One of my favorite things to do on a lazy Friday afternoon (when I should be working, but I have a few posts already done in advance and my mind is wandering a bit) is to do a “brain dump.”
What’s a ‘Brain Dump’?
A brain dump is an idea that I picked up from David Allen’s wonderful book Getting Things Done, which I have lauded and extensively discussed in the past. I’ve found that, time and time again, it has been a very powerful tool for making me feel more in control of my life and helping me focus on finishing things rather than feeling stressed out, even if I don’t commit to the full Getting Things Done system.
Here’s the big key behind all of this. In my life – and probably in your life, too – there’s a tendency to let little undone things build up, and sometimes even big things, too. Usually, these things fall directly under the “important but not urgent” category of stuff you should be doing. They’re important things, but they don’t come with a strict deadline so it’s easy to postpone them for now.
These things can be financial in nature, such as signing up for a 401(k) or getting a budget built in You Need a Budget or filing some papers for taxes next year or sealing that drafty window before winter. They can also be non-financial in nature, such as cleaning out a closet or making a good meal plan for the next week.
Those things get stuck in your mind over time, distracting you regularly from the things you need to do. You’ll be focusing on a task and then one of those little important-but-not-urgent tasks will pop into your head and you’ll think about how you should get that done today or this weekend… and then, boom, your train of thought is derailed. That derailment can cause you to lose productivity at work and even fail to get things done at home.
A brain dump is a solution to all of that. Here’s how it works.
Get out a few pieces of paper (or a pocket notebook) and a pen. You may prefer to do this electronically, but I find that it works better for me to do it using these kinds of analog tools.
Then, start listing all of that stuff that’s floating around in your head. Just write down all of the undone tasks and undone projects that you’ve got stored up in your brain. You can (and should) also look around your desk and personal belongings for inspiration, to remind you of things that aren’t quite popping into your mind.
I usually suggest leaving this list out on your desk or table for at least a few hours, if not for a whole day. Keep coming back to it and adding stuff as it pops into your mind. Just write it down immediately as soon as it occurs to you, then go back to whatever it is that you were working on.
What you’re going to quickly find is that it’s suddenly a lot easier to focus on your day and easier to bear down on the task at hand. Your mind won’t wander to those undone tasks – and if they do, you can either write it down quickly or remind yourself that you already wrote it down and you’re going to deal with that list later.
You’ll also find that your list ends up being really long. At least, whenever I do it, my list ends up being around 100 items or so. That can feel overwhelming, but don’t sweat it yet.
Another recommendation: I usually recommend that people make this type of list on a Thursday or Friday. You should do it on a Thursday if you expect that it will be mostly professional items (or at least have a significant chunk of professional items), or a Friday if you expect it to be mostly personal items.
Processing the ‘Brain Dump’
So, you have this big list of items. Now what?
The first thing to do – and it’s something I suggest doing in the evening after you spent a day making that big brain dump – is to organize it a bit. Identify everything on the list that’s a standalone activity. For me, a standalone activity is something I can do in half an hour or less. I usually copy all of those to a fresh list that I call my “activities” list.
If something is close to a standalone activity, see if you can break it down into two or three standalone activities to be done in order. Then, I usually copy the first of those standalone activities to the fresh “activities” list and leave the other ones on the old list. Sometimes, if it’s just a pair of activities, I’ll copy them both over and draw an arrow between them indicating that they’re linked.
That’s going to leave you with some big projects – things that will take at least a couple of hours to complete. Go through all of those projects and decide whether there are any of them that you feel like you should be taking care of very soon and whether or not some of them can be put off until later. For the ones that you can put off, make a new list and move all of them to that new list – I call this the “Someday” list.
This leaves you with a handful of big projects that you feel like you need to start working on ASAP. For each of those projects, I pull out a fresh sheet of paper and start breaking them down into steps. Basically, I just make an ordered list of “standalone activities” – things I can do in about half an hour. Some of those steps might rely on others to provide things before you can get started, and that’s okay – just make a note of it and move on. Then, when you’ve done this for each project, copy the first standalone step for each of these projects over to your “activities” list.
What you’ll wind up with is a nice long list of activities that each take half an hour or less.
A ‘Brain Dump Saturday’
Then, just get up nice and early on Saturday morning (or Friday morning, if you’re going to handle a lot of professional tasks at work) and just dig into that “activities” list that you made. Make it your goal to spend the entire day knocking items off of that list so that they’re done and they no longer take up space in your head.
When I do this, my list is often 50 or so items long and on a good day, I can knock off half of that list.
Trust me – this feels good. The actual day is an incredibly busy one, but at the end of the day when you think about all of the stuff you took care of… it feels incredibly good, like you’ve scratched an incredible itch that’s been bothering you for months. You feel a mix of pride in how much you actually did that day, mixed with a sense of relief that those things have been taken care of, mixed also with a more subtle sense of excitement about the future because you can feel the weight lifted off your mind.
For me, “brain dump Saturdays” can often stretch into Sundays as well. Over a full weekend, I can often knock off most of my list, leaving me with a fairly small pile of things left undone and a much clearer mind as a result of all of that achievement.
While I do maintain a pretty robust to-do list system, partially inspired by the full system described in Getting Things Done, there are still things that will sometimes fall through the cracks for me. I’ll forget to write down a task or two, or I’ll find that the things on my to-do list aren’t quite reflecting what’s important to me after a while.
So, once every few months or so, I’ll do one of these brain dumps. I usually do a big “dump” on Friday morning, then leave the list out all day for me to add things to it as they come into my mind. On Friday evening, I’ll convert it into a giant to-do list for Saturday and Sunday, and then I’ll spend the whole weekend taking care of those tasks that have been on my mind and left undone.
Without exception, I feel great by the end of Saturday. I’ve completed so many things that were left undone. I feel like a champion. During the following week or two, I feel incredibly focused on the things I need to accomplish. I feel like I can handle anything.
This system is so incredibly helpful to me. I hope that you find it helpful, too.