Get Your Head Straight: The Power of the Brain Dump.

Get Your Head Straight: The Power of the Brain Dump.

How many things have popped into your head in the last half hour? My brain is in a constant state of busy-ness just trying to keep track of All The Things. I bet yours is the same. We’re not meant to live like that. Learning to use the brain dump as a journalling tool can work magic on those frazzled feelings of overwhelm.

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What is a Brain Dump?

At it’s simplest, the brain dump is just a huge list of everything that’s in your head.

It’s a way of clearing all the crap out of your head and getting it onto the page so that you can look at it properly and make some decisions.

Brain dumping is an amazing journalling tool to help you find your way out of overwhelm.

Sometimes a brain dump just looks like a long list of items, sometimes it’s more rambling, stream-of-consciousness writing. I’ve seen fancy bujo spreads for better, more efficient brain dumping. Really, though, I think this is one of those areas where the simple approach wins out.

Just get it all down on the page. Write it down as it pops into your head.

Why Does the Brain Dump Work?

Your brain isn’t made to hold everything in your short-term memory.

Brains are freaking amazing things, but expecting them to hold all the minutae of our lives in our working memory is like having a thousand tabs open in your Internet browser at once.

on a slight tangent, if you’re in the too-many-tabs camp, then you should check out the Workona extension. It’s been a serious game-changer for me!

If you’ve already got a system for keeping track of all the things you’re supposed to be doing, then you might be wondering why you need the brain dump at all.

Maybe you don’t.

However, if you’ve read this far, you identify with the frazzled, overwhelmed picture I’ve painted so far. Whatever your system is, if your brain feels like it’s going to explode under the pressure of trying to remember All The Things, then something’s not quite working.

In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen talks about a ‘trusted system’ for capturing your to-dos. If you’ve reached exploding-brain stage, then your system isn’t working well enough for you to trust it properly.

How to Brain Dump

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, and you don’t know where to begin, turn to a fresh page in your journal, or take out a sheet of paper, and just let it all flow out.

Just write. Don’t try to organise or think about how to achieve anything, just get everything onto the page.

Don’t be surprised by how much crap you manage to write down! If your brain is seriously overflowing at the moment, chances are you’re trying to keep track of more things than you probably realise.

Just keep going.

Put down All The Things.

  • The tiny things that seem so small they don’t really need to be on the list.
  • The HUGE things that seem impossible to even write down, let alone actually achieve.

No sifting. No sorting. Just write.

When you think you’ve written it all down, put down your pen and walk away for a while. Go make a cup of coffee, grab a snack, and come back in half an hour or so.

When you come back to the list, you might find a whole new load of stuff just waiting to be dumped onto the page. If that happens, you know what to do, so go right ahead and empty your brain all over again.

Analogue vs. Digital?

You do you.

That’s always the best advice. Do what works for you. Choose what feels easy. Do what makes sense for you right now.

I like to write by hand.

Julia Cameron says, “When we write by hand, we connect to ourselves … we get a truer connection–to ourselves and our deepest thoughts– when we actually put pen to page.” Typing just isn’t the same for me.

It works best for me to use an actual pen and write on actual paper. It’s how I do my morning pages, my bullet journalling, and my brain dumps.

What to Do Next?

You’ve got a few options for how to proceed once you’ve finished your list.

1. Walk Away.

You don’t have to actually DO anything.

Maybe just making the list was enough for you, and there’s no need for you to do anything else.

If that’s you, then go have a bath, watch a film, drink a cup of tea. Enjoy your new peaceful mind, and know that you can come back to the brain dump process whenever you need to.

2. Reduce.

Are you tempted to blast through that list and add all the to-dos into your calendar?

Resist that temptation.

Your first step needs to be to delete anything from that list that doesn’t really need to be there.

Just because it was in your brain ten minutes ago, doesn’t mean it needs to be in your life. You were feeling overwhelmed with your head full of all that stuff. Does it really make sense to put all of that overwhelm into your calendar?


The best action plans are focused only on things that are actually going to pay off in some way. To achieve that, you need to cull all the detritus. Ditch things that are important to someone else but not to you, and things that used to feel like a good idea but now don’t.

