How to do a brain dump
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How to Do a Brain Dump

How to do a brain dump

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Have you ever done a brain dump?  Do you know how to do a brain dump?

A Brain Dump is a great tool for helping you manage your time efficiently.

I first tried them many years ago. Now I do them all of the time. I can assure you that brain dumps can be enlightening.  They can also be a bit frightening. 

What is a brain dump? 

In a nutshell, it’s simply taking all.the.things that you want to do and writing them down.   Typically, this includes all of the tasks and activities that you want to accomplish. You’re taking the information that you’ve been storing in your brain and writing it down on a piece of paper.   

So instead of letting all of those things float around in your head, taking up valuable brain space, they are now neatly (well, maybe not so neat – but if you can read it, that’s good enough) compiled on a written list. 

In David Allen’s Getting Things Done book, he refers to this as a Mind Sweep. It’s also sometimes referred to as a brain drain or a mind purge, but a Brain Dump is definitely the most common term.

A brain dump is an absolutely fantastic thing to do, but it is just a first step.  What you do with that list of things after you’ve written them down is what’s really important.  We’ll talk more about that later.

Although there are no rules with doing a brain dump, there are some tips and tricks for making it a success.  I have two personal experiences to share with you.  The first was a huge failure.  The second was a huge success.

First, the failure…

How Not to Do A Brain Dump

The first time I did a Brain Dump was about 20 years ago.

I typed out everything that was in my head that I wanted to do into an Excel spreadsheet.  This was done over the course of several days.  It was a horrendously long list, but those things were out of my head.  That was a good thing.

I even added a column in the spreadsheet that assigned each task/activity to a category.  That was a good thing too.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as I got. I didn’t do anything else to organize or utilize that long, long list. 

Over the course of the next year, about once every other month or so, I would come across that list on my computer.  I would go into the spreadsheet and add a strike through to each item I had done.

I didn’t add any new items to it, I just crossed off tasks that had been done.

By the end of the year, I had completed many of the items on that spreadsheet. Yay! But, it sure didn’t feel like a success to me.

There were so many tasks still on the list that I had wanted to get done, but didn’t.  Not to mention, there were a lot of additional tasks now in my brain that I also wanted to do. 

I just looked at that list and decided I would never get them all done.  Never again did I look at that list.

I share that story, to tell you that that is NOT the way to use a brain dump.

A Brain Dump Success Story

Now, let me share another brain dump experience. 

About 12 years ago, I had just moved into a new house.  I had taken a week of vacation from work to get my new house in order.

At the end of the prior week I did a brain dump of all the things that I wanted to get done at the house during my week off.  Nothing else.  Just the tasks to be done at the house that very week.  I had no other commitments that week, so that was all I needed to write down.

It was a lengthy list and I weeded through it a few times to make certain that I really felt that all of those tasks were necessary. 

Write it Down

I wrote all the tasks that made the cut in large letters on a whiteboard. Throughout the next week, I completed each of those tasks, one by one.

As I went through the week, I marked one task after another off that list.  On the following Saturday morning, I marked off the final task on that whiteboard.

I cannot begin to describe what a fantastic feeling that was. It felt so good that I wanted to repeat it. 

And I have.  Many, many times since then. You can do the very same thing.

I’m going to share my process with you, so that you can give it a try.

As you will see, I use a pen and paper for my brain dumps, but it is certainly possible to do one in a bullet journal, on your computer, or even your phone.  The choice is yours.

What is a brain dump

How to Prepare for a Brain Dump

Set aside some time

First, of all, set aside some time for doing the brain dump.  A small brain dump (for a specific time frame or project) should take about half an hour. 

A larger brain dump (say for a month, or a year, or just everything) will require more time.  Set aside an hour to begin with and take a break halfway through.  You may need additional time, so we’ll talk more about that later on.

A large brain dump takes a lot of time.  Just think about how many thoughts are in your head.  That’s a whole lot to get out and put on paper.

