What is a brain dump?

In many of my productivity workshops, one of the exercises we do is a 5 minute brain dump. What’s a brain dump?

It’s literally an emptying of the mind. And it’s the key to offloading the mental load.

For 5 minutes, I ask participants to simply write down anything and everything that comes into their mind that they have to do or think they have to do . Nothing is too small. Open questions count. Work? Home? Both!

Now, will they get everything out of their mind in 5 minutes? Of course not.

But it’s a good start and it helps them to see just how much they are storing in their heads, and the value of getting it out, even in those few short minutes.

Doing a massive brain dump is also one of the first things I do with all of my clients. It’s the starting point to creating a single trusted system.

How does it feel?

In these workshops, after we do the 5 minute brain dump, I always ask how it felt to start getting that stuff out of their heads. And without fail, the responses fall into 2 distinct categories: it was cathartic (or freeing, a relief) OR it was overwhelming.

And what I try to assure everyone who felt overwhelmed, was that it’s the same amount of stuff, whether it’s inside your head or outside your head. It’s just so much easier to manage when it’s outside of your head.

When it’s outside of your head you can see it all. You can prioritize linearly. When it’s inside your head, it’s a jumble, a swirl. You always feel like you’re missing something; you’re just not sure what it is. You grasp at a task, only to lose your grip when another floats by.

Outside your head, you can put order around it all. You can see, with clarity, that it won’t all be done today. (Instead of over-optimistically, and falsely, assuming it can.) And therefore you can make decisions about what’s more important, and what can wait. You can get closer to “task realism”.

Think of your mind like the kitchen sink

A few weeks ago one of my sons was doing the dishes and I could tell he was frustrated. There were a million dishes in the sink; it was hard to see what was what. Or where to start.

I went over to him and said, “lets spend a minute to take out all the stuff and stack it up next to the sink, so you have some room to work in there”. He looked at me like I was stupid. But I proceeded anyway. (Mental fortitude practice for the teen years that are right ahead of me.)

It just took a minute, but once it was out of the sink, and stacked up to the side, he could see that there was actually less to do than he thought. And not only that, but it was faster to do and put away.

And I thought to myself, this is exactly why we do a brain dump!

Imagine your sink full of dirty dishes, all jumbled up. Some are big crusty pots. Some have just a few crumbs. You need the vegetable peeler, but you don’t want to do all the dishes, so you’re rummaging your hand in there to get it and then you stab yourself with the tip of the knife. Or there are so many dishes in there that you start washing and water starts spraying everywhere because you’ve hit something convex. Or you wash 1/2 a plate and it slips out of your hands so you grab another and start over.

However, if you take it all out of the sink and stack it all up its so much easier to see what’s there, to clean methodically, to put things away, to avoid breaking things. There’s room in there to actually see what you’re doing.

It’s so much easier to deal with when it’s not all a jumble in the sink. But it’s the same amount of stuff.

Does it take an extra minute to take it out and stack it up? Yep.

But it’s well worth it because the rest of the experience is so much more pleasant. It’s less stressful. The work actually goes faster and you’re much less likely to break anything. (You make up much more than that minute spent stacking.)

The same is true of task management. If you take a few minutes to get it all out of your head, and to organize what you do before your start, it’s much less stressful, much more effective and you get more done in less time.

And, there’ll be more available space in your head to actually focus on what you’re trying to work on, instead of working to remember all the things, or bat away errant thoughts as you try to focus.

How to brain dump

And I’ve got some even better news for you. If you’d like to use the brain dump method, it’s super easy to get started:

  1. Grab a pen and paper, or better yet, your task app.
    • (Don’t have a task app? My favorite is TickTick.)
  2. Start writing out everything that comes to your mind that you have to do, or find out.
  3. When your mind feels empty, or you can’t think of anything else, start thinking a bit more methodically: What do you need to do daily, weekly, monthly, annually? Are there categories of tasks that would spark more items to pull out of the recesses of your brain? Calls to make? Things to return? Items to buy?
  4. Then decide WHEN you’ll do these things. And remember, “today” is not a reasonable timeframe for everything on your list.
    • If you want some additional info about how to manage tasks here are a few videos I made about how to use TickTick optimally, but the concepts can be applied in any system.
  5. On an ongoing basis, to prevent the build up of more stuff in your mind, when something comes up that you have to do, or you have a thought about something you’d like to do, add it to your system.

When else can you use the brain dump strategy?

Brain dumps are a good long term strategy for task management, and they’re a great in-the-moment stress reducer. Here are a few more ways to apply this technique:

  • If you start to feel overwhelmed, take 5 minutes to do a brain dump. (You’ll be able to more easily put structure around what you need to do.)
  • Before you end your workday, take 5 minutes and do a brain dump. (It’ll be easier to disconnect from work instead of cycling through work thoughts at the dinner table, when you’re trying to be present with your family.)
  • Before you go to sleep, take 5 minutes and do a brain dump. ( In fact, studies show that people who do a brain dump before bed actually fall asleep faster than those who don’t.)

Try the brain dump strategy today, and let me know how it goes!