5 Steps to Do a Brain Dump (with Templates)

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Do you ever feel so overwhelmed that you basically become frozen? You have so much on your plate or so much work ahead of you that you don’t even know where to start?

Unfortunately, the state of having this overwhelming sense of busyness is what many Americans consider to be signs of success these days. If you’re time is spread way too thin, you must be in high demand.

But when I get to this point, I’m usually tempted to actually do nothing, which certainly is not a sign of success.

Many of us have a bad habit of allowing tasks to be left undone and to build up–whether it’s big tasks (completing a grad school application) or small, everyday ones (doing the dishes).

Once you’ve got all of these things compounding in your life, of course you will feel overwhelmed. At that point, it’s tempting to simply look the other way.

What helps me in these situations is doing a brain dump. When I think of a brain dump, I equate it to cleaning up the desktop of my computer or erasing my browsing history.

Like a computer, your brain can process things a lot faster when you’re not trying to store a bunch of stuff up there all at once. If you “clear the history” in your brain every once in a while when it’s starting to get full, you will be better equipped to be productive.

In this article, we will talk about what a brain dump is and then go over how you can use this trick to increase your own productivity. I will also suggest some templates and journals (such as brain dump bullet journals) that you can use to help you do a successful brain dump.

But first, let’s talk more about what this process is.

What is a Brain Dump?

A brain dump is a (not so fancy) term for an unorganized list of the chaos that is going on inside of your head. It is when you take all of the ideas or thoughts that you have and put them in a more “permanent” place (such as on paper).

By getting all of the ideas out of your mind, you’re able to focus on just one thing without having to worry that you’re going to forget everything else.

A brain dump acts as a release and it forces you to face the facts. It’s the act of removing all of your worries, questions, feelings, to-do lists, etc. from your brain and putting them elsewhere.

This is one of several habits successful people utilize to help plan their day. To learn more about these habits, watch the video below for the 9 evening routine habits of the world’s most successful people.

The reason this is effective is because doing a brain dump allows you to turn your abstract thoughts into tangible to-do items. When you’re under a lot of stress, you experience this tornado of thoughts where nothing is really able to be captured.

A sense of anxiety about an upcoming event may enter your consciousness for a minute, which makes you think of something you have to do, which then makes you think of something you’ve forgotten.

Eventually, your initial sense of anxiety will resurface, and it will continue to be in your cycle of thoughts until you take care of it. Trying to keep track of these thoughts without a tool is impossible.

By turning to paper, you’re able to nail your thoughts down in more absolute terms. Once something is written down, it’s not going anywhere. It can be removed from your cycle of thoughts.

Working through all of your thoughts and pinning them down one at a time can allow you to stop pursuing ideas that are only partially formed and put them in a more permanent place until you have the time and energy to focus on them individually.

I find that it’s best to do a brain dump each week, typically at the end of the week when things have piled up that I haven’t been able to take care of yet. This is especially true when I have a lot of small tasks on my plate that don’t really relate to each other in any way.

I may also do a brain dump midweek if I find myself overly anxious or I start to face things and have to think to myself: I don’t have time to think about that right now, I’ll have to deal with it later.

Even if I am really short on time, I feel that doing a brain dump ultimately helps me work more efficiently so I can be more productive moving forward.

Let’s look at some other times it could be helpful to do a brain dump.

When to Do a Brain Dump

This can look different for everyone, but there are certain stressors in life that many can relate to where doing a brain dump could be appropriate. Here are a few examples:

Of course there will be other times when doing a brain dump could be beneficial for you, but you get the idea. It is best if you can pinpoint your triggers so you know when you need to do a brain dump.

Being able to notice the circumstances under which you feel overwhelmed is a helpful tool that could help offset some stress.

Now that you know the what, the why, and the when, let’s look at the how.

The Process of Doing a Brain Dump

The nice thing about this tool is that it doesn’t really have any hard set rules. Your brain dumps can be as simple or complex as you need (or want) them to be.

You could do a small, daily brain dump if you find that to be therapeutic, or you can save them for when you’re feeling very overwhelmed and need a big release.

Let’s look at the steps.

Step 1: Write Everything Down

It’s up to you if you want to use scratch paper and a pencil or you want to use a more official tool for your brain dumps.

There are special pads of paper made specifically for brain dumps as well as daily journals to help you keep up with this habitCheck out this roundup of printable brain dump worksheets.

You may choose to get a special notebook or even get a planner for the year that incorporates space to perform brain dumps.

There is also a brain dump app that can help you if you prefer to perform your brain dump digitally, or you can type it up in a Word document and save it to your desktop. There are a lot of options here.

Once you have found the method that works best for you, write down everything that has been circling around in your head. Don’t leave out the small things and don’t limit yourself.

