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The Ultimate Guide to Doing a Brain Dump

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One of the easiest time management hacks, especially for moms with anxiety, is doing a brain dump. If you’re trying to organize your life, doing a mind dump and clearing your head is so simple and effective.

This time management trick will help you clear your mind, even if you're a busy mom. This free printable is simple to use - even at home. Slip these worksheets in your planner to focus at the end of the day or to use as part of your morning routine.

Have you ever had one of those days when your mind is racing, skipping from one thing to the next until you feel like you’re going crazy? Or when you feel like you have so many things to do that you don’t even know where to start?

A brain dump will help you organize your thoughts!

I’ve always been a planner and list maker, writing down everything from pros and cons of my college choices to my weekly chore chart as a child. But I’ve only recently come to understand the full benefits of getting everything out of my head and doing a brain dump.

Doing a brain dump is one of my favorite time management strategies.

If you’ve ever wondered how or why to do a brain dump, or even take control of your to-do list, read on for my best tips and tricks. 😉 

What is a brain dump? 

A brain dump is simply a list of everything that’s in your brain.

Everything from your to-do list to your worries about paying an upcoming bill can be included in a brain dump.

A brain dump list doesn’t have to be fancy, although it sometimes helps to include certain categories and do it in a logical order to get everything out of your head.

Why is a brain dump important?

According to David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Stress-Free Guide to Productivity, a brain dump will help you to identify everything that’s not on “cruise control” in your life.

Getting Things Done book by David Allen

A brain dump will also increase your productivity by getting items out of your head. You’ll no longer have random thoughts floating around, stressing you out and getting you sidetracked.

And if you’ve been hanging out in survival mode, you need all the help you can get to de-stress and stop getting sidetracked!

As you do a brain dump, you’ll also notice the following health benefits and sanity savers:

Relieve stress

A brain dump gives you permission to stop worrying about things. Once it’s written down, you can create a tangible plan to work through everything that’s stressing you out. Sometimes, even just the act of writing it down and getting it out of your head is a stress reliever.

Remember important tasks

No longer are you trying to remember everything under the sun. Just the act of writing will help you remember.

If you do forget, like those millions of times I’ve forgotten to bring my grocery list to the store, try visualizing your list. You might be surprised by how quickly you’re able to remember everything.

Plan your day or week

In addition to relieving stress, creating a plan to do each task can help you frame your week.

You’ll be more productive when you do each task because you’ll be able to focus without worrying about what to do next or if you’re forgetting something.

How to do a brain dump

There are two main ways to do a brain dump. You can either spend some time free-writing or create an organized list of everything that’s in your head.

Even if you create a free-writing brain dump or spend a few minutes journaling or writing, spend some time organizing your list when you’re done.

Doing a brain dump will help you stay stress-free, remember things, and be more intentional about your time. But a brain dump only works if you do it correctly.

While writing down everything that comes to your mind is a great start, there might be more to doing a brain dump than you originally thought.

To get everything out of your head, you’ll want to write the first things that come to your mind.

But to completely clear your mind, you’ll also want to include everything that you might possibly forget.

Here’s how to organize a brain dump into a useable list. You can also use these categories from the start to create an organized brain dump.

The Best Brain Dump Categories

These seven categories will help you to do a comprehensive, organized brain dump and free yourself from your worries. 😉 To make it even easier, download the Ultimate Guide to Doing a Brain Dump Workbook here.

Learn how to finally get everything out of your head and organize your thoughts with this free printable workbook. It's the ultimate guide to doing a brain dump.

1. Two-minute tasks and open loops

David Allen references a “two-minute rule” in his book. Everything that can be finished in less than two minutes should be done immediately. If a task takes longer than two minutes, it should get added to a project list.

Unfortunately, moms are often called away before we can complete a two-minute task, so it’s a little difficult to complete everything, even two-minute tasks. There are also those times when we don’t have time to write down anything, even a longer-than-two-minute task.

That’s where I was struggling, but after reading Modern Mrs. Darcy’s post on “completing the cycle,” I’ve been trying to check for open loops and close them when I get sidetracked.

Too often, I start something, like making dinner, only to get sidetracked and forget to finish some small detail (putting the milk away). Hours later, when I finally return to the kitchen, I end up needing to throw out the leftovers or milk or whatever I forgot to put away.

It takes some practice, but “close the loop” has become my new mantra for all tasks (maybe I find this mantra so catchy because we’re working on “loop, swoop, and hooping” our way through shoe-tying in our house?!?). When my toddler has to go to the bathroom in the middle of my dinner prep, I immediately think “close the loop” when I return to the kitchen.

I also “close the loop” once I’m done with big tasks but before I move on to the next. After making dinner, but before I start the kids’ nighttime routine, this is especially useful (is it me, or is everyone’s brain fried after dinner?).

If a task takes longer than two minutes or is something that I can’t reasonably close, like remembering to make a phone call during “normal business hours,” I include it on my brain dump. Otherwise, I “close the loop.”

2. Today’s tasks

Daily reflection and journaling is something that many experts highly recommend for everything from productivity to mindfulness to relaxation. But even if you journal, spend some time thinking about your daily tasks.

Is there anything at the top of your mind today? Is anything bothering you? Do you have any nagging to-do lists?

Also, think about what went well and what went wrong throughout the day. Is there anything that you need to do to repeat that activity (or avoid, if it went wrong)?

Thinking about your daily tasks is an especially good habit to do at the end of the day. Before bed, take a few minutes to review your day. Write everything down, no matter how small or silly.

3. Yesterday’s tasks

In addition to “today’s tasks,” think about everything that you did the previous day.

Was there anything that you didn’t finish (or maybe didn’t even start)? Was there anything that you kept telling yourself to remember (buy more salad dressing, for example) that you forgot to write down?

