The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

David Allen, Getting Things Done
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What is a brain dump?

To declutter your head, you need to do a brain dump.

A brain dump is simply writing down everything that pops into your head. All it takes is paper and pen and willingness.

It is easy to dismiss such a simple act as a waste of time, but you’re actually clearing your mind so that you can better handle life and tackle your responsibilities.

Write down whatever is on your mind – on paper – no matter how far fetched or obvious.

Once you have all the things that require your attention gathered in one place, you’ll automatically feel more focused and calm because your mental energy will be freed from the burden of remembering details.

When we’re tracking details in our heads, our thoughts feel jumbled and fragmented. We’re unable to focus and think creatively or problem-solve logically. 

Brain dumps are the simple solution.

First, you need a notebook. Whether it’s a spiral notebook, a legal pad, a journal, or paper in a three-ring binder, you need to have paper that stays together. You want to avoid piles of loose paper by choosing a bound option. Writing it down on paper isn’t optional.

Second, you need a home for your notebook. No one wants to lose their brain dump notebook. Give it a home to live when you aren’t using it and put it away there when tidying up. 

Finally, remember to take your time. You won’t finish your brain dump in one sitting. Plan to come back to the notebook and keep going for as long as you are working through the course. All random thoughts and ideas go into the notebook; they do not stay in your head.

By writing down your thoughts, you’ll find that you clear your mind by making your thoughts more concrete because you’ve put them into words.

You’ll be able to think about the issues that come up rather than simply rehash the details.

Writing will help you make connections and analyze the situation rather than feel overwhelmed by it all.

Your mind is like a pantry

The brain dump is an intermediate phase as we organize our lives and create useful personal systems. Our minds are like our pantries: full of both useful goods and leftover garbage.

If you were going to organize your pantry, you’d pull everything out so you could wipe down the surfaces and only put back what belongs, what isn’t expired.

A brain dump is the floor or table holding your junk while you process what needs to be organized.

After pulling everything out of the pantry, you might start making groups of the stuff you pulled out. You would definitely comb through and toss what needed to be tossed. You’d combine two open packages of rotini pasta to consolidate. You might decide to pull out an unused container to hold something you realized needed a better home.

Then, you’d start moving things back into their right places, but you’d not worry about the table holding the stuff-in-progress being organized or neat, right? It’s just a temporary holding place. When the pantry is put back together, everything left on the table will be swept into the garbage.

Yes, you would worry about the mess it will make to pull everything out. Yes, you would worry about not finding homes for what you find.

The brain dump is just a tool on the path to organizing everything else in life, not another thing to organize.

It’s an inbox – a collection place. If you need something or are organizing a space (or a system), you know where to find the things that belong there. If you find something that doesn’t have a home, but it’s useful and needs a home, then you find it a home.

If you generated a lot of random junk, uncovered lies, wrote down crazy ideas – cross them out and give yourself the physical and visible clue that you’re done with them and don’t need to think about them anymore.

As you write down whatever comes to your head, you’ll find only some of it is worth keeping. But writing it all out is one effective, tangible way to intentionally clear out your thinking of the thoughts, ideas, and details you shouldn’t be holding onto anymore.

Step #1: Brain Dump

When you get all of your thoughts out onto paper, you will often discover that the scattered craziness you felt was all in your head. With your thoughts visible on paper, you can analyze them without being overwhelmed.

Set a timer and spend 10 minutes – and only 10 minutes – writing down whatever comes to mind as you consider these prompts:

What is going well in your life and home right now? What are you grateful for?

What is driving you crazy in your life and home right now? Why are you responding in the way you are?

What event, activities, or new stages are on your near horizon? Are you prepared? What would it take to be prepared?

It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated.

“I just have a cheap spiral notebook, and I write down everything that pops into my head just to get out of my head.”

-Allison Powell, Simply Convivial member

Step #2: Set up a brain dump notebook

The purpose of a brain dump is to download the thoughts out of your head and put them on paper where you can confront them.

A brain dump is not a once-and-done activity. It’s a go-to strategy to rely on whenever you need to think something through or whenever you feel overwhelmed.

Because it’s an activity we’ll be doing throughout the Simplified Organization courses, I recommend reserving a full, cheap notebook for the purpose.

Choose a notebook. Brain dumps are inherently messy. It’s better if you use a cheap spiral notebook or a small company swag notebook you might have lying around.

Give your notebook a home. Your notebook should be handy, and you should know where it is and where it belongs.

Brain dump before you plan. The first step when planning is always to brain dump. Messy notes first, then pull it together.

Having an organizational system doesn’t prevent overwhelm from ever happening again. Instead, those systems help you know what to do when you feel overwhelmed and scattered. They help you get back on track faster.

Brain Dump Notebook Examples:

“I use these notebooks which have been less than $1 at my local walmart. Then I don’t feel back filling them with my random scratches. When I fill one, I go back through and tear out anything I feel I ought to keep. Then I toss it! I tried using scratch paper for a while, but because I was likely to lose it, I wasn’t actually brain dumping.”
“I use a rocketbook. The eraseability and limited number of pages help me to keep it up to date.”

Brain dumps are disorganized on purpose

The brain dump notebook seems so disorganized. How can this be an organizational tool when it’s such a jumble of thoughts and random bits?

