Do you feel like you have so much to do you don’t even know where to begin? When you try just to get one thing done, does your mind interrupt your progress to remind you of all the other things you wonder if you could or should be doing instead? You constantly worry about forgetting something important and wondering if you should spend your time on something else. The irony is that this makes it very hard to get anything done! So your productivity plummets even more. You feel tired, overwhelmed and like you aren’t making the slightest progress. These are all signs that you would benefit from doing a Brain Dump. Here’s everything you need to know about this time-tested stress relief technique.
What is a Brain Dump?
A Brain Dump is a focused and structured process to “download your brain” and get all those pesky swirling thoughts out of your way and down onto paper so you can think more clearly. It’s the solution you need when you experience any of the following:
- Constant stress that never seems to end
- Feelings of being overwhelmed all the time
- The inability to gain clarity over your life
- Difficulty identifying what your priorities should be
- Too many things going on that prevent you from focusing on anything
- Constantly worrying that you will forget to do something important
- The inability to make decisions with any degree of confidence
- Uncertainty over what to do right now
How a Brain Dump can help with stress
Before you set aside time to do a Brain Dump, you may want to know how it can help alleviate your mental stress. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and strapped for time, you understandably don’t want to waste more!
Here are three solid reasons you can feel confident that doing a Brain Dump will help you feel better, quickly.
A Brain Dump will help free you from the Zeigarnik Effect
The Zeigarnik Effect was named after Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, and it describes how your subconscious mind repeatedly reminds your conscious mind of work that is incomplete to achieve a desired goal or task. Multiple incomplete tasks lead to numerous interruptions to your thoughts and can cause stress, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and mental and emotional exhaustion.
This is also why we vastly underestimate how long projects take and how much mental energy they consume.
Since a Brain Dump gets these unfinished items out of your brain and onto paper, you don’t have to keep reminding yourself of them. Instead, you can schedule a time to complete them, delegate them or delete them. This goes a long way to reducing feelings of stress.
A Brain Dump will help you avoid multitasking
You may have accepted that having to multitask is a fact of life these days. But what is often referred to as multitasking is, in fact, context switching. You may be able to whistle and tap your toe at the same time, but the human brain can’t engage in solving more than one problem at once.
When you say you’re multitasking, what’s happening is that your brain is switching focus from one thing to another (and sometimes back again or onto something else in rapid succession). And this is where the problem lies, for two significant reasons: doing this requires a lot of mental energy and wastes time. In fact, on average, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus on an interrupted task.
Studies show that the greater the number of projects a person is working on, the more time they waste and the less work they do. Context switching wastes time because you have to take time to focus on something new and it costs a lot of mental energy each time you have to do this. You may not realize it, but you do this when you interrupt your thoughts on one project to remind yourself of another. You can save hours a day when you stop doing this.
A Brain Dump will eliminate mentally-draining Open Loops
David Allen created the GTD framework, one of the most popular and influential productivity systems of all time, to eliminate Open Loops. This is the terminology he uses for everything in your life that occupies your mind because it isn’t the way you want it to be. This causes your brain to get stuck in a loop, repeatedly thinking about the problem, turning it over and over in your mind instead of using that mental energy to solve it.
The importance of closing these Open Loops by eliminating this behavior stems from Allen’s belief that “Your mind is made for having ideas, not keeping them.” When you don’t have to use the limited capacity of your working memory to remind yourself about all your Open Loops, you can use it to solve problems and increase productivity. Resolving issues and being productive go a long way to reducing the stress you experience.
Avoid These 4 Common Brain Dump Mistakes
You may have heard the term “Brain Dump” before or even taken a few minutes to write down all the tasks on your mind when you feel overwhelmed. It’s standard advice to write a list of your to-dos, or things you don’t want to forget before you go to bed so you can relax and fall asleep. But just doing that offers you only a very small part of the benefits of an actual Brain Dump.
There are crucial details about doing a complete Brain Dump that is vital for making them work for you and allowing the benefits of the process to stick. So you don’t feel the same way the next day or week!
Here are 4 mistakes people commonly make when attempting to do a Brain Dump:
1. Not using a Trigger List
Think about it: When you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you can’t remember all that you need to do, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to sit down and write every single item down without some help. In fact, you’re guaranteed to forget some!
The way to avoid this is to use a Trigger List that prompts you to remember the tasks, goals, and projects you want or need to fulfill in every area of your professional and personal life.
Having a checklist of categories and things to think about helps guide the process and ensure you don’t leave anything out. So you can finally get rid of that feeling you’ve forgotten something!
Without the guidance and prompting of a Trigger List, your brain dump will almost assuredly be incomplete.
2. Writing everything straight onto your to-do list
Many people mistake a Brain Dump for the creation of a to-do list. They think it’s a one-step process. But it isn’t.