Gather your supplies

Secondly, get some supplies.  Brain dumps don’t have to be blah and boring.  They can be fun!

You’ll need:

  • Some paper.  I highly suggest going old school and using paper to begin with.  You can get some fun or pretty paper, or download the free Brain Dump Printable I’ve created just for you.  It’s in the password protected Printables section on the blog. When you sign up for our newsletter we’ll send you the password.  You can make as many copies as you need.
  • A pen.  If you have a special pen, by all means use it if you want to, but any pen will do.  A pencil is also fine, if that’s what you prefer.
  • A set of colored highlighters. This makes this task a little more fun. I love this highlighter set.  They are retractable which makes them super easy to use.  Plus, the set of 8 colors has just the right number of colors for me.

Okay, that’s all you need to get started.  Are you ready?

How to do a Brain Dump

Let’s do a brain dump for just next week. I call this a Limited Brain Dump, because it’s for something specific.  It will probably take you 15 – 30 minutes to complete.

Here are the steps:

  1. Write down all the things you want to get done next week.  Make sure you include any scheduled appointments that you have.
  2. Assign each of the items/tasks to a category. 

Some ideas of categories you may want to use are:

  • home
  • family
  • work
  • church
  • financial
  • friends
  • errands
  • dreams

Use a different color of highlighter for each specific category.  This will make your next steps much easier.

For example, you could use a blue highlighter for home tasks.  And a pink highlighter for things to do with your family.  Perhaps you could use a yellow highlighter for tasks associated with your work.  Of course green is a great color to use for any financial items on your list. And so on. Just use whatever colors work for you.

That’s it.  Those two steps are all you need to do a brain dump for one week.

When to Use a Brain Dump (limited)

You can use this same method for doing a brain dump for a week, a special project, a month, planning a vacation or event, etc.  The list is almost endless.  Keep in mind that a limited brain dump is just for something specific or a short period of time.  Some brain dumps take more time than others, so set aside the time accordingly.

Best Brain Dump Tips

When to Use a Brain Dump (unlimited)

It is also a good choice to do a total or unlimited brain dump every once in a while (once every 6 months is a good plan or at least once a year).  It will take a lot longer, but you may enjoy getting everything out of your mind and on to paper.  Using this Brain Dump list to create an Action Plan is a great tool for helping you manage your time wisely.

How to do a Brain Dump (unlimited)

The steps for doing an unlimited brain dump are the same as the limited brain dump.  But, there is one major difference.  It will take a lot longer,  You will need to set time aside.

I suggest setting aside 60 minutes to begin with and taking a break in the middle.  Then over the course of the next week, you will need an additional 5 – 10 minutes each day to keep adding items to the list as they come to your mind. 

At the end of the week, when there are no more tasks hanging around in your brain, you can begin the step 2 (categorizing) task.

You will probably have a long list of items on your Brain Dump list by this time, so be sure to set aside another hour or two for this task.  Don’t forget to take breaks every 1/2 hour or so.

When you have completed step 2 (assigned each item a category), you are done with your Brain Dump.

Now it is time to make good use of the effort you put into doing a Brain Dump. You can use this list to help you get those things done. 

You see, as I learned with my first Brain Dump experience, this process is just one part of a bigger process to help us manage your time better

What to do with your Brain Dump list?

Although your brain dump is now complete, a brain dump alone won’t help you get the work done.

Now, you need to create an Action Plan for the most important items on your list. 

As you saw in my two personal examples, the value of a Brain Dump doesn’t lie in getting the items out of your mind and on to paper.  The true value lies in what you do with your list. 

We need to create an action plan to make sure that the items on this list, that truly need to be done, will get done.  That is what I failed to do with my first Brain Dump experience.

We talk about deciding the importance of an item and adding it (or not) to your To Do List in our next post – Creating your Weekly Action Plan.

How to do a brain dump
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