by Susan McCarthy
A brain dump is a simple technique that can ease your mind by getting your thoughts on paper. Instead of feeling like there's an endless list of things to do in connection to decluttering, you can see what you want to accomplish.
A few years back I worked with a woman who would rattle off everything she needed to do after work and “joke” that she hoped she wouldn’t forget to do any of the tasks. Not to be obvious or anything, but I suggested that she write down her list and then number the order she wanted to tackle the tasks.
She laughed and said that it was good for her mind if she kept repeating the list. I would have found doing that crazy-stressful.
Productivity expert David Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, recommends not relying on memory to keep track of all the tasks, projects, chores, errands, phone calls, etc. He thinks we should use our mind for creativity and problem-solving instead of being a warehouse for to-do lists.
While I’ve never managed to incorporate the entire GTD (Getting Things Done) system into my life, I have adopted Allen’s Brain dump (aka Brain Dump) technique. While this is a productivity tool, I also find adapting this practice to more focused lists help with single tasking which can leave you feeling calmer and less scattered.
With all the things you must do in connection to emptying your parent’s estate…not to mention maintaining your own life…a brain dump allows you a place to contain the to-do list that’s scrolling on a loop through your mind.
The Mind Calming Benefits of a Brain Dump
The idea behind a Brain Dump is that you ease your stress when you download all these thoughts instead of allowing them to run on a loop through your mind. Putting all this stuff down on paper means that you don’t need to run through your list time and again while trying to remember what you need to do and prioritizing these tasks.
Knowing that you aren’t going to forget anything can help you feel less overwhelmed. However, creating this list and then not doing anything with it might make you feel more overwhelmed. After all, these lists can become rather long!
So, to calm your stress, you can’t just write the list, set it aside, and work on anything that comes to mind. Identify the tasks on that list that must get done.
Brain Dump, good; transforming it into a useful list, all the better.
What Is Brain dump (aka, Mind Sweep)?
Whichever term you use to refer to this technique, the process is the same.
Step One. You grab pen and paper (if you want to type it, you could) and list every (and I mean EVERY) tasks that you need to do (no matter how large or small or when you want it done by; along with any thoughts or worries that keep running through your mind.
Basically, a brain dump corrals any task, project, or loose end whether you are currently working on it or not.
Step Two. You then group tasks that have something in common (say, people to contact) or that belong to different projects onto smaller, focused lists.
Of course, listing everything in your mind can get overwhelming. Maybe you just want to make a list of things you want to do today, over the weekend, or throughout the week. Unfortunately, these lists can still leave you feeling stressed because you want to see all these things done.
Step Three. Take a break so when you return to the list you have some perspective.
Step Four. Prioritize what needs to be done today. These things are usually the ones that will move you closer to your goal. If you are trying to finish emptying your deceased parent’s home in the next six weeks and you’ll be spending time at the house today but not the next two days, then house emptying tasks take priority over other things that can be done another day.
Step Five. Put your day’s priorities in the order you’ll do them. So, start with the absolutely must-do task and then work your way down to the ‘it would be great to get these things done’ tasks. This way you don’t end up doing the easier to accomplish tasks that aren’t as important as others.
Step Six. Go to work.
The Do & Done List
One of my favorite parts of to-do lists is crossing things off the list. But, when tasks get carried over from one day to the next, I’d write a new list for each day. By the end of the week, I’d be looking at the latest incarnation of my list and realized that I’d lost sense of everything that I’d accomplished over the course of the week.
I tried keeping the original, long list but that was unwieldy after a few days. For as much as I liked seeing a list of crossed off stuff, after a day or two it would be distracting to look at this long list as I hunted for tasks I still needed to do from their hiding spot between completed items. So, I’d rewrite the list. But then my sense of fulfilment diminished.
To help me see what I was accomplishing, while keeping it clear as to what I still had to do, I started writing individual tasks on the sticky notes referred to as page markers – they’re ½-inch by 1-½-inch.
Then I’d label a piece of paper as “Do” on one side and “Done” on the other. (You could also have two side-by-side pages in your journal or notebook.) I attached the sticky notes to the Do side. When I did a task, I’d move it from the Do list to the Done list.
I’d fill the Do column with what I wanted to accomplish during the week and then shift them to the Done category. Each day I could easily see what I’d accomplished and what still had to be done.
The Do and Done list is great when you have a bunch of tasks that are of equal importance. For example, emptying the bookshelves are on the same level as sorting through the linen closet…it doesn’t matter which you do first. Moving the sticky note from the Do to Done page was like a little celebration, Yay! One more thing done!
The Now and Not Now List
For days or weeks filled with more complex tasks, I created another type of list that still used the sticky page markers. The benefit of writing the tasks on the sticky notes meant that I could rearrange their order so that I’d be clear on my priorities.
I put the top three tasks for the day at the top of the list, in a box labeled Now, and ignore the rest of the list until the top three tasks were done.
But I have the bad habit of bouncing from one task to the next and I couldn’t really work on three tasks in the now (no matter how hard I tried to). Enter the Next and Not Now categories.
This way, Now is one task, the one that I should be working on now. Below that box is one labeled Next, a good reminder not to get caught up in perfectionism with the current task because there is something else waiting to be done.
At the bottom of the page (although taking up most of the page) is the Not Now tasks. Seeing the heading ‘Not Now’ is a good reminder that although these tasks need to get done, they aren’t the one that I’m working on now.
If you struggle with distractions or setting priorities, this list guides your attention.
Use a Brain Dump to Ease Your Stressed Mind
One of the problems with keeping your to-do list in your mind is that it’s exhausting. Your thoughts run on a constant loop. Another problem is that it’s difficult to prioritize and put in order the tasks that are rolling through your mind.
So, if you find your thoughts spinning through your mind, get them on paper so you can more easily see how to prioritize them.
While this is a productivity technique that will help you get things done, it’s one that helps ease your mind, helping you to focus on a single task. You can use a Brain Dump to calm your stressed mind while you declutter your home and do the things you need to do in your own life.
Hi, I'm Susan
I'm a former teacher who became a professional organizer (and not because I'm a natural-born neatnik). I live with my husband and fluffy cat on a river in Massachusetts. I crochet, make handmade cards, and love reading young adult novels. Learn more about my decluttering journey here.