Here’s a riddle: What’s 75% water, has the consistency of jello, has a total network longer than the distance between Earth and the moon, yet only weighs three pounds? The answer: That annoying organ between our ears that doesn’t grasp the concept, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.
If there’s one thing certain about the most complex object in the universe, it’s that our brain generates a LOT of ideas. This nonstop stream of consciousness flows untreated, unfiltered – and has the uncanny power to rob us of life’s enjoyments, even were our body lounging on a sunlit balcony off the Almafi Coast.
Thus, we all should know how to do a brain/mind dump. A brain dump session involves two stages. First, write down or type as many of your thoughts as possible in one sitting. Second, process these by 1) categorizing them using the Eisenhower Method, 2) converting them into actionable steps, and 3) maintaining this to-do list in your bullet journal or planner.
This blog post teaches you how to do a solid brain dump. More importantly, though, you’ll be able to process the dump (hah!), separating its contents into either mental turds to be discarded or tasks that can be successfully managed.
What is the Brain Dumping Process?
A brain dump refers to the act of thoroughly jotting down your thoughts onto something physical like a piece of paper, a whiteboard, or a device, free of any internal judgment or bias. Everything that surfaces should be recorded until you start feeling relief. Mind onto paper, literally.
I learned this revolutionary concept from reading David Allen’s popular book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity several years ago.
While the above statement paraphrases a mind dump, many are still confused as to how to do one. I think the main reason is due to how it can be broken down into two stages and it’s the latter that causes issues:
- The “gathering” stage. This is the easy part. Like using a giant net to catch a large batch of fish, you’re hauling up as much of your stream of consciousness as possible.
- The processing stage. What was previously invisible and shapeless are now revealed and concrete. But you must process your “catch” by determining which thoughts are trash and which need further attention. This is the more intimidating phase.
Purpose of the Process
The purpose of a brain dump is two-pronged. First and foremost, it lessens the amount of stress and anxiety you feel by clarifying, prioritizing, and then helping you to make a complete list of tasks in your life. Second, it elevates your self-worth by making you a more productive and organized person.
The Brain Dump Exercise, Step-by-step
Here are the things you’ll need:
- Blank medium. I prefer a sheet of paper or a page. But you can use anything you want, such as a digital writing app. Make sure it has plenty of blank space and enables you to work quickly and easily.
- 4 different colored pens. To categorize all of the items efficiently, I find using color to be the best tool. You can skip the pens if you’re opting to use a device, obviously.
- Your personal planner. Your system has to appropriately keep track and remind you of your open tasks and projects. A calendar, a bullet journal, and a GTD (Getting Things Done) app are all viable options.
- Enough undistracted time
Stage One: The “Gathering” of Thoughts
Step 1 – Free Up Time
Give yourself ample UNDISTRACTED time. Especially for the initial brain dump is this important. You want to be alone with your stream of consciousness. You might be shocked how long your list will get, but that’s perfectly normal. After all, you’ve got so much crap stored up there!
Step 2 – Create Your Brain Dump List
With pen to paper (or stylus to screen), begin ruminating. Write every thought down as soon as it comes up – no reservations. A chain reaction will soon occur where one thought triggers another. Grab, grasp, snatch, snap – don’t hold back! Secure them all in permanence.
You can write in list form or attempt some organization by using a mind map or tables. But the gathering stage is inevitably disorderly, so don’t worry too much about structure.
Also, if you need to turn the page, then turn the page, however many times it takes.
There IS, however, something you MUST pay attention to. According to David Allen’s GTD method, the key to a successful brain dump is turning as many of your thoughts as possible into SPECIFIC, ACTIONABLE TASKS. How? By using a verb at the front of the phrase!
For example, if you think of “Sam’s wedding”, is it possible to narrow this general thought down into specific, individual tasks? How about
- RSVP to Sam’s wedding
- Buy a card for Sam’s wedding
- Plan a stag for Sam before his wedding
I can’t stress this point enough. The more “doable” your thoughts are, the more effective your brain dump will be. Sure, you’ll still come up with tons of abstract, undefinable items. But it’s so, so, SO important to try and make a plan for each thought, if at all possible.
Dump For How Long?
Don’t worry about the time. Instead of thinking, “How long should I write for?”, think, “Is what I wrote enough?”.
