TABLE OF CONTENTS
Read Time: 30 minutes
This article covers a lot of information about various types of Brain Dump techniques. If you prefer to only read the sections that interest you, just click a link below to jump to the section you want to review. Then use the gray “back to top” arrow on the right side of your screen to come back to this Table of Contents to begin again.
When my brain gets cluttered and I start to feel overwhelmed and restless; when I have trouble focusing on today’s tasks because my brain keeps running through a list of all the other things I need to accomplish on other days; when I get grumpy and start to snap at people, I know it’s time for a brain dump. It’s time to declutter my brain so I can think clearly again.
I hear the term “brain dump” thrown around in the bullet journal community and I have a few observations from these discussions:
- There are lots of people who have no idea what a brain dump even is
- There seems to be angst around the term “dump” and people want a different term
- There are dozens of different ways to do a brain dump
So in true nerdy fashion, we’re going to cover ALL the things and dig in deep into this whole brain dump topic. Ready? Let’s go!
What is a “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.
I also like the definition I found on Wikipedia: The transfer of a large quantity of information from one place to another for future retrieval or reference.
Brain Dump vs Brainstorm
Let’s also cover the difference between a “brain dump” and “brainstorming.” I see these two terms used interchangeably but I believe they are two completely different concepts. We’re going to focus on the Brain Dump (if you want me to cover “Brainstorming in your Bullet Journal” – let me know in the comments and we can explore that another time).
Brain Dump is a list or other stream of consciousness collection of all the thoughts/ideas/tasks in your brain. It is designed to clear up that precious mental real estate.
Brainstorming is a focused exploration of a single idea/concept or ideas/concepts wherein you explore ideas from one topic or group of topics.
Your brain is a junk drawer
You know when you’re on a house cleaning rampage and you get to that one drawer in the kitchen. The junk drawer. The one drawer filled with crap that doesn’t have a home and you’re often afraid to even open it because you know stuff will start spilling out of it. You think about cleaning it but put it off until next time. Again. And again. And again.
Then one day you get brave (or fed up) and decide to pull the whole damn drawer out of the cabinet and just DUMP it upside down and all that clutter and crap is in a big pile on the floor.
You can’t even begin to start cleaning and organizing that drawer until you first dump it all out and get it all out into the open. There’s so much miscellaneous stuff that’s been hiding in the crevices for years. You can’t sort and clean what you can’t see.
The only way to get through all that mess is to first figure out what’s there and sort it all out. Then you’re able to throw out the stuff that’s junk and organize the stuff you need to keep. Maybe there is a pile of stuff that needs to go somewhere else, some stuff that needs action, some stuff needs to be cataloged and organized – each of those things needs to be sorted into different piles. Once the big messy pile of junk is sorted into piles, you start to take action on each of those piles.
Throw out the garbage. Take action on the things that need immediate attention. Store the rest in neat and orderly bins so you can find what you’re looking for next time you need to find it. It takes some work and some time, but once your junk drawer is clean and organized, it works so much better.
- Replace “junk drawer” with brain.
- Replace “junk” with thoughts, tasks, errands, worries, projects, etc.
David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, reminds us that “our brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device.” The human mind is terrible at storage. In fact, there are estimates from various scientific studies that the suggests the average adult has anywhere between 20,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. What?! No way can I keep track of all that!
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 create 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 my 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.
- For project planning that have many lists of tasks to juggle (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.
Alternative terms for Brain Dump
I’m actually amazed at the number of possible alternative terms for “brain dump” – a lot of people have a problem with the word dump. Yes, kids on the playground in elementary school have long used the term to refer to poop, doo-doo, number-two, crap, poo-poo, sh*t …. ok, I’ll stop now. But if you really need to do some research into this topic, there are resources available (because you can find everything on the internet – and yes, I just did a Google search for synonyms for poop. SMH) Moving on…
I personally like the term brain dump. Maybe because the visual I have in my mind is that of a junk drawer being dumped out so the contents can be sorted. I’ll continue to use it throughout this article because I think it’s a great term. But…
In the bullet journal community it’s common to have long discussion threads with dozens (or hundreds) of ideas for what to call it besides brain dump. As I was working on this article, of course I started collecting a list of these terms. I’m happy to share the list with you.