The goal of a Brain Dump is to get as much out of your brain as quickly as possible, completely unfiltered. Directly putting everything you take down onto a to-do list will mean that you’ll end up with a long list of poorly defined items. You won’t even know if they’re relevant or important priorities yet!
Making your Brain Dump a to-do list doesn’t help you to know what to do right now. And you don’t even know if you are the one who needs to do all these things yet, either! They may be better off assigned to someone else. For now, they are just out of your head and in a save place.
Once everything is out of your head, you’ll have a clearer picture of all the things that actually require your attention. Now is the time to go through your brain dump and evaluate: what’s important? What can be done later? What isn’t relevant at all but somehow still took up your mind space?
This two-step process is again inspired by the GTD Method. You first Capture all the inputs in your life in an inbox and then Clarify them later. Otherwise, you’ll just create a ginormous to-do list that adds to your overwhelm instead of helping it.
If you’re curious to learn more about GTD and why so many people swear by it, check out our complete quick start guide.
3. Not separating “Doing” and “Capturing”
If your feeling of overwhelm has put you in a state of inertia when you start your Brain Dump and see your list develop on paper, it may be tempting to start doing the tasks you write down immediately. It can feel like a relief to at least get started on something! But this is another mistake.
Before starting to work on the things, you write down during your Brain Dump, you first need to finish capturing everything. You need to separate the task of “Doing” from “Capturing.” Finish capturing everything first, then move on to work on them. If you don’t do this, you still won’t know what’s important to do and what needs your immediate attention. You may mistake getting busy doing something for getting started doing the right things.
It might be tempting to just get a small task out of the way, but patience will pay off. This is an exception to the famous 2-Minute-Rule. Remember that Capturing, Clarifying and Doing should be three separate steps in your productivity workflow. Otherwise, you’re quickly back to multitasking and context switching.
You can use this GTD Flowchart to work through all the things that come up during your brain dump.
Confusing a Brain Dump with a Weekly Review
When you do a Brain Dump properly, it shouldn’t be something you need to do frequently. Instead, a Brain Dump should be an occasional “mental reset.” It’s a “create a clean slate” method for those times when your life has gotten overwhelming, but it won’t replace a regular system to prevent this feeling from happening again.
You don’t want to get stuck in a permanent crisis mode, moving from Brain Dump to Brain Dump. Instead, use it to get everything out of your overwhelmed brain and onto paper (or your computer). Then focus on building a system that helps you avoid getting into a situation where you need a Brain Dump again!
A Weekly Review is different from a Brain Dump and should, just like its name implies, be done weekly! It’s a simple process to help you evaluate where you are, what you’ve done and what your $10K Work is for the week ahead.
In fact, a Weekly Review is so important that we’ve made it a cornerstone of our RadRead’s Life Operating System.
How to do a Brain Dump using a Trigger List
To avoid the common mistakes people make when doing a Brain Dump, you can follow these simple instructions for doing a Brain Dump, the right way, using a Trigger List:
- Block out 30-60 minutes and schedule the time to do a Brain Dump on your calendar. If you’re feeling overwhelmed in multiple areas of your life, or it’s the first time you’ve ever done one, you may want to schedule even more time. This is not a process you want to rush through.
- When the scheduled time comes, set your phone to “do not disturb” and ensure you will not be interrupted by co-workers, family members, or notifications on your computer.
- Capture inboxes containing your various sources of “inputs.” This may include notebooks, physical calendars or notepads, post-its, current to-do lists, various email boxes, physical mail, items you have saved with online clippings apps like Pocket or web pages you have bookmarked.
Gather all these inputs, which include anywhere you’ve written down or saved information about things that need to be done.
- Get out a clean sheet of paper (or a few!) or choose one of the best apps recommended for GTD. Make sure you have plenty of space to record your Brain Dump without any space restrictions.
- Now the most vital step: Go through the Trigger List and write down what comes to mind. Try to do so without judgment. Just empty your brain of what comes to you and put it all down on your paper or app. Then, scan your gathered input sources for additional points you might still need to look at. It’s not enough if they are already written down in other places. You want everything in one place.
You can download our Getting Things Done Trigger List as part of our GTD Quick Start Guide to help you through step and ensure you think of every unfinished task in your professional and personal life.
Bonus: What comes after a Brain Dump?
Whether it takes 30 minutes or 2 hours, when you complete going through the Trigger List and writing what comes to mind down, you’ll have a long list of open tasks, unfinished projects, aspirational goals, to-dos, and more.
The contents of your brain you have extracted and written down form the material for the next step of GTD: Clarify. This is when you go through the list, identify what each thing is actually about and what the next action toward completing it is. Then you can decide whether to put it on hold, delegate it or delete it altogether. The GTD Flowchart shows you exactly where the process goes from here.
But before you move on, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back. You’ve just completed an actual Brain Dump the right way. If you’re feeling energised and productive, why not keep up the good energy and implement one of our top tips for getting more things done today?