Write until you realize that most new thoughts coming to mind have already been recorded AND you feel a sense of relief beginning to set in. I’m not exaggerating when I say that you’ll feel a weight lifted from your shoulders after a thorough brain download.
A quick tip: Especially for the first time, don’t brain dump while you’re multitasking or under any sort of time crunch or pressure. For instance, doing it while on public transportation or a 15-minute coffee break wouldn’t work as well as during a lazy afternoon in solitude.
Stage Two: Processing It All
Stage two, as I call it, is where people tend to lose their way. But with these clear-cut steps, you’ll be able to succeed in leveraging your brain dump for stress-relief and productivity.
Step 3 – Organize Your Action Plan
Use the Eisenhower Method to categorize everything on your list. Don’t fret, because the method isn’t as complicated as it sounds. It’s the perfect solution for dissecting your mind dump.
In a nutshell, the Eisenhower Method uses four categories to classify 1) which tasks should be done ASAP, 2) which ones should be done later, 3) which ones should/could be delegated to others, and 4) which ones should/could be abandoned. These categories are
- Important and Urgent (highest priority tasks that should be done ASAP)
- Important, but Not Urgent (long-term tasks, projects, and goals that don’t have a firm deadline but nevertheless must be done)
- Not Important, but Urgent (tertiary tasks that you can give to others or complete yourself only if everything in the first two categories are finished)
- Not Important and Not Urgent (tasks that are a complete waste of time)
Here are several examples:
- Refill meds (2 days left) would fall under “Important and Urgent”
- Refill meds (1 month left) would fall under “Important, but Not Urgent”
- Buy diced tomatoes for tonight’s taco dinner goes into “Not Important, but Urgent”, so either Casey or me could swing by the supermarket after work
- Watch hockey highlights definitely fits “Not Important and Not Urgent”
Use Color To Organize
I find using color to be the most efficient, painless way to reorganize my list into four categories. It saves me from the extra time-consuming step of having to rewrite all my items as I sort them out.
First, designate a color for each of the Eisenhower categories. Then, in assembly-line fashion, color label all of the items according to the category they belong to. You can bullet, highlight, or underline the items.
What About the Stressful or Abstract Thoughts That Aren’t Action Items?
Granted, our biological brain stores much more than executable actions like those found in Task Manager. Unlike actionable thoughts, some musings are abstract, undefinable, or downright weird. And yet, they could be the biggest source of stress and anxiety.
So, how can you process these using a brain dump? Try the following:
- Ask yourself, “Is there really no way for me to turn this into a set of action steps or individual tasks?”
- Convert the thought into a journal prompt and write about it
- For serious, troublesome thoughts, confide in someone you trust about them
As an example: Fred is mad at me
Unsettling, for sure. But is there a way for me to break this anxious thought down into a couple of action items? Yes! First, find out what happened between me and Fred. If necessary, have a heart-to-heart with Fred to fix the misunderstanding. If all goes well, treat Fred to a beer.
Another example: When will this pandemic end?
Since there’s either no way (or I’m too lazy) to turn this thought into individual tasks, I’ve set it aside as a bullet journal prompt where I can expand on my insecurities and find encouraging reasons to face the future with confidence.
Step 4 – Purge Generously
Discard, discard, discard!
This step is crucial for brain balance. Don’t hold back in labeling unimportant items as turds. Most of these should happen to be in your “Not Important and Not Urgent” category, but some may also reside among the “Not Important, but Urgent” items.
I’d also recommend you clear out as many abstract thoughts from your list as possible. The thing with these is since they’re unactionable, it might be a while before you can truly tackle them. They’ll languish on your list until they fester, causing guilt whenever you see your list.
Without discarding many of your items, a brain dump becomes pointless. In fact, it becomes another stress-inducer in your life. So, be liberal in deleting unnecessary clutter!
Step 5 – Your Refined Brain Dump List
If you followed all of the previous steps wholeheartedly, the actual doing of the items from your brain dump will feel, well, almost brainless. That’s because you’ve set up a systematic way to deal with the mess in your head.
It’s empowering when you know how to do a brain dump effectively!
After pruning and trimming, you should be left with four refined, color-coded categories of tasks or projects. You’ll likely also have a batch of sensitive items in the form of journaling prompts or things to discuss with a confidant.