- Brain download
- Brain backup
- Brain drain
- Brain spillage
- Brain bucket
- Brain attic
as described in Sherlock Holmes
- Cerebral landfill
- Cerebral unburdening
- Cranial crap
- Mind Sweep
term used by David Allen
- Mind decluttering
- Mind purge
- Mind grapes
- Mind musings
- Mind overflow
- Thought catcher
- Thought garden
- Thought purge
- Thought map
A Brain Dump Page in your Bullet Journal
I have been doing some form of a brain dump for the past 20 years or so. In fact, I first learned the term from one of my former bosses. I was the secretary / office manager / chief cook and bottle washer – and he was the managing director. We were an office of two. He loved doing his brain dumps verbally while he was driving. This was back in the day when secretaries still typed dictation from a tape recorder. So I would transcribe his spoken brain dump into a big list of bullet points that he would sort and organize later. This would happen just two or three times a year.
After learning his method, I started doing it myself. But over the years I’ve refined my method by using bits and pieces of various techniques I read about or hear from other people. I’m going to teach my brain dump method to you today.
Weekly or Monthly Brain Dump Page
But first, I want to talk about what other people are doing in the bullet journaling and planning community. It’s normal for people to set up a “brain dump page” as part of their weekly or monthly planning. Just a title along the top and then space to write random thoughts, tasks or tidbits of information that happen over the course of that week or month.
I’ve collected a few images from Instagram to show you what other people are doing. I’d love to know if you use this method in your journal. Drop a comment below and let me know what you do.
View this post on Instagram
View this post on Instagram
View this post on Instagram
View this post on Instagram
Morning Pages + Brain Dump
I can’t do a weekly or monthly brain dump page in my journal. In fact, I think of my daily task lists as the place where those random thoughts need to live. I keep a “Master Task List” page in my journal so I can write down the tasks that don’t have a specific deadline and can be done anytime.
I also do a lot of journaling to keep my brain clear and my emotional health in check. Specifically I do the Morning Pages method of journaling based on Julia Cameron’s method from The Artist Way book. The idea is that you write several pages every morning as your very first thing when you wake up. You clear all those random thoughts from your mind by using stream of consciousness writing to get stuff down on paper.
I started writing Morning Pages in July 2016 and it’s changed my life! I’m more self-aware, more emotionally and mentally healthy, more intuned with my inner voice, and more apt to take action on the dreams and passions that interest me. If you want me to talk more about my Morning Pages routine and how I use my journal for this type of writing, drop me a comment below and let me know if that’s something you’d like to hear about.
Because my Morning Pages takes care of most of the cluttered thoughts every day, I don’t need to do a brain dump as often as I used to. Two or three times a year is plenty for me. BUT… my method is different than many others, which is why a couple times a year is enough.
Pam’s Brain Dump Method
As of this writing, I just finished a brain dump that took me eight days to complete and now fills 10 pages of my bullet journal.
I’ll share some photos with you, but know that some of the things on this list are private and not intended for the entire world to see so you’ll see various things on the list covered up.
There are five steps in this method. It should take you about 7 to 10 days to complete. Don’t rush this process. The fact that this takes 7 to 10 days to complete is one of the most important parts of the method and why it works so well.
- Spend 1 week writing a list
- Close the book and don’t look at the list for 2-3 days.
- Review the list. Add to it if you need to.
- Sort each bulleted item into a category.
- Take action on the action items.
Step 0: Preparation is the Key to Success
That quote is attributed to Alexander Graham Bell, and it’s just as important now as it was in the late 1800’s. Before you even start this brain dump process, you need to get ready.
Because I only do one of these big brain dump sessions once or twice a year, I like to make sure I’m truly ready to begin. I don’t take this lightly because I know it’s going to be a lot of work and require a lot of mental energy. Once I begin, I can’t stop the train!
