According to good ol’ Wikipedia, a brain dump is “the transfer of a large quantity of information from one person to another or to a storage and retrieval medium.”
In other words, a brain dump is the act of getting all of your thoughts out of your head so you are able to focus on one idea at a time, and not have to worry about forgetting the other stuff.
If you don’t get all of these ideas out of your head, your brain will keep bringing them up over and over, making you feel even more overwhelmed.
Even if you are a Type A person who plans by the minute and have journals and day planners, post-its, etc. – they are going to fall short because, as humans, we have hundreds of little microtasks that don’t necessarily relate to any project you’re working on.
When to do a Brain Dump
David Allen wrote a book called Getting Things Done in the early 2000’s, that spread the word about this concept of a “brain dump.”
He talks about going through a brain dump before you start organizing your life and business, but doesn’t talk much about it being a regular exercise to do.
As for me, I’m going to start doing this once a week, at least until I feel like I’ve gotten most of those little buggers that float around my head down on paper.
Going through a brain dump once is great, but the power of this is to keep your brain clear and able to focus on the projects you’re currently working on.
I’m trying to get this done towards the end of each week, on a Thursday or Friday, because I find that so many new ideas and thoughts come to me throughout the week.
Here are some other times it’s good to get all of your thoughts down on paper:
When you have a busy schedule (cough, cough, all the damn time!)
When you feel “unbalanced” or “off”
When you’re getting frustrated with work
When you have lots of new projects or clients
After a client call or important meeting (I would do a shortened version, but make sure you get your thoughts and great ideas down on paper)
Before writing a blog post – yes, go ahead and just explode onto the paper so you make sure you aren’t forgetting anything
When you’re planning out the next month, quarter, year, etc.
Now that I’ve convinced you this is a great tool, how exactly do you go through the process of brain dumping?
Get out a piece of paper and pencil
Write down every single thought that comes to your head. Yes, all of them.
Okay, so there are a few more steps, but that’s the main gist of this exercise.
Here are the steps I generally follow when brain dumping:
1. Open up a Google Doc (or use pen and paper).
I type much faster than I write and find that I fall behind my thoughts if I try to write them instead of typing.
2. Set up a bullet point to start with. This is totally unnecessary, but this is how I like to do it).
3. Set a timer if you have limited time.
The first time you do this, it’s going to be a lot longer than normal, so try to give yourself around 30-45 minutes at least.
4. Start writing This includes all of your upcoming tasks, thoughts, ideas, more ideas, shiny objects (I see you, entrepreneurs), errands you have to run, etc. Get everything out, not just work stuff. You can use the toolkit below for some ideas if you need a little prompt here and there.
Here is me actually doing a brain dump:
5. Go for a walk. Or at least get out of your office for at least 10 minutes.
6. Add to the List
When you come back, you’ll probably have a few more things you thought of while you were out. Add those to the list.
Organize all of these into categories so we can actually do something with them.
The categories you pick can be your own, but here are some I generally use:
Future ideas for the blog
Future ideas for the Agency
Here is what the above (and obviously not completed) brain dump would look like after categorizing, as an example.
8. Break down big projects into tasks. If you’re human, you’ve written something like “start a YouTube channel” or “start a blog” – and that’s great. But that’s not a task and you’ll want to be more specific and add more steps there. You’ll probably want to include things like:
You get the idea. Projects like that just need a little more coaxing to understand how long they will take and give them due dates, which is one of the next parts.
9. Break down tasks into timeframes. What I mean here is to roughly decide when you’re going to tackle a project. I put these into lists like this:
What to do today
What to do this week
What to do this month
Sometime in the near future
Doesn’t need to be done – it’s okay to delete some of these things from your list. Just because you wrote it down doesn’t mean you have to take action on it.
Some ideas are crap. Some things you’re thinking about just needed to be recognized so you can stop worrying about them.
Should be outsourced to a virtual assistant (VA)
10. Add due dates to your tasks.
This is important so we can get these tasks done, but not everything is going to have a due date. The ideas folder generally doesn’t have dates because, well, they haven’t made it to the “next in line” list.
11. Add tasks to your to-do list. Enough thinking about it, we’re going to get things done now. It’s time to add these tasks to your to-do list or project management tool (I like to use Asana).
12. Do one of the easy tasks now. After all, we did this so we can organize our thoughts and get sh** done right? Check something off your list, even if it’s as simple as “forward the Phillies tickets PDF to John.”
13. Go have a beer.
Because you just took a giant leap away from burning out.
Brain Dump Apps, Tools, & Templates
You can just use a pencil and paper and call it done.
But as I mentioned above I love the electronic version of paper for this exercise. But there are other tools to help you document your brain dump and keep them for future reference if need be.