Learn how to do a brain dump to clear your mind. It’s my go-to strategy to sort through my thoughts when I’m feeling overwhelmed!
Published: 8/30/2016 | Updated: 6/21/2019
It never fails. I lay my head down on the pillow ready to drift to sleep. But my mind won’t shut off. If you were to take a tour through my brain, I imagine it often looks like a circus and marching band competition happening simultaneously.
The elephant is doing cool tricks, and there’s a fascinating tight rope performance happening overhead. The marching band is moving in impressive formations and blaring their brass instruments. And a guy in the aisle beside you is yelling “Popcorn, peanuts, cotton candy!”. There are so many cool things happening that it’s difficult to know which direction to turn.
That’s how my brain feels sometimes. How about you? All I want to do is turn off the noise and distractions so I can go to sleep or get some work done. But my mind is going a million miles a minute and the more I try to will it to turn off, the faster it starts spinning.
It’s important to know how to slow down those thoughts so we can eliminate the overwhelm. And a good way to do this is by completing a brain dump!
Brain Dump 101: A Simple strategy For Clearing Your Mind And Eliminating Overwhelm
What is a brain dump, you ask? A brain dump is a date with your brain! It helps declutter our minds so we can give ourselves space to think and focus and dream. Brain dumps are also a great way to sort through thoughts on a project so we can figure out where to begin.
What Is A Brain Dump?
Think of a brain dump like KonMari-ing your brain. The KonMari method of organizing tells you to take absolutely everything out of your closet before you start sorting through anything. That way you can see exactly what you have and can only put back what you’ll actually use. You discard the rest.
The same goes for those thoughts and ideas inside your head. By getting them all out onto paper, you can see everything and assess the best way to organize it all. And then you free up space in your mind for the task currently at hand.
The nice thing about doing a brain dump is that it’s not some complicated exercise. It’s literally done using a blank sheet of paper and a writing utensil, no fancy tools or involved process.
The idea is to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper so you can clear your head and methodically sort through them.
Why it works
Writing things down on paper seems pretty basic, right? This may not be the fanciest productivity system, but sometimes simpler is better. Listing your thoughts, stresses, worries, ideas, and problems on paper really does help eliminate overwhelm, trust me!
Brain dumps are effective because they allow you to capture all of those scattered thoughts. Your brain can’t process so many abstract and jumbled things all at once!
Getting them out of your head and onto paper allows you to work through all of your thoughts one by one. And it clears your mind, giving you the mental clarity necessary for really analyzing what’s on your mind. You can look at them strategically, prioritize things, and create some sense of order.
How To DO A Brain Dump
- Write everything down
To do a brain dump, all you need is a piece of paper and a writing utensil. Your goal is to write down absolutely everything that comes to mind. Let your mind wander!
You want to focus on recording your thoughts without worrying about what to do with them. Just jot down every thought on paper. Don’t stress about it being messy, and don’t try to organize it. We’ll get to the part where we organize it all later.
You’ll probably naturally think of a lot of task-oriented things, but don’t limit yourself to tasks only. It can be any kind of thought that comes to mind even if you don’t have a particular action plan for them.
Some of my brain dumps are a page of bullet points, others turn into several pages of mind maps and scribbles. It really doesn’t matter what your brain dump looks like, but getting it down on paper is important.
It’s nice to do this in a quiet place without distractions. And it’s also great to give yourself plenty of time for this step. If you are pressed for time, set a timer for 10, or 15 minutes and write things down as fast as possible.
- Organize your thoughts into categories
Once you feel like everything in your mind is captured on paper, your brain can shift into organizing and problem-solving mode.
Take a look at your brain dump and start sorting through it, thinking of things in categories. This will look different every time depending on your state of mind but my categories often include things like personal to-dos, emails to send, urgent tasks, work items, errands, blog post ideas, household tasks, and more.
Flip to a clean sheet of paper and begin rewriting your jumbled brain dump items into more organized categories of lists and notes.
Thinking about things in terms of categories will likely trigger ideas for even more items to write down. Go ahead and get them all out of your brain and down onto paper.
- Take a break
Once you have everything you can think of written down, step away and clear your mind. It’s pretty overwhelming to see everything written down and you need a break so you can come back to your brain dump with fresh eyes.
I often do my brain dumps before bed and revisit them the next morning. Give yourself at least a short break if not a night to let things settle.
During your break, you will inevitably think of even more things to add to your lists. Once you start thinking this way, more things tend to come to the surface as your subconscious processes everything.
That’s why I literally always keep my brain dump notebook or loose paper near me–on the kitchen counter, in my purse, on my nightstand. Thoughts will continue to surface so always keep your brain dump nearby so you can capture them.
- Make a plan of attack
When you return to your categorized brain dump, the goal is to make a game plan for everything. You want to identify action steps for each item and add them to your calendar, to-do lists, shopping lists, etc. so they are not forgotten.
Read through your list and circle the quick wins that you can handle TODAY. I like to knock out a lot of those nagging little tasks right away because it feels so good to check a lot of things off quickly plus it’s better to just do those types of things than let them linger on your to-do list.