Here’s how I prepare:
- Make sure I have enough time to complete the brain dump. I check my calendar and ensure I have a bit of time each day for the next 10 days clear so I can devote anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes a day on my list.
- Decide where I’m going to be writing down the brain dump list. Will it be in a separate notebook? In my bullet journal or planner? Identify the location and then block off several pages (my last brain dump took up 10 pages … but I’ve had them take up twice that many at times). It’s best if you can keep an entire section blocked off and together for this rather than fitting it in between pages of other things in your bullet journal.
- Mentally prepare yourself. I like to read through the “Incompletion Trigger List” developed by David Allen in his book “Getting Things Done.” Allen calls this process a Mind Sweet and gives you dozens of areas of your life to think about as you’re making your list. He separates the list by personal (your personal life) and professional (your job life).
First I print a copy of his Trigger List (download it for free on his website) and just read through the list the evening before I start my brain dump. I say evening because if you input information into your brain just before you go to bed, your subconscious will take over and start prepping things for you. I don’t go off this list while I’m doing a brain dump, but I do keep a copy of it folded in the back cover of my notebook so I can look through the list over the next week (usually before bed) to refresh my memory of anything I need to deal with tomorrow. I go through and highlight or mark some of the items on the list that I know are on my mind.
And that’s it. Once you have those few things lined up and ready, you can go on to Step 1.
Step 1: Write the List (the actual brain dump)
You’ll need a notebook with several pages for this step. Some people prefer to dedicate a completely separate journal that is only used for this kind of a brain dump. I prefer to do it right inside my bullet journal. I just turned to the next available blank page and began. I knew I would need a dozen pages or more, so I just reserved that many pages all in a row because I wanted to keep it all together.
Now it’s time to write. The first day I like to set aside an hour total. I set a timer for 30 minutes and just start writing a list of stuff. Then later in the day or evening, I set the timer again for another 30 minutes. After that first day, I don’t set a timer for my brain dump session, but I tend to spend about 15-25 minutes each day after for the rest of the week.
The most important part of this step is the “dump” — visualize the jumbled mess of the junk drawer in your kitchen and what the contents would look like if you dumped the whole drawer onto the floor. It’s a pile of mismatched things that don’t go together and they certainly didn’t land on the floor in nice neat piles of like items. So your brain dump needs to look like this:
- Bulleted List — two to five words or a short phrase for each bullet.
- Jumbled List — don’t worry about sorting your thoughts, just write whatever comes to mind on the next line.
- Uncensored List — write down EVERYTHING – do not censor yourself, don’t analyze what you’re writing, don’t judge yourself for what is on the list. Just write. Everything. Yes, every single thing that comes to your brain, write it down.
- Long List — don’t worry about how many pages you’re using, just keep writing and writing and writing.
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. Your list might have a series of tasks you need to do around the house, right next to a random thought about taking a bubble bath to relax, right next to a thought that you really want to try out the new Italian restaurant in town, right next to a grocery list. You’ll be sorting the list later, so don’t worry about what goes on the list right now. Just write.
During this step DO NOT read the list. Don’t go back and review what you did the day before. Just continue adding to the bottom of the list for the next several days. To recap:
- One thought, 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 several hours or several days.
Step 2: Let the List Rest
So it’s been about a week and I know that I’m done writing when I start to repeat stuff. Not that I’m looking back at the previous parts of the list, but when I write something down and I think to myself … “I think I’ve written this four times now.” When you are no longer writing down new stuff, it’s time to call it done.
- 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!
- Don’t open the notebook or look at the list for at least 24 hours (preferably 48 hours)
- If you’ve used your everyday bullet journal for this list, just clip those pages together so you won’t be tempted to look through the list.
- 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.
Step 3: Sort and Organize
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. Yep, it’s time to analyze and sort the list and figure out which things need action and which can be trashed. There will be plenty of trash on this list. I find my list is about 70% trash and 30% action items. The only way to figure out which is which is to read through every line and code it in some way. You could create some type of symbol system for yourself, but I tend to just use colors.
