woman writing a list
planning & organization

4 steps to brain dump your way to a clear and focused mind

If it ever feels like you’re thinking about a million things at once, you’re probably right! According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the average human has between 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Is your mind blown yet?

Now that you’ve read that, you’re probably thinking about whether or not you actually do have this many thoughts, so it looks like I’ve just added to your total. You’re welcome.

The NSF’s study also pointed out that 95% of our thoughts were the same repetitive thoughts as the day before, and 80% of them are negative.

The logical conclusion is that we spend much of our day thinking about the same stuff, and our thoughts are mostly about things that weigh on our conscience or stress us out in some way.

So what can we do to break this pattern of circling thoughts that never get resolved? As it turns out, I have the perfect solution!

Brain dumping is a simple but powerful technique to help you declutter your mind and reduce overwhelm. It’s easy, quick, free and quite possibly life-changing.

I know you’re probably thinking, “Ok, sign me up!” right this second, so let me indulge you.

what is a brain dump?

The term brain dump means exactly what it sounds like – dumping all the contents of your mind onto a piece of paper.

During a brain dump, you’re putting all your thoughts on paper, effectively getting them out of your head. If you’re anything like me, you can have hundreds of thoughts per minute. (Thanks, ADHD.)

These thoughts tend to stay on your mind because your brain doesn’t want you to forget about them. When you have dozens of random thoughts running through your mind at once, it can be really hard to focus on anything else.

“I need to buy pasta sauce for dinner tonight. OMG, I forgot to feed the cats this morning. I hope they’re not dead. Ugh, I still feel guilty about that thing that happened last week. And I haven’t paid the electricity bill, I keep forgetting. Don’t forget to mail the insurance papers too!

Don’t forget… wait, it’s Wednesday already? Holy cats, my client needs her project outline by Friday and I haven’t started! Which reminds me, it’s Mom’s birthday next week, that’s right. I haven’t called her in a while, I probably should. Oh, what was I supposed to buy at the supermarket again?!”

brain dump 12
“Trying to work? Let me flood you with random thoughts.” – Brain

If you’re trying to do something like writing a blog post, replying to a client email, or my personal favorite, sleeping, chances are you’ll quickly get overwhelmed by everything you have to remember.

Meet your new friend, the Brain Dump.

You literally write it all down. I know it sounds overly simplistic. The truth is, it kind of is. But it works!

how brain dumping reduces overwhelm

Physically writing down your thoughts helps you process, clarify and make sense of them. While they’re in our head, thoughts are abstract concepts. One of the best ways to reliably turn these abstract concepts into clear and defined items you can take action on is to write them down.

Think about it – in order to write something, you need to visualize it and understand it enough to be able to associate it with concrete words.

By writing down your nagging thoughts, worries, tasks, ideas, incomplete projects, you get them out of your head. It lets your brain know that it doesn’t have to hold on to these thoughts anymore, and it’s safe to move on to something else.

Once you stop stressing about everything happening in your head at once, you’ll find yourself wonderfully calm and clear-headed.

That’s the power of the brain dump.

brain dumping as a self-care activity

When we think of self-care, we usually imagine a luxurious bubble bath with a good book and a glass of Pinot Noir.

The truth is, self-care is much more than that. We can look at self-care as the things we consciously do every day to maintain our physical, mental and emotional well-being.

woman on sofa with tablet
Clearing your mind is a powerful way to reduce your stress level.

When our minds get cluttered, we become stressed and overwhelmed. We are exhausted, unproductive and unmotivated.

Doing a brain dump clears your mind of recurring thoughts, worries and overwhelm. You’ll feel physically, mentally and emotionally relieved once you finally have some mental space to work with.

For people with ADHD, this is an especially valuable benefit since we constantly run on low working memory. Since I started doing brain dumps, I’ve been feeling much more focused, clear-headed and organized. Let me show you how you can, too!

types of brain dumps

You can brain dump on paper or electronically. How you choose to do it is up to you – I personally prefer the electronic brain dump, but many people love to write on actual paper.

the paper brain dump

There’s something about using pen and paper that helps us relax. If you’re able to, I suggest starting with a paper brain dump. This takes the stress out of using technology and trying different apps or programs.

The paper brain dump is highly creative, allowing you to draw arrows, highlight stuff, cross out things you don’t need, or add notes in the margin. You can dedicate a pretty journal to your brain dumps, which can become an interesting self-discovery tool as you track how your thoughts evolve over time.

the electronic brain dump

If you’re already comfortable with apps such as Evernote, Trello or Google Docs, you can use those to do your brain dumps. Some apps even have voice recording features for hands-free brain dumping!

Electronic brain dumps tend to be neater and more organized, but the downside is that they may be less “visual” or customizable.

woman speaking at smartphone
Try doing a voice brain dump with your phone!

the hands-on brain dump

This one involves writing on scraps of paper then sorting them using a board system. Post-it notes and a whiteboard could make for a fun brain dump!

Whatever method you choose, I suggest also keeping a secondary, ongoing brain dump list in your phone’s note-taking app for those inevitable genius ideas that tend to occur at the most inconvenient times.

how to brain dump effectively

Whether you choose the paper brain dump or the electronic brain dump, the process is the same. Here’s how you can do a brain dump in 4 easy steps.