For “Important and Urgent” items
Remember, these should be your highest priority tasks and projects. Since “Important and Urgent” items must get done ASAP, there’s no point transferring them to your planner. Keep them on your brain dump list and cross each item off as you complete it.
For “Not Important, but Urgent” items
I’m assuming all of the things in this list made the cut. Although things within this category aren’t technically “important”, you shouldn’t procrastinate in doing them. Or, at least delegate as many as you can right away.
David Allen of the GTD method recommends IMMEDIATELY doing tasks that can be done within two minutes. For example, if order on Amazon before the sale ends today can be done within two minutes, then just do it now.
For items to be scheduled for later
Migrate, or transfer, all of the things that need to be done at a later date onto your planner. This would include everything in the category, “Important, but Not Urgent”, for example.
With one-step tasks, jotting a brief note on your calendar or log as a reminder would be fine.
But what about more complicated, multi-step projects? It’s best to break these down into single, actionable components. For example, Plan Romnick’s farewell party might become
- Arrange a meeting with Romnick to discuss venue & invitees
- Book the venue for Romnick
- Design invitation cards
- Buy blank cards to print the invitations on
- Call Sid to let her know she can begin the decorating
A quick tip: Do you see how Step 5 would become so much easier to implement if Step 2 were done properly? So, always try to write down actionable thoughts. Or, at least have an actionable plan in place for the more abstract ones, such as converting them into journaling prompts.
Benefits of Using a Brain Dump
In the realm of advanced brain-scanning technology, what could seriously beat a brain dump? How else would you get your hands on a simplified roadmap to your neural network and interpret it off the bat?
I mentioned earlier the purpose of a brain dump is to lessen stress and anxiety as well as to make you more productive and organized. Here’s how:
- Clarity of mind. The list generated by your brain dump is like a window to your mind’s ‘Root’ folder. All in clear view, the files that were otherwise encrypted can now be scrutinized and scanned. And, once all the junk’s gone, your inner processor will run more smoothly.
- The best chance for EVERYTHING to get done. Keeping all of the tasks you need to do in your head is highly inefficient. By the time your most nagging errands are out of the way, you’ve either already forgotten the other things or don’t have the zeal to do them. A well-organized priority list, however, is much easier to fulfill. Plus, nothing ever falls through the cracks with a written list.
How Often Should You Do a Mind Dump?
I don’t believe it’s necessary to dump our brains as frequently as our-
OK, I won’t say it. The crude humor is childish, I know.
Seriously, though, just schedule brain dumping sessions ON OCCASION. Unless you’re the CEO of Hectic Life Inc., there’s no need to empty the contents of your head every morning or bedtime.
You can be just as productive if you perform a dedicated brain dump session once a week, once every two weeks, or further out. Many bullet journaling enthusiasts prefer a monthly brain dump. You yourself are the gauge for how quickly your brain fills up, not an arbitrary schedule.
Also, although your first session may last a long time and produce one giant to-do list, subsequent exercises might not require as much effort. Just as the first deep clean of a house eases subsequent cleans, provided they’re regular, an initial “deep clean” of your mind eases the effort of future “cleaning sessions”.
What if I can’t think of anything for my brain dump?
All you need is a few prompts and I’m sure the brain drain will unclog. Try some of these:
- What projects do you need to start?
- Have you made any commitments recently?
- Do you owe anybody anything?
- Which special occasions are coming up?
- Are you specifically involved in preparing for any special occasions?
- What do your spouse, your kids, or other relatives need/want from you?
- Is there anything in need of maintenance or repairs?
- Are there any deadlines coming up?
- How’s your health?
- Are you feeling happy, satisfied, or fulfilled recently?
- What hobbies or fun things should you spend more time on?
Are there other words that can replace “brain dump”?
This gets asked a lot and I don’t understand why. “Brain dump” is a perfect header for your elegant bullet journal. If you’re a proper lady or gent, however, and wish for no such wording upon your notebook, then try these suggestions:
- Mind Sweep (from David Allen’s GTD)
- Cognitive Download (for the sophisticated and IT-savvy)
- Brain Detox / Brain Cleanse (might ring better than “dump”)
- Brain Tornado? (eh, it was worth a shot)
If none of the above aliases satisfy you, then feel free to invent your own!
Introducing the Eisenhower Matrix – www.eisenhower.me
Getting Things Done Official Web Site – gettingthingsdone.com