Years ago I had a boss who used “The Brain Dump” on a regular basis. And since I was his secretary – I was usually the notetaker and organizer of this dumping process. At the time I honestly hated his Brain Dumps and always cringed when he’d warn me one was coming.

But now that I’ve developed my own version of The Brain Dump, I can more fully appreciate how helpful it was for him back then. Because I find it such a valuable tool for my business and other areas of my life, I’d like to share it with you.

What is “The Brain Dump?”

The Brain Dump is a process where you allow all the cluttered thoughts in your brain to be written down on paper – to get it out of your head and in some type of tangible form that can later be tackled as a task list.

Why do we need a Brain Dump?

Your brain is not meant to be a hard drive, it’s meant for processing information and then creating an action based on that information. So we can’t expect it to hold all our to-do lists indefinitely and still be able to efficiently process the daily stuff the brain is responsible for (like keeping us alive and alert). Here’s a fascinating article written by Robert Epstein entitled “The Empty Brain: Your Brain is not a Computer.”

I’m a list person. I write everything on a list or add it to my calendar. If it’s not written down, I forget it. But that only applies to things that I know I have to accomplish right away – like this week’s grocery shopping list or a reminder on my calendar to pick up the dry cleaning on Thursday. Stuff like that always gets put on the list. But it’s all the other “stuff” that accumulates and starts to add clutter that needs to be cleared out to keep our brain running at pique processing speed.

A Brain Dump is for those jumbled thoughts that aren’t really ready for a formal to-do list just yet but are getting too close to the surface of our mindfulness that they’re causing problems with focusing on today’s tasks. Or things that are so far buried in your consciousness that they just seem to live in a dark corner of your brain, but they need to be shaken free and released to give you some peace and also to give you a starting point for dealing with them.

A Brain Dump can be used in any number of ways:

  • To make a goal list -– or a bucket list – of things you want to accomplish.
  • To make a task list of how you’ll accomplish a specific goal.
  • To purge jumbled emotional thoughts that are causing mental stress.
  • To make a list of tasks that need to be done for a specific project or event (great for event planning or vacations).
  • Or you can combine all the above (and whatever else you can think of) into one huge Brain Dump list that has no specific theme or purpose… but is a jumbled mess of items that are cluttering your mind and need to be released. This is the most common type of Brain Dump and the one I like the best.

For instance:  in the past few months I’ve made some big changes to the way I’m running my business and I’m making plans for the future. I’m planning to write some books and begin new habits and establish new routines for my day. I have family obligations and day job obligations and an upcoming vacation to prepare for. There are blog article ideas and ideas for how to solve design problems for my clients and ideas for what kind of s’mores I’m going to make over the campfire while I’m camping next week. So many things! If I didn’t release some of those pent-up thoughts soon, my head was going to explode!

So this past weekend I had a major Brain Dump session that lasted about 3 hours and ended up giving me over 25 pages of bullet points that still need to be sorted out. But now my brain is clearer and I have much more peace in my life right now.  The Brain Dump process is essential to me and my sanity – and the sanity of my loved ones!

I’ll share with you the steps I take for a formal Brain Dump, then you can adapt the process to your own preferences.  After you do it a few times, you’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t. But in the beginning, it’s best to follow the basic outline I’ll share with you and then you can adapt for your own needs.

For instance, even though I prefer to type my thoughts using a computer (I can type faster than I can write), I have found that I simply can’t do a real Brain Dump at the keyboard. I must use paper and pen and I must be in a place where I’m not distracted by other people or activities. It took me several failed Brain Dumping sessions to realize that doing it on a computer was holding me back. So now I know that I almost must write it out long hand.

I have a notebook that I carry with me everywhere and I use it for my daily business planning activities as well as keeping personal notes and interesting quotes or passages I come across during my day (I’ll tell you more about it one day). It’s based on the Midori Travelers Notebook system, but it’s an A5 size, so I have lots of space for writing and taking notes. In this notebook I have a section specifically for Brain Dumps. I suggest you also find a notebook that you keep just for Brain Dumps so you can keep all that information in one place.

Let’s get started. Set aside a couple hours of clear, quiet time and settle down with your notebook and a good, comfortable pen.

Here’s how I do The Brain Dump:

There are no rules. Nothing is off limits. Write down anything that comes to mind without restrictions. No judgments or criticism. Write down everything, even if it might be silly or stupid or unimportant or totally random — during a Brain Dump, everything is essential, write it all down no matter what. i.e.: If you suddenly remember that you need to change the lightbulb in your closet in the middle of your Brain Dump list, write it down – because if you let it linger in your head it will just become a distraction, but writing it down removes it from your brain and lets you move on.

Only use bullet points. Do not use complete sentences or paragraphs. You should only use 2 or 3 words per bullet point. Write only enough words for you to remember the thought or idea you need to remember – nothing more. If you have a follow-up thought, then make it a new bullet point.