1. list everything you can think of

Sit down for 10-15 minutes and write down everything you can think of. If this is your first brain dump, allow yourself 30-45 minutes.

Don’t worry about sorting things into categories, organizing the items on your list, trying to decide if an item on your list is worth putting on there or wondering if a certain task is achievable. Don’t worry about being neat.

Dump the entire content of your brain with no filter, no censorship, and no judgment. As solopreneurs, our businesses are often tied directly to our lives, so add all your non-business thoughts as well.

Here are some things you can write about:

  • tasks
  • shopping list
  • wish list/shiny objects
  • gift ideas
  • goals
  • projects you’d like to do
  • new ideas for your business
  • bills to pay
  • blog post or social media content ideas
  • symptoms and health concerns
  • questions
  • things you want to look up on Google
  • movies you want to watch
  • things you worry about
  • travel plans
  • story ideas
  • upcoming birthdays
  • things you need to discuss with your spouse
  • anything else that uses up your brain space

2. take a break

Don’t skip this step! Taking a break allows your mind to clear what you’ve already written down and make room for other things that were just below the surface.

You can do the dishes, take a shower, walk the dog, watch a movie, anything that gets you to think about something other than your brain dump.

3. brain dump some more

There are two ways you can approach this step:

As you perform your activity of choice, you’ll likely get more ideas. You can carry your list with you and keep adding to it as you think about more stuff. If you choose to do this, I recommend keeping your list close by for the rest of the day until you go to bed and do a final brain dump before bed.

You can also leave your list where it was and come back to it an hour later. Then, you sit down again and repeat the first step until you feel like you’ve truly written down everything that’s been on your mind.

brain dump 14
The second round of brain dumping helps you get below the surface layer of your thoughts.

4. organize your brain dump

Grab some colorful pens and highlighters and get ready for the best part – using office supplies!

Because brain dumping is a creative tool, it will look different from one person to the next. The key is to find what works for you.

First, look at your list and cross out anything that shouldn’t be on there. Unrealistic goals, maybe-but-probably-not project ideas, things that realistically will never get done, or things you realize you already have in your pantry. Be ruthless. If it comes back in a future brain dump, then it’ll be worth re-examining.

Then, find some common themes. You can create categories based on how you want to organize your brain dump. This process is entirely unique to each person, so experiment with different categories and hierarchies.

For example, mine would look something like this:

  • to do’s
  • shopping list
  • content ideas
  • project ideas
  • bills to pay
  • things I need to look up, watch or discuss

Then you can break it down further…

  • household
  • business
  • work
  • health

… and further:

  • urgent
  • needs done this week
  • not urgent

Assign a color to each category and start highlighting, underlining, circling and drawing arrows until everything on your list has been sorted into categories.

Start adding items from your list to your planner or calendar. For non-task items, look at whether you can turn them into goals (for example, if “I need to lose weight” is on your list you can turn this into a fitness goal) or projects (like creating an online course for your audience).

Other items such as ideas can be added to your favorite tool. Your idea list can be a Google Doc, a Trello board, an Excel spreadsheet, an Evernote list, a bullet journal or a regular notebook. Just make sure you always keep your ideas in the same place – nothing’s more frustrating than looking at your list of blog post ideas and realizing you wrote half of them down somewhere else!

Eventually, you’ll be left with items that you’re not sure what to do with. Often, the simple act of writing something down allows our brain to process it, and it’ll finally stop nagging us. Small worries or mistakes we feel bad about may only need to be acknowledged and forgiven. For things like conflicts and big worries, consider adding them to your journal to process later.

bonus step: feel the relief!

Doing a brain dump can be incredibly liberating. You’ve just released the tension and stress that has been eating at you for a while! Take a few minutes to enjoy this.

After a good brain dump, I always feel clear-headed, calm and satisfied. My creativity flows beautifully, I’m extra productive and I can actually focus on what I’m doing!

woman working on laptop
Decluttering your mind allows you to truly focus on your work.

how often should you brain dump?

This is highly personal. (Ha! You thought I had a clear schedule for you?)

As with everything else about the brain dump, the best frequency is the one that works for you. If you’re a worrier like me, I recommend doing a thorough brain dump once a week. If you’re more easygoing, then you can brain dump when you feel your mind is getting cluttered.

Or, you can do weekly brain dumps for one month to really clean out your brain, then do them as needed when worries and tasks start piling up again.

You can also do mini-brain dumps every night before going to bed. I find these help me sleep better. Sometimes, you’ll have nothing to write and that’s ok! Just the realization that you’re not stressing about anything can be liberating and put your mind at ease before you go to sleep.

While the key is to brain dump before you get overwhelmed, the beauty of the whole thing is that it’s just as relevant if you miss the cues and find yourself in the middle of a tornado!

get brain dumping!

I encourage you to set aside some time right now and do a brain dump while this information is still fresh in your mind.

If you’re looking for a cute Brain Dump Journal to jot down and organize your thoughts, I’ve got you covered in my Etsy shop!

featured product brain dump

I would love to hear about your experience during and after your brain dump, so please share it in the comments. I’m looking forward to seeing how amazing you feel after getting rid of your mental clutter.

Also, make sure to share this post on social media to help your friends clear their own mental clutter!

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