Taking out the trash. I go through with my gray highlighter (the color I use in my everyday planning for tasks I didn’t do or don’t need to pay attention to any longer) and cross off the things on the list that are trash. I mean, it’s not like my thoughts are all garbage, but there will be things on the list that don’t need an action, don’t need further introspection, and don’t need to be in my brain… so being able to cross them off the list is therapeutic.
Find the tasks. This is not a neat and tidy list of tasks already sorted into categories, so you’ll need to do that part next. I go through the list and get a sense of the general categories of the tasks I’ve written. There are usually about 5 or 6. Add a symbol or colored dot next to all tasks on the list (don’t worry about category just yet, just identify the items that need action). In my most recent brain dump, these are the categories I identified:
- Health & Routine
- Work (day job)
- Stationery Nerd
- Tremble Creative Services (my freelance biz)
- Shopping list (this just goes onto my daily bullet journal shopping list)
Write task lists. On the next blank page after the big brain dump list, divide the two-page spread into boxes – one for each category. Give each box a title. Then start copying tasks off the big list and placing them into the box where they belong. You’ll find that you probably wrote the same task several times or at least in some variation of it.
For instance, I have some home repair projects on the list (leftover from the restoration project after major water damage in a part of the house). There are 3 rooms in the house that need some sort of trim work finished in each room. That single tasks – “finish trim work” – is on my list no less than 7 times in some way or another.
- Finish crown molding in the bathroom (this was on the list 3 times!)
- Reattach door molding on the patio door
- Install baseboard in living room
- Add corner molding to the hallway
- Install corner round molding at kitchen cabinet base
So instead of writing all 7 of those individual tasks on my action list… I just added it as a single item of “finish trim work.” Consolidating multiple related tasks from the brain dump page will streamline your action items on the categorized task list.
Identify the Angst. Don’t you just love the word “angst?” The definition of the word I hold on to has the addition of “hope” because it implies that the emotion is something that can be overcome.
ANGST: a persistent feeling of worry, about a seemingly impossible situation or struggle but there’s an underlying sense of hope of overcoming the situation. Without the important element of hope, the emotion becomes anxiety.
Inevitability as you write the brain dump list you’re going to have a number of emotional items on the list. These items aren’t garbage or tasks, so you can’t ignore them and you can’t move them to an action list. So you need to deal with them in some way. I like to create a separate list for this type of stuff. It essentially becomes a Journaling Prompt type of list. I’ll pull something off that Angst List and write about it during my Morning Pages routine. This type of stuff never gets solved in a single journaling session, so the stuff on this part of the list is an ongoing project of self-development and awareness.
Of course, if you discover that there are too many items on this Angst List and you are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the mental work you need to take to deal with it, it might be a good idea to seek professional help. Or even the help of a mentor or trusted friend could help you talk through some of these emotional burdens. Don’t bottle it up. Don’t leave it on the list unattended. Take action on these struggles and work through them one by one. You’ll be happier for it! I talk more about making a Targeted Brain Dump list for emotional journaling in a section below.
Everything Else: By this time your big brain dump list is probably 99% sorted. Maybe there are a few stragglers on the list that don’t exactly fit together in any way. Gather these up and make a new list of these items and work through them one by one. For instance, on my recent brain dump, I found a few things that I put on a “future journaling” list. See the section below about what it means to do an Emotional Brain Dump – that’s what these few journaling prompts were for me.
Cross stuff off the Brain Dump list as you transfer them to the category lists and keep going until you are done.
How to get things done
Now that everything is categorized you have a working action list. I like to pull one or two things off this list and add them to my daily task list and cross them off of this master list as I complete them. It’s entirely possible that it’ll take months to get through everything on the list. But keep referring back to it each week so you can chip away at it. The more actively you work at finishing these things and give your brain a clean slate for new things, the more productive you’ll be overall. I find that a big brain dump like this every 6-8 months is enough to keep me on track.
Targeted Brain Dump Method
Sometimes a big, all-inclusive brain dump is not what you need. Sometimes a more targeted brain dump is what will help you clear all that mental clutter. I’m just going to cover the two most common that I know about, but the possibilities here are endless. These two methods sort of dip their toe into the “brainstorming” waters and might actually be called a combination of a brain dump and brainstorming. In my mind, it makes sense to cover these here, so… well, here they are!