For things you can’t do today, work on prioritizing tasks and figure out when you can focus on them. Add them to your to-do list (I keep a running to-do list in a Google Doc) or schedule them on your calendar so you won’t forget about them. If you’re struggling to prioritize things, here’s a blog post with some tips and a worksheet.
You likely won’t be able to realistically tackle everything any time soon, so add the highest priority items to your calendar and to-do list and start a “someday” list for the things that would be nice to do but are not urgent right now.
Break up big projects into smaller action items. If it’s an overwhelmingly large project, I like to work my way backward and identify the 2-3 next steps I need to take to get myself even just a little closer to that larger goal.
Your brain dump will likely include a variety of errands to run and groceries you need. Create a specific checklist for groceries and errands (I keep my digital grocery list in Evernote). You can even add items directly to your Amazon cart so they don’t have to go on a shopping list at all!
Things That Aren’t Task Specific
For thoughts that aren’t task-related, like feelings of loneliness or stress about being unhealthy, try to think of 1-2 actions you can take in the next week or two that will help. Schedule lunch with a friend and sign up for yoga class on Saturday. Taking even one small step is a great start!
Delete and Delegate
As you review your brain dump, take some time to identify items that you can delegate or simply leave undone.
I’m always amazed by the number of things that, sure, I would love to do, but at the end of the day, it’s not that big of a deal if they are left undone. It’s good to be ruthless, let things go, and focus on the things that have a bigger impact and are a higher priority in your life right now!
- Nothing is too lame or insignificant to write down. Don’t filter your thoughts, simply write everything down. Get it all on paper first, then process and analyze later.
- The messier, the better. This isn’t some Pinterest-perfect journaling exercise. Scribbles are better than beautiful handwriting. A black pen is better than fancy colors. A plain sheet of paper is just as good as a cute notebook.
- Find a quiet spot without interruptions. I realize this may sound impossible for you, but if it’s at all doable try to do your brain dump when you have at least 10-15 minutes of alone time.
- Let the thoughts flow. Avoid stopping your brain dump to categorize, research, or do specific tasks right away. Stay focused on getting all of those thoughts down on paper before you even think about planning or taking action on anything.
When Should You Do A Brain Dump?
You can do this exercise any time you’d like. I think it’s healthy to incorporate brain dumps into your regular planning routines, weekly or monthly or whenever you need!
Here are some examples of when it’s particularly useful:
- When you have a really busy schedule
- When you’re feeling overwhelmed
- When you have lots of ideas and don’t know where to start
- When you’re planning the upcoming week, month, or year
- When you’re feeling stuck
- When things feel out of balance
- After a conference, retreat, meeting, learning something new
When I’m feeling overwhelmed at work, I do a brain dump in the morning and add those things to my to-do list. For evening brain dumps, I usually dump everything into a pretty journal before bed and then sort through those notes the next morning when I can look at it with a fresh perspective.
I’ve started doing brain dumps before bed most evenings, and it has really helped me fall asleep faster. If I feel my mind racing with ideas or to-dos at the end of the day, I get everything out into a notebook before bed. This helps me go to sleep with peace of mind knowing I’m not going to forget anything overnight.
I often brain dump during the day as well. I do so whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed and stressed, or when I have many projects happening all at once.
Writing everything down gives me a chance to sort through all that mental clutter and make room in my brain for actual work.
Brain dumps are a fantastic way to keep track of the tasks and ideas floating around in your head. By getting them all out onto paper, you can stop stressing about forgetting things. And you free up mental space to focus on the tasks currently at hand.
If you are feeling overwhelmed and not sure where to start on a project, or if your brain is running so fast you struggle to focus, try a brain dump. It does wonders to clear your mind and focus!
Do you find brain dumps helpful in organizing your thoughts and clearing your mind?
If you enjoyed this post, check out these other popular productivity articles
- What To Do When You Hit These 6 Productivity Roadblocks
- My Proven 5-Step System For Creating A Daily Routine
- Creating A 10-Minute Morning Journaling Routine For Self Reflection And Goal Setting
- The 7 Planning Tools & Systems I Use To Organize My Whole Life
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Have a fabulous day!
I really need to start doing this. Right now, my baby is going through his 18-month sleep regression (someone needs to tell him he’s 19-months and needs to grow up! hahaha!). Most days I don’t know if I’m napping or going to bed for the night.
But, one thing I know is that every time my head hits that pillow … no matter what time of day or night … my thoughts go straight to all of the things that I need to get done.
It’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed and feel like giving up – between the exhaustion and the constant mental drain.
hmmmm … now that I think about it maybe the baby needs a brain dump!! LOL!
Thank you for this reminder Emily – I need to get back on track with my nighttime routine.
Haha, maybe your baby does need a brain dump! That’s funny 😉 Having a little one will no doubt throw your routines out of whack. Hang in there! You’ll be back to more sleep soon I hope! Get a pretty journal and try out brain dumping before you lay down to sleep–hopefully that will help you calm your mind. Thanks for visiting!
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