  • One thought or task or idea per bullet point
  • Speed is essential. Write as fast as you can (but still be able to read your handwriting after this is done) and get as many thoughts out as possible.
  • Do not organize your thoughts. Bullet points should flow one right after another in no specific order. If thoughts are coming to you in random order, then write them down in random order.
  • Do not keep multiple lists for various thought processes. Just write everything down in one big long list down the page.
  • Write until your brain is clear and you can’t think of anything else to write down. You should sit quietly for several minutes after you think you’re done in case any additional thoughts come to mind. Do not rush this part… write for as long as it takes to clear your mind. Yes, it might take a couple hours.
  • Then close the notebook and walk away.
  • Do not open the notebook again for the rest of the day. Leave it alone. Put it in a drawer if you must. Don’t you dare open that notebook!
  • If you happen to think of other things that need to go on the Brain Dump list you should write it on a different piece of paper and add it to your notebook later.
  • Set a date with yourself to review your list. It should be no less than 24 hours after the final bullet point was written. Preferably you let it sit for several days.
  • After you finish the initial Brain Dumping process, something amazing happens.

You have peace. Suddenly your brain is not screaming at you with a million jumbled thoughts and ideas and goals and obligations. You’ve released all those thoughts and they are now down on paper – safely held within your notebook. You’re not going to forget any of the things that used to clutter up your brain, they’re all written down now. So take advantage of this peace you’ve given yourself. Be kind and pamper yourself with something nice (a bubble bath, a manicure, a new album by your favorite artist or do what I did and just sit and watch the sunset and enjoy the beauty of the day). Relax in the feeling of a clear mind.

Three or four days later …

Now that you’ve got this big long list of stuff you’ve dumped out of your brain, it’s time to do something with all those bullet points. The process for going through the bullet points really depends a lot on what’s on your list. So I’ll detail the steps below for a couple different types of lists – pick which one applies to you and run with it.

The Emotional Turmoil Brain Dump List

When we have a lot of emotional baggage that we need to work through, sometimes it can seem very overwhelming to look at the big picture of everything that needs to be dealt with. So a Brain Dump list for emotional and psychological issues can help make the process more manageable. For this type of list you would put one small problem on each line and just keep listing things until you’ve emptied your brain of the swirling thoughts. Rather than listing the big things on the list, you’d drill down and list all the little things that make up big issues. So instead of listing “relationship problems” as a single bullet point, you’d list individual problems within each of the relationships you want to work on.

Once you have a finished list, it’s time to deal with the items on the list one by one. DO NOT rearrange the list or try to organize it in any way. In fact, don’t even read the list. Just let it live on paper the way it was created. Take the first item on the list and write it down on a new sheet of paper. Then close the original list and don’t look at it again. Right now your only concern is that single item.

Set a timeframe for you to work on this single item. It could be a day or two or it could be a week or more – depending on the nature of that item and how much time you’ll devote to this process each day. Explore your thoughts and feelings about this single item and journal about as much as you need to. Meditate on the solution, write out your feelings, talk about it with a loved one if that’s appropriate. Do whatever you need to do in order to get this one single issue resolved.

Once you are “finished” with that single item – end it. If you literally need to write “The End” after your journal entry, then do it. Or if it’s just a mental acknowledgement that the topic is closed and you feel like it’s resolved, then just make that mental note. But make a formal END to the single item you’ve just worked through.

Now take a day off. Consciously allow your mind to be clear and take an emotional vacation day from the work you’ve just put in. Because tomorrow, you do the whole process over again with the second thing on your list.

Yes, this is a long process and it could take months or even years to work all the way through the list. As you think of new things to add to the list, you’ll just write them to the end of the current list and deal with them in order. The key is to keep your brain free of the emotional turmoil so you can continue to work on one small issue at a time and grow little by little along the way.

The To-Do List Brain Dump

When you’re planning a big event, a whole business strategy, vacation, project or just have a lot of stuff to do in life… you’ll likely have a list that looks like a huge task list. For this type of list you’ll actually work with the Brain Dump bulleted list after it’s done to organize it into categories so you can actually get these tasks done in an organized way.

You’ll want to start with some blank sheets of paper – one sheet for each of the main categories of tasks that are included on your Brain Dump list. It can be individual sheets of paper, or just new pages within a journal or even a computerized document – whatever works best for you. In fact, if you’re a computer geek like I am… you might want to check out Trello. It’s a project management and list organizing tool that works great for categorizing lots of different types of tasks so you can see them all in one space. At the top of each new page, write the category. Examples might be:

  • Household tasks
  • Business tasks
  • Kid tasks
  • Home improvement tasks
  • Whatever type of list makes the most sense for your content…

Once you have your multiple lists ready to go, start copying individual bullet points from the master Brain Dump list onto the category pages. You can organize the tasks on each list priority or in groups of like tasks. It might also be a good idea to decide which items need to be done right away and which things can be put off for several weeks or longer. Cross stuff off the Brain Dump list as you transfer them to the category lists and keep going until you are done.

Once you have several sheets of task lists, make a plan to complete all those individual to-do lists. Don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to do them all at once – that would defeat the purpose of the Brain Dump process. Instead, determine which things are most important and start there. You might want to mark priority tasks with a red star or something that works for you.

Combination Brain Dump Lists

More than likely you’ll end up with a Brain Dump list that is a combination of the above two types of lists. The way to deal with this is to go through your Emotional Turmoil list and pull off the Task List stuff. Cross off tasks as you remove them from the main Brain Dump list and leave the Emotional stuff alone – just ignore that stuff because you’re not allowed to be looking at those items, remember.

So now that you’ve got a perfectly clear brain, how does it feel? Have you learned anything about yourself along the way? Do you have a new world domination plan for your business? Have you added anything to the process that’s helped you – that might also help someone else? Please share it with us all.