The Project Planning Brain Dump
When you’re planning a big event, a whole business strategy, vacation, or project … you’ll likely need to do a brain dump that’s more targeted at project planning that all relate to that single big thing. You’ll follow the steps in “Pam’s Brain Dump Method” to create a big jumbled list of things that all relate to that project over the course of several days. Then when you finish writing the initial list, you’ll go through the list and identify key tasks or actions, and then all the sub-tasks that help you complete that item.
For example, if you’re planning a wedding, one task might be “buy wedding dress” but the sub-tasks in that category might include:
BUY WEDDING DRESS
- Research dress shops to visit
- Make dress shopping appointments
- Invite Mom and bridesmaids to shopping appointments
- Try on dresses
- Find the perfect dress
- Arrange alterations and fittings schedule
- Arrange dress storage until the week of the wedding
- Arrange final fitting and dress pickup week of the wedding
- Store dress at Mom’s house
- Wear the dress and get married!
But as you’re making the initial brain dump list, that organized list of tasks that fall perfectly in the order that things need to be done will likely be scattered over several pages in a jumbled mess of random thoughts. You don’t need to organize the individual tasks and subtasks until you get all the clutter out of your brain first. Then as you start to create these types of mini-project lists, you’ll begin to think about which order tasks need to be done in and fill in the blanks for anything you might have missed initially.
You can organize the tasks on each list in priority order 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.
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.
The Emotional Turmoil Brain Dump List
When there’s a lot of emotional crap rolling around in my head, it’s time to dump all that clutter out and onto paper. This type of list usually ends up being journaling prompts – either for my Morning Pages (as I talked about above) or in my normal diary-style journal. When I do this kind of brain dump, it’s usually because doing a full blown brain dump is just too overwhelming. Most of the time once I finish with an emotional dump, I have enough clear space to do a normal brain dump.
So these are never easy because I have to actually face the things that I’m normally avoiding. Big worries, big philosophical topics, big life decisions, big goals or big pivots in my goals or some other type of big change that needs to be made in my life. I still use the same method of making the list as I do with a normal brain dump, but with one big twist.
I normally find that I will write down a big worry or problem. Like “am I happy?” But that topic is too big, right? So it just stay on that topic for a few minutes and start writing a list of bullet points under that big topic. Just a few words per bullet point, but the point is to explore that main topic and break it down into smaller worries. So that list might look like this:
AM I HAPPY?
- What does happiness mean to me?
- Am I happy with my relationships?
- Do I enjoy my job?
- Am I happy with my health?
- What do I cherish most?
- Do I laugh enough?
- What am I grateful for?
- Do I have a trusted confidante?
As you can see, the key is to explore some of the things that lead up to the initial question. You aren’t looking for answers right now, you’re just looking for which questions to ask to help you discover the answer later. Don’t spend too long brainstorming areas to explore for each big question or worry. Just spend a few minutes, then move on to the next thing that’s on your mind.
You’ll likely need to come back to this list several times over the next week before you can feel like it’s ready for action. Once you have a finished list, it’s time to deal with the items on the list one by one.
And this is where I do something different once the list is finished.
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. The order doesn’t matter. When you’re ready for your first journaling session, just take the first item on the list and write it down on a new sheet of paper or a new page in your journal. 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 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 or at least resolved enough that you feel like it’s no longer a heavy weight on your shoulders that’s keeping you from living the life you want.
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. Cross the item off the original brain dump list to signify it is complete for now. 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. Some items on the list might only need a couple hours before you feel you’ve resolved it. Some might takes several days or longer. 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.
Side Note: If you find that the problem is too big for you to handle on your own, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. A therapist, counselor, clergy, or medical professional can help you work through any of the problems on your list that you feel too overwhelmed to handle by yourself.
How do you feel?
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? New goals? Have you added anything to the process that’s helped you – that might also help someone else? Please share it with us all by leaving a comment below.