central hub for everything related to this particular part of your research. Think of the final result of a project as a published paper. The main constituents of a project notes are:

  • A list of progress notes
  • A list of research questions
  • A reading list of related papers
  • Any related notes, resources etc
  • A short tag that you can use to link other notes uniquely to this project. (e.g. #vcp)

Essentially a project note is a central hub that ties everything together. Initially, it will be a useful note in itself, but over time it becomes more of a background actor that ties everything together and you will use other means to tie together the content.

2. Research Question Notes

These notes capture a single research question. They contain an idea and a desired outcome. They are clear, precise and relevant. Now every finding, plot or discovery you make always has to answer to one of these questions, if it doesn’t it is often just “interesting” but not relevant to help you advance your research. Looking at things that are “interesting” is one of the biggest time sinks in research – while they might lead to serendipity, they often are a form of procrastination on advancing on the hard issues that matter.

Here is a list of my research questions inside the project notes.

Explanation of research questions inside obsidian.

I use a simple template with a parent property that links to the project note. This is a method I call parent-sibling-structure and you can learn more about it in this tutorial (which also contains the dataview query used in this example). The question note contains a few more things:

  • A specific formulation what is the question
  • Ideas on how to achieve this
  • If the question is completed I add relevant plots and explanations on how I solved it and what the result was.
  • A box at the top with a short summary of the result to be able to skim.
Screenshot of Obsidian showing a note on a research question.

3. Progress Notes

Every day, after making some progress, I write it down. I do a lot of data mining in my work, so every day, I generate new plots and make new conclusions. My progress notes contain three core elements:

  • Metadata for navigation (sounds trivial but is surprisingly helpful in practice)
  • A description/conclusion about my progress
  • Next Steps. This section is crucial to keep track of ideas and their development.
  • Screenshots of plots so when I re-read my note, I can immediately see the results and visually anchor them in my memory.

This is how it looks:

Screenshot showing a research progress note.

Quite often, your findings will not make sense, and often, I make mistakes. But I can always go back and recheck my assumptions and conclusions from days ago. When I have meetings or have to make bigger conclusions all I need to do is navigate through my notes and look them up. During this process ideas quite naturally come to you. 

Small tip: The Prev/Next properties are just links to the neighboring notes; these are extremely useful in everyday use!

4. Research Canvas: Tracking the entire research project

Obsidian Canvas is one of the most valuable tools for making sense of an extensive body of information. Our minds are excellent at remembering locations, not text. This is why mind mapping works so well – it is like riding a mental bicycle instead of walking – same input but much faster movement.

Additionally, research is not linear, so a to-do list doesn’t work well. Much better suited, therefore, is a branched graph-like structure. The canvas consists of essentially three types of elements:

  • Completed tasks or ideas and briefly the result. Marked with ✅. These often link to →
  • Progress notes which contain more information. These often link to →
  • New tasks or ideas. I think of them as loose ends of a train of thought. I can pick any of those up and start working on it. Marked with 🛑.

This is how it can look:

Obsidian Canvas for Academic project planning

The goal of this canvas is to document what thought led to what felt and to prevent you from going in circles. It helps you (and colleagues) understand a thinking process spanning months or even years. It also keeps track of other ideas you had but did not work on yet. Whenever you are stuck in one project branch, just zoom out and check the other open tasks to continue working elsewhere. Notice also that progress notes can be placed here as well!

5. Results Canvas:Tracking and documenting research progress

The research canvas from the previous step helped you understand where you are going, but it needs to be brief to keep an overview. On the other hand, the progress canvas is much more detailed and can also document parts of your code.

Obsidian Canvas being used to track progress and results of a research project

This board is a visual overview of all my results. The screenshot above shows you an entire week’s worth of work. This approach makes it easier to synthesize information as you have a bird’s eye view of your research.

In my research, I deal with a lot of code, and each file generates plots. Naturally, I structure my results using these plots; something else might make much more sense for your research. The critical part, however, is that you see everything in one place, and whenever you need even more information, you can navigate into the progress note itself.

Managing a large research project

The system here solves two main problems: Getting an overview of all my results and getting an overview of all my unexplored possibilities. If you imagine yourself in a maze, the former is a documentation of all the turns you have already explored, and the latter are all the turns you have yet to explore. And this is all you need to find the exit of the maze eventually!

It takes time to get used to documenting your findings this way, but after a week, you will feel a sense of clarity and remorse for not starting earlier. The bare minimum you will need is to document your progress in daily notes and use a canvas to collect them and the conclusions you draw from them.

This workflow will be part of the Academic Knowledge Webinar/Recording. If you are keen to learn more join in!