The Brain Dump
The Brain Dump
By Justin Wright
Regardless of how well you prioritize tasks, lay out goals, and properly define a course of action for achieving them, sometimes it can still be difficult to focus. Even with the best of habits in place, making progress can be difficult over time as you settle into a routine. Think about your daily life as carrying with it a base level of white noise. This background static builds as you work through your tasks and create new habits. Over time, this noise grows so loud that it becomes difficult to ignore. The end result of this enhanced distraction can be trouble focusing and being productive.
In my own life I find it notoriously difficult to fall asleep at night. My productivity always seems higher at the end of the day, and it is very common for me to go on a series of tangents with my thoughts. Most of the time these thoughts are productive, but it can be difficult to put forth focused effort when my brain is going in numerous different directions. This sensation is much like trying to do work with your phone nearby. Notifications can make it difficult to stay on track, as every buzz and alert pulls your attention away from the task at hand.
This mental tug-of-war made it impossible to focus as my mind kept leaping to the next thought. Not only was I accomplishing less than I wanted to, but this lack of productivity brought with it increased anxiety as I poured over my task list in bed. The more distracted I was at night, the longer I would stay awake ruminating on what needed to get done. I knew that I needed to fix this problem before the combination of lower productivity and loss of sleep compounded over time. Out of necessity I found a solution: the brain dump.
The symbolic nature of writing
The brain dump is a simple exercise which can be performed any time your thoughts are erratic, but it is particularly helpful at night before bed. Essentially, you take a blank sheet of paper and write out every thought or action currently on your mind. Each entry can be a task or action item, a stray thought, a list, a series of reminders, rough ideas or concepts, absolutely anything that carries significance in your mind. We will discuss the final structure shortly, but the goal now is to understand the nature of the things being written. Anything in your brain which carries significance is fair game.
The key is to move quickly and to be concise with each item. Think snapshots, highlights, or single words which represent larger thoughts. Your goal is to create a list which jogs your memory when referenced later, but more importantly you want to declutter the mind. Every time you write a thought down, it is crucial to visualize this thought being physically pulled out of your mind. Think of each word or phrase as being attached to a string; as you put pen to paper, picture yourself tugging on this string and pulling it out of your brain.
This is why physically writing out this list, not typing or speaking it, is so critical to the process. It is also why you must use a blank sheet of paper every time. We want to make sure there are no other words, phrases, or marks to pull our attention away from the list being written. Writing is, by nature, symbolic. It plays to human psychology. The act of jotting down these thoughts allows us to strongly visualize the thoughts exiting our mind. We are taking advantage of this visualization to organize our brain and bring a sense of order to the chaos. Channel your mind through the pen and, just like cleaning and organizing your home or office, every phrase written represents you tidying up your brain. Take note of how relieved you feel as every thought that was previously running free in your mind is reigned in and finds its home on the paper.
Now that you understand the concept of the brain dump and why it is useful, it is equally important to have some structure to bring to this list. Without some rules to follow it is easy for this exercise to become counterproductive. If there is too much to write down, and the list lacks organization, this activity can provide more stress instead of reducing it. Focus on creating three categories and working through each one in succession:
Higher-level ideas: this list contains important ideas or key words related to big-picture thoughts or high-level problems you are currently trying to solve. They may not be fully-formed yet, and they likely aren’t actionable at this point in time. Most of these ideas will be half-baked, but they contain the roots of bigger thoughts down the road. These are things you don’t want to forget, but they are likely things you can’t continue working on right now. If left unchecked, these thoughts can be incredibly distracting because they are likely important and exciting. Writing them down now allows us to return to them when the time is right.
Action items/task list: this list contains tasks or action items which we must perform soon. Creating this list at night is a great way to reduce the anxiety associated with anticipation. How many times have you been unable to fall asleep because you are thinking through all the things you need to do the next day? Letting these thoughts go unchecked can cause anxiety for two reasons. First, the more we think about these tasks the more stress we associate with having a full plate or being busy. Second, the more time we dedicate to thinking through the next day’s tasks, the more likely we are to get the feeling we have forgotten something on the list. Emptying the mind of upcoming tasks the night before helps prevent these ruminations from happening, which can drastically reduce anxiety and improve quality of sleep.
Extraneous thoughts: this final list is essentially a large net for everything else. Maybe there are other things on your mind which don’t relate to higher-level ideas or problems, and have nothing to do with your task list. Maybe you think of an activity that might be interesting and rewarding to pursue. Maybe there is someone you want to reach out to or do something positive for. Maybe you have a few books that you want to add to your reading list. Anything else that carries enough importance to linger in your mind for any period of time belongs here.
Be complete but concise
As you start to fill out each category, understand that it is important to be as complete as possible. That said, this exercise is meant to be helpful and is not meant to take an extreme time commitment to finish. Your brain dump does not have to be perfect to be effective. As long as you are jotting down everything at the forefront of your mind, the list will serve its purpose. It can be helpful, for this reason, to set a limit for how much time you spend writing things down.
A good rule of thumb is to only write for as long as your ideas are freely flowing. Any time when you have to stop and think for longer than an instant is a good time to stop. If given long enough, your mind can come up with an infinite number of thoughts. If these thoughts don’t come to you immediately, they likely aren’t important enough at this time to solidify in writing. Your brain dump should not become a source of stress or anxiety. The more frequently you do this exercise, the better and more complete your lists will become.
There are myriad benefits to performing this exercise, ranging from reduced anxiety, to increased productivity, to better sleep quality. The brain dump is beneficial immediately; it is not a practice that must be implemented for some time before the benefits are realized. Additionally, it is effective regardless of its frequency. You do not need to perform this exercise any more than is necessary. Some days you may find that your mind is decluttered already and you can focus without issue. Save this exercise, then, for the next time your thoughts are cluttered. Consider the brain dump yet another tool in your ever-expanding toolbox of goal-setting strategies!