4. Upcoming tasks

Now that you’ve gotten all your past worries out of your head, think about everything that’s on (or needs to be on) your to-do list.

Are there any upcoming events or tasks that you keep worrying about? Is there anything that you need to do before you can start those tasks? Need to buy a birthday present for your nephew’s party in two weeks? Write it down, even if you don’t plan on working on it right now.

Also, think about things that are worrying you even if you have them scheduled. Is there a reason why you’re stressing?

Think about “closing the loop” for upcoming things, too. For example, if you immediately think about an upcoming bill, are you worried that you won’t have enough money in your account to pay it? Could you transfer money out of your rainy day fund? Maybe it’s as simple as reviewing your budget to make sure that your bills are scheduled as planned.

5. Site walk-around

Even if you’re not home, walk around your home, workplace, car, etc. in your mind. What do you “see?”

Are there any housekeeping or maintenance things that you’ve been meaning to do? Is there anything that you need to replace or buy again (more toilet paper for your kids’ bathroom, gas for your car, flour for the upcoming bake sale)? What about long-term repairs? Maybe your furnace started this winter, but you’re worried about it lasting another year.

Include both short-term and long-term issues on your list. If you write down long-term issues, like replacing your furnace, you’ll be able to create a savings plan or start researching so that you won’t have to worry about it in the future. For short-term items, try to schedule time to “close the loop” as soon as you get a chance.

6. People in your life

Is there anything that the people in your life need? Think about your immediate family, friends, neighbors, and even your extended family.

Have you been meaning to make a phone call to Great Aunt Betty? What about sewing your daughter’s Frozen costume? Baking cookies or checking in on an elderly neighbor?

Just making time to think about the people in your life will help you feel more connected. But when you write down these tasks that have been nagging at you, you’ll also be able to prioritize making time for the people in your life.

7. 20,000 feet view of your life

Think about your “big picture” life. Is there anything that you hoped to do but haven’t?

Think about your goals, hopes, and even your regrets. Is there anything that you’ve been meaning to change or start doing? Write it down, even if it’s something that’s far into the future (I already have big plans for retirement).

While tomorrow’s not here yet, it’s never too early to think about or create a plan.

It’s also never too late to change. If you have any regrets, especially if they’ve been eating at you, add them to your list. Once they’re written down, you can start to think about what you would’ve done differently and what you can do starting now.

Another thing to consider is how to handle your decisions in the future. I love the concept of asking yourself how you will feel about this decision in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years.

When to do a brain dump

To really get the most out of your brain dump, there are three times when it’s most helpful. I like to do a comprehensive brain dump when I’m stressed, a quick daily brain dump, and a weekly review brain dump. All of these will help you feel more focused and in charge of your own schedule.

Do a brain dump when you have anxiety

Doing a brain dump when you’re stressed out is the perfect way to get out of your own head, problem solve, and see things from a different perspective.

Sometimes, once your problems are written on paper, they seem more manageable. If not, create a plan to tackle them.

Especially if you ended your brain dump with a list of regrets, you might be feeling a little depressed. That’s normal, but know that the end result of a brain dump will actually help you.

These thoughts, worries, and nagging tasks have been bottled up inside you. Now that you have them out of your brain and written on paper (or in a digital file, like Evernote), you’ll be able to stop worrying about them. As you’re doing your brain dump, you’re essentially sorting through your thoughts. This will help you de-stress and focus on the things that matter (and that you can control).

Use a brain dump to relax and sleep better at the end of the day

You don’t need to do a comprehensive brain dump at the end of every day, but spending a few minutes before bed might help you relax and sleep better.

Also, if you regularly do brain dumps, they won’t get so out of control. You’ll find that you are quickly able to review your day, upcoming tasks, and think about any upcoming household or people issues that should be resolved.

Incorporate a brain dump in your weekly planning session

A weekly review is a great way to reflect on your previous week and also create a plan for your upcoming week. You’ll be more organized and more prepared for everything life throws at you.

Another benefit of doing a weekly review is that you might start to notice how you’re spending your time. Once I started reviewing my week (and after reading The Fringe Hours), I started to see pockets of time that I wasn’t using well.

By doing a brain dump and worrying less about things that were still “in my head,” I was able to make sure that I accounted for everything, even the fun things that I wanted to do and never seemed to have time for.

A brain dump is the starting point of getting your thoughts and tasks organized.

By knowing how and when to do a brain dump, you’ll be able to effectively manage your thoughts and tasks. Once they’re out of your head, you won’t have to worry about them and you can start creating a plan to finish them.

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Friday 30th of December 2022

Hi, Alison! Your post is so wonderful and perfect for getting organized for the New Year! I love a good brain dump to get all my ideas on paper. I would love to invite you to link up your post at Whimsy Home Wednesdays to inspire others and have a chance to be featured

Angela @ Setting My Intention

Thursday 15th of February 2018

I loved doing a massive brain dump when I first learned about the concept. It really does help your brain settle down and know that it's kept in a safe place. I love your mantra of "close the loop"!

Kim Smyth

Wednesday 22nd of March 2017

Great site, saving for future reference!

Alison Lange

Friday 31st of March 2017

Thanks, Kim!


Monday 20th of March 2017

I have found this to be a huge problem as a mom of young kids - trying to remember everything, but constantly having your attention called away in the middle of a task. Thanks for tips!

Alison Lange

Friday 31st of March 2017

Yes, if I don't write things down as I think of them or at the end of the day, at the very least, they're gone forever!

Linda Luke

Monday 20th of March 2017

Love this. I often recommend brain dumps for my clients, but not this detailed. I'm going to try your version tonight at the end of my day and see how it feels.

Alison Lange

Friday 31st of March 2017

Thanks, Linda. Let me know how they like it!