Pop quiz: How many things are on your mind right now?
There may be deadlines looming at work, groceries to buy, or birthdays coming up. There’s a new show everyone’s talking about, ominous news reports, and that thing your boss asked you to follow up on. Yikes.
Bits and bobs of thoughts swirl through our brains all day, and if we’re not careful, they can keep us up at night, too. But the more things we try to juggle in our heads, the harder it is to focus. New thoughts shove old ones out of our consciousness. If we don’t deal with them when the time is right, they come back to haunt us at less convenient times.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a normal part of modern life. Scientists who study the brain confirm that our short-term “working memory” is pretty elastic, but it has limits. When we try to remember too much, our cognitive load is high. We become anxious about losing track of it all, and that anxiety snowballs until it overwhelms us.
We can’t break the cycle of swirling thoughts, but we can relieve the pressure by giving our brains a simple outlet. Writing thoughts down makes them easier to process, organize, and turn into action.
The “brain dump”: An ugly name for a delightful process
You don’t need complicated systems or elaborate tools to calm your mind. The humble “brain dump” is a simple but powerful exercise that can transform your day. Just take all those thoughts and dump them out of your brain. Write them down in Evernote or on a sheet of paper, leaving nothing out. Do this one thing, and you’ll see how easy it is to find focus, set priorities, and ensure nothing important gets lost.
The brain dump concept has gained a lot of traction in productivity circles, but look around the internet and you’ll find it described in many ways. Is brain dumping about prioritization, journaling, self-care, or creative brainstorming? Is it therapy or a leadership skill? The good news is that the principles are the same regardless of your goal, and you can start right now.
Step 1: Give yourself some room
Set aside a little time and space to get this done without distractions. Early in the morning is good if you want to start the day with a sense of clarity. Or try the late evening if you’re looking to reduce anxiety and sleep better. Either way, choose a time and place when you can focus on getting things out of your head, not a time when more things are coming in.
Step 2: Get it all down
Now comes the good part. Open up a fresh note or grab some paper and start writing. Whatever pops into your head, get it into your note:
- Things you need to do today, soon, or far in the future
- Things that keep you up at night
- Books, shows, movies, or music your friends recommend
- People you want to call
- Things you want to look up
- Lingering questions
- Things you want to tell your future self
- Things you want to change about yourself, your job, your environment, or the world
- Ideas, feelings, and nagging suspicions
- Anything and everything else. Nothing is off-limits.
As you write (or sketch, or speak), let yourself fall into a stream of consciousness. Try not to censor, edit, or question your thoughts. No thought is too big, too small, too scary, or too boring. This isn’t the time for brainstorming or figuring things out, either. That will only add more clutter, distracting you from your goal. Literally, clear your mind.
You may find the process difficult at first. As anyone who’s started a journal knows, we sometimes resist being open to our own thoughts. If you find the blank page too daunting, start with a heading (like “things to do this week”) and make a simple bullet list. Once writing becomes more comfortable, you’ll unleash a firehose of thoughts. When that flow dries up, you’re done. Easy!
Step 3: There is no step 3 (unless you want one)
Once they’re written, your chaotic thoughts become more organized and manageable. You can sort through it all and make a plan, or set your notes aside to review later. Or you may find the mere act of giving form to your thoughts is enough to make you feel more in control.
Putting the concept into practice
This morning, to help me focus on writing this article, I did a brain dump of my own. I sat down on my living room couch with Evernote, some instrumental jazz, and a cup of hot coffee. In 15 minutes, I captured a list of 65 line items totaling over 500 words. That’s a lot of stuff to carry around in my head!
I spent the next 15 minutes sorting through what I’d written:
- There were several duplicates of tasks I already had in Evernote, but that’s OK. Writing them down again gave me an opportunity to double-check those tasks, re-prioritize them, and assign new due dates.
- I found over a dozen items that should have been on my to-do list, but weren’t. Shocking! But with a simple keyboard shortcut (⌘ + T on my Mac, or Alt + T on Windows), I transformed them into manageable tasks. Voila!
- As a bonus, I remembered three more important but not urgent to-dos while sorting the list. Now I know I won’t forget them either. What a relief!
The rest of the list wasn’t about getting things done. There were observations, some personal worries, and a funny joke my spouse made last night. I wrote words of encouragement and wisdom and half a sentence that feels like the germ of a short story. I left those where they were, with a few comments. Now they’re safe and sound in Evernote instead of rattling around in my head, and I can revisit them at my leisure.
Spinning straw into gold
Turning a mess of incomplete thoughts into something concrete is a rewarding way to start or end the day. But where do you begin? What do you actually do with all that raw material?
You don’t necessarily have to do anything. Dumping thoughts into Evernote means they’re never more than a quick search away, whether you need them 10 minutes from now or in 10 years.
If you do want to make use of what you’ve written, this is the moment to switch from divergent, spontaneous thinking to convergent, deliberate thinking:
- First, decide if you want to sort through your notes immediately while you have momentum or wait until you can review them with fresh eyes.
- Next, begin sorting. Rearrange your text so similar ideas are next to each other. This makes it easy to see the relationships between ideas. You can break your note into sections (like “Work Tasks,” “Personal Projects,” and “Bucket List”) or create a separate note for each topic.
- If something stands out as actionable—a standalone thing you can do in an hour or less, say—turn it into a task right away.
- If you’ve described a project—something with multiple steps that will take some time—consider giving it its own note. Paste in all the bits that relate to the project, then set a task to come back and begin working on them later.
Finally, decide how and when you’re going to tackle your new tasks, projects, and ideas. We’ve compiled a simple guide to some of our favorite productivity methods to get you started. Set aside time on your calendar to make it happen. And don’t forget to have Evernote remind you to open those notes when you’re ready for them.
Enjoying that “clean brain” feeling? Make it a habit.
In minutes, you’ve gone from a confused jumble of thoughts to an orderly document you can use however you like. Bravo!
Building brain dumps into your routine can help you concentrate on the right things at the right time and put nagging thoughts in their place. It’s a practical problem-solving exercise that can leave you feeling calmer, more organized, and more motivated all day long.
To go a step further, review your brain dump notes on a weekly basis to see how your perspective changes. Ideas you set aside as non-actionable may be ripe for next steps, and things that seemed urgent at the time may have been irrelevant. Reviewing your list with the benefit of time makes it easier to see the big picture.
But remember, this is a personal exercise. While the suggestions above should give you a solid start, there’s no right or wrong way to do a brain dump. Experiment and adapt the method to something that works for you. Good luck, and happy dumping!