First, we must remember that the organization we are after is the sort that allows us to prepare for and fulfill our responsibilities effectively and cheerfully. The organization we want is not the same as the organization that stores and magazines and Pinterest are peddling. They will tell you that organization means looking good and being in control of your life. They are selling you something – and it’s a lie.

Organization, when we look at the root of the word, means holding together, being unified towards a purpose. It is the opposite of scattered, distracted, and haphazard, but it isn’t necessarily cute, curated, or controlling.

So before we can think about how to organize a brain dump, we need to think about its purpose. It is organized if it is clearly and functionally fulfilling its purpose.

Organized does not necessarily mean beautiful and put together.

When your mind is uncluttered, you come up with out-of-the-box solutions you’d never have thought about while your mind was full of junk.

That’s why a brain dump is the best strategy for beating overwhelm and chaotic thoughts. 

It’s a quick trick to get your jumbled thoughts out of your head and onto paper; it’s not supposed to be a structured or organized list or journal or plan. So take a deep breath and don’t let anxiety stymie you here. Just give it a shot and figure it out through practice.

Step #3: Start with a baby step

Brain dumping isn’t something you sit down once and complete.

Rather, it’s a strategy we return to again and again. It’s often best done in small chunks, not long sessions.

The following three-step 15-minute brain dump will help you get back on track and reclaim your sanity. Do use a timer.

Write down the thoughts that make you anxious. Set a timer and write as much as you can in 5 minutes.

Write down the thoughts that repeat themselves constantly in your head. Set a timer and write as much as you can in 5 minutes.

Write out the nagging questions and tasks that plague you. Set a timer and write as much as you can in 5 minutes.

The power of brain dumps.

“The brain dump was like facing my fear, I guess. By bringing my wrong thinking into the light, I was then able to see and speak the truth in place of the lies. I have hope now.”
Ericka Howard,
Simply Convivial Member

Make it a habit.

“Brain dumps have become my go-to habit whenever I am tempted to feel overwhelmed (which I’m learning is a temptation as well as an opportunity for growth in faith). It’s so helpful to write things out by hand and see the big picture so I can take it to the Lord in prayer and decide what is most important to work on first.”
Kristin Ching,
Simply Convivial Member

Step #4: Iterate for progress

After you have experimented with brain dumps and are no longer intimidated by the full, scribbled note page of thoughts, it’s time to move into the habit of ubiquitous capture.

All the time I tell people: “Write it down, right away” – that is, do mini brain dumps all day long, whenever something pops up that we need to remember. Our minds are unreliable reminder-ers – we need a system for not losing track of our ideas and our commitments.

In Getting Things Done, David Allen exhorts us to maintain these three rules to build the habit of writing things down:

  1. Every open loop must be in your written system and out of your head.
  2. You must have as few information collection places as you can get by with.
  3. You must empty them regularly.

Your brain dump notebook and note-taking habit should become part of your lifestyle. Keep it close so no matter where you are you can collect a potentially valuable thought — think of it as being as indispensable as your toothbrush or your driver’s license or your glasses.

Somehow, figure out the best ways for you to collect thoughts as they occur to you, something that can be a mostly-constant companion. You’ll probably keep several, depending on the context you are in.

Anything will work — if you do — so pick what most appeals to you and fits your lifestyle and circumstances and run with it. The key is to learn the essential habit of ubiquitous capture.

Choose one or two reliable (convenient & accessible) formats for capturing random thoughts at random times. It can be as simple as the notes app on your phone or a post it on the inside cover of your planner.

Make “Write it down, right away” one of your new mottos.

Brain dumping isn’t a commitment.

I am doing all the brain dumping and action statements in Simplified Organization: Organize Your Attitude, but I’m not DOING everything I’m writing down. I’m considering it all part of the brain dump right now. If there is something I want to add right now or can do easily then I will, but otherwise we ARE writing down lots of thoughts and ideas and goals and action plans, and it is going to be a lot to do at one time, so I would just sit tight on some stuff, and as you move through the program then you can start devising how to incorporate slowly one at a time the best of the habits and goals you are brainstorming now.
Stefani Mons,
Simply Convivial Community Manager

It’s uncomfortable, but necessary.

I feel like I’m unpacking my brain and my life this month. It feels like there is chaos, disorganization, and a lot of “oh, I forgot about that,” “I thought I got rid of that,” and “I knew it was in there!” Like cleaning out a linen closet, except it’s my own head. I want to get cracking with organizing, but honestly, I know what I need to sit with the chaos first.
Amie Gardener,
Simply Convivial Member

Repent. Rejoice. Repeat.

A brain dump is the next best step for you to take if you’re feeling like:

  • You have so much to do but it feels impossible to get started.
  • You know there’s a lot to do but you aren’t sure what exactly it all is.
  • You have a vague sense that you’re missing something that’s going to blow up in your face.
  • You are easily distracted and feel scattered.

A brain dump is simply writing everything down. Whatever pops into your head while you have a pen in your hand and paper in front of you, write it down, right away.

Related Seminars & Meetups:

Read or listen to the lesson.
Spend 5-10 minutes brain dumping with the prompts.
Set up a brain dump notebook.
Do one 15-minute timed brain dump session.