Include every single thing that you need to do or should think about in the near future. You don’t need to list them in any sort of order, just write them down as they come to you. Here’s a short example:

  • Put away the dishes in the dishwasher
  • Return client’s email
  • Pay utility bill
  • Buy mom a birthday present
  • My desk feels cluttered
  • Get the oil changed in the car
  • Call the credit card company to dispute a charge
  • Start outlining summer vacation plans
  • Write a thank you note to a friend
  • Water the plants at home
  • Prepare a presentation for a meeting next week
  • Drop clothes off at the drycleaners
  • Bring items from home to Goodwill to donate
  • I’m worried about my upcoming performance review
  • Spend at least two uninterrupted hours with my partner
  • Sew the button back on my sweater
  • Meal prep
  • Throw away expired medication

Consider the things that are bothering or distracting you.

Is there anything that you’ve been putting off or anything that’s urgent?

Is there something you’re dreading that’s coming up in the near future?

What are your Most Important Tasks (MITs) right now?

Write it all down.

Step 2: Create Some Order

After you’ve let yourself go by writing aimlessly (and possibly frantically), start over on a clean page and put everything into categories or sections.

This could look something like an Eisenhower Matrix, or you could separate your tasks into categories such as personal, errands, home, work, things that can wait, etc. Your categories will probably change over time.

Once you start thinking in terms of grouping tasks together, you may come up with some additional items to add to the list. As you’re thinking more, try to think in some type of order so you’re not jumping around any more.

Your initial brain dump should include everything that’s in the front of your brain, but as you’re creating order, think in terms of your life’s individual domains and write down relevant tasks (such as deadlines, things related to a particular project, house things, tasks related to relationship goals, etc.) instead.

Step 3: Take a Break

Everything is recorded in one way or another, so take a bit of time to do something else. Take time out for a hobby or to get some small things done around the house.

During this break, keep your list close to you in case you think about something you want to add. Sometimes things start to creep in last minute.

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Taking a break is important, take a bit of time to do something else.

Step 4: Assess and Prioritize

In the assessment stage, you’re going back to your list and essentially criticizing it.

What items on your list might actually never get accomplished?

What are some possible projects that interest you, but you may never really get around to doing them?

What are some things you simply want to “keep in mind”?

This could be things like:

  • New project ideas
  • Links to articles that you found motivating in some way that you want to keep track of in case you want to reference the advice later
  • Things other people have sent you to review
  • Tasks that are irrelevant to anything else you’re working on right now

After you assess your list and whittle it down as much as possible, circle the things that you can do right now and just do them so you can cross them out.

These will be small wins because they’re things you can get off your mind and off your list. Start a load of laundry, reply to an email, put the dishes away, hop online and buy that birthday present, etc.

For the tasks that you can’t finish right away, prioritize them and create a place in your schedule to do them. Devote a specific time to each thing so you can get it off of your to-do list.

If there is something that you don’t think needs to be done in the near future, you can keep a running list of the things you want to do “one day”.

The purpose here is to simplify your list so you can focus on as little as possible at one time. Research shows that when you focus on one thing at a time, you become more productive and make fewer mistakes.

Even if you want to complete a very long list of things – you have to take care of one thing at a time.

For anything that is on your list that is related to your feelings or emotions, add things to your schedule that will reduce the impact of whatever is bothering you. Engage in intentional and relevant self-care to address whatever is bothering you.

For example, if you’re stressed out because every time you walk into your house, you feel like it’s a disaster, which leads to deeper feelings of chaos, schedule a time (and stick to it) to clean out every room.

Create additional space for storage so you can put things away. Do anything that you think might reduce your negative feelings. 

Step 5: Take Action

Once you have scheduled a time to take care of an item on your brain dump list, you have to follow through.

Sometimes this may involve some planning, so your first step could be to set aside some time to create a list of tasks you need to do in order to reach an ultimate goal.

But regardless, you have to take that first step. Make your tasks as actionable as possible in your calendar to limit your ability to make excuses once the time comes.

For example, instead of writing “work on thank you notes”, write “complete and send thank you notes to Mary, John, and Rebecca before the mail goes out”.

Writing your plans out like this will increase the likelihood that you will follow through.

Final Thoughts on Doing a Brain Dump

The act of clearing and organizing your thoughts by writing them down is the first step to becoming more productive and less stressed. However, it is critical to then assess the actions that you need to take in order to conquer your list.

Find a method that works best for you when it comes to brain dumping and turn it into a habit. This will help you be your best self when doing your work, which will improve your performance and productivity.

And if you're looking for more resources to help you, be sure to check out these roundups:

Finally, if you want to level up your productivity and time management skills, then watch this free video about the 9 productivity habits you can build at work.

Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.

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