What about things that you’ve been writing on to-do lists forever? Are these really things that light you up and make you feel excited to achieve them? If they really really are, then keep them in the list and make them happen. If not, then it’s safe to just let them go.

3. Prioritise and Categorise.

My brain dumps are invariably a tangled mess of home and family, work stuff, personal goals, and a whole load of other stuff that doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere.

I think it’s the same for most mamas … definitely the ones I’ve spoken to about it. There is just so much going on in our lives, and our brains aren’t always great at compartmentalising things.

To really get a handle on things, it helps to sort your list out a bit.

I can’t tell you what different categories or criteria you should use, because your life might be completely different to mine.

Think about the different areas of your life that are represented by the items on your dump list. If you were going to sort them all out into boxes, how many boxes would you need, and how would you label them?

If you’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, then you’ll be familiar with the idea of context lists. This is a similar concept.

Your categories might be work, home ed, housework, fitness, and garden, or they might be completely different. However it works out, try to separate out your brain dump items into broad categories to make it easier to see what you’ve got on your plate.

I also find it helpful to highlight any really urgent items – but use that highlighter sparingly! Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everything is urgent. If there are things that truly need your attention NOW, then by all means highlight them, but keep that urgent list as small as possible.

4. Scheduling.

By now, you’ve probably found that some of your list items are just things that need to be put in your calendar. Do that now.

Whether your calendar is paper, or digital, or a combination of the two, it only works if you actually use it. (If you’re interested, here’s what I use at the moment: Cozi, the Boxclever Press calendar, and a shared family Google Calendar.)

Get those dates out of your head and into a calendar as soon as you can – then you can stop thinking about them, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be reminded when the time comes.

My top tip here is to schedule a reminder for anything that needs to be done ahead of time. A reminder on the day of your sister’s birthday is about as much use as a chocolate teapot if she lives 500 miles away. Far better to set a reminder for a week ahead, so you have time to buy a card and gift, and a reminder for the day itself.

Think about how much more easily your brain will work when you no longer have to try to remember all of those dates all the time!

5. Look for Quick Wins

When you’re deciding what to tackle next on your list, try to rack up a few quick wins.

I’ll bet there are at least a few items on your list that would take less than fifteen minutes to do. See where you can find time to tackle a few of those over the next day or two.

Crossing something off of a to-do list always feels good, and it’s even better when they’re small things that have been having a big impact on how much stuff is going on in your head.

Zap them and clear some space.

6. Tackle the Rest.

Okay, so it’s a bit unfair lumping this all into one category, but this post is really about ‘how to do a brain dump’ rather than about ‘how to organise your entire life’.

By this stage, everything on your list should be something that you intend to actually do. It should be a list full of things that are important to you right now.

Hopefully the list is a whole lot shorter than it was at the start.

It’s really down to you how you tackle the rest of your brain dump list. Some things will need to be done at a specific time, so you can get those into your calendar system pretty easily.

Are there some things that you can’t tackle just yet? If ‘decorate living room’ is on your list, but you know you first need to save money for the project, then there isn’t much point in having it lurking on your to-do list for the next few months. Make a plan for how you’ll start saving the money, and set a reminder to check back in a few months.

I like to spend some time on a Sunday, planning the upcoming week. This is the perfect time to look down at your remaining brain dump list and decide whether there’s room in your week to tackle some of the tasks.

You’ll get there eventually.

It can be discouraging to have a long list that never seems to get any shorter, but it probably took you years to build up such a long list of sludgy, unfinished crap. It won’t all disappear overnight.

The trick is to get everything into some kind of order so that you don’t have to constantly think about it.

Put a system in place to remind you automatically about things, and enjoy the space it creates in your head.

When to Use a Brain Dump.

Probably, if you’ve stumbled across this post, right now would be a great time to try using this journalling idea. There are lots of different ways you can use a journal to help you get your life in order, but I think this one is expecially powerful.

Use brain dumping when you feel like your head might explode under the pressure of remembering everything. Train yourself to pick up a pen anytime you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, anytime it seems like there’s just too much to do.

Over time, you’ll find that it becomes almost automatic. You’ll recognise the signs of exploding-head syndrome, and you’ll know just the right step to take to tackle it.

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