How to Do a Brain Dump | Everything You Need to Know!

How to Do a Brain Dump | Everything You Need to Know!

If you're anything like our team, you live a full life. While our families, our work, and our passions bring meaning, joy, and purpose to our lives, they also come with responsibilities, tasks, worries, and plans. And that can be a lot to keep track of, leading to days that feel scattered and overwhelming and brains that feel... well, scattered and overwhelming.

Helping people cut through the clutter to take action on what matters is what we love to do at Cultivate. The PowerSheets® goal planner can help with this, and so can the Season by Season™ daily and weekly planner. But so can the humble brain dump

Because it’s hard to focus when your brain is cluttered—but a fruitful, purposeful life requires your focus. No matter what your role is in this season or what activities fill your days, you must have a process for sifting out the important from the unimportant and ensuring you take the next best step toward what matters.

Today, we're walking through everything you need to know about brain dumps: how to do a brain dump, different ways to use a brain dump, and how to get the most out of a brain dump. 

Ready to tackle the junk drawer in your mind? Let’s go!

And psst—we want this post to give you everything you need to get started with brain dumps. But if you find yourself wanting to do them regularly, you might love the Refresh | Brain Dump Journal

What is a brain dump?

A brain dump is the practice of freely and comprehensively transferring your jumbled thoughts to the page, through writing, with the goal of bringing order to chaos.

That's it—but it's so good!

It's getting everything in your mind out on the page so you can actually do something about it. Brain dumps are for everyone, no matter your role or responsibilities, and they have many benefits (as you'll see below!).

Who is a brain dump for?

Does your brain feel sticky and slow from cobwebbed thoughts?

Does it race at top speed, zigging and zagging from one idea to another?

Or does it feel like a junk drawer, with both the necessary and the useless jumbled together in a tangled mess?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then a brain dump is for you! Brain dumps are for corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, moms, teachers, retirees—women in every and any stage of life, with any combination of responsibilities. All women can reap the benefits of a regular brain dump practice!

So let's talk about those benefits...!

Brain dump benefits:

Before diving into the finer points of how to do a brain dump, let’s chat briefly about the compelling benefits of a regular brain-dump practice. Brain dumps can:

Anchor you in the present.

A brain dump helps you acknowledge every thought taking up space in your brain, from an event that happened two weeks ago to a presentation you’re giving in two months. It brings your regrets and daydreams into the present, where you can act on them. This helps you release the past and settle your mind so that you can live fully and freely right where you are.

Reduce anxiety.

Your brain can get stuck in loops of worry. Without a way to step off the carousel, your thoughts might take you for an endless, unproductive ride. Writing your fears and worries down on paper helps you view them objectively and begin to move forward.

Increase self-awareness.

Any form of journaling or reflection, done over time, will help you recognize your patterns of thinking. If they’re positive patterns, you can reinforce them; if they’re negative, you can learn to redirect them and build new mental grooves. Brain dumps can also help you see how your actions connect to your outcomes. Reflection reaps rewards!

Increase your productivity and ability to concentrate.

A brain dump gets potential to-do list items out of your head and onto paper, the first step in prioritizing your time and delegating as needed. When your next steps are clear and your brain is freed from simply holding information, you’ll spend more time executing—and less time wondering whether you’ve forgotten an important to-do or what task you should be tackling next.

Clarify your priorities.

By dumping onto paper all that could matter and then narrowing down to what does matter, the things that matter most will become clear. You can then take action in a way that honors your highest values.

Improve your mood.

When your path forward is clear and you feel equipped to take the next best steps, you’ll feel confident and optimistic about what’s ahead.

Doesn’t that sound good? Little by little, the positive effects of a regular brain-dump practice will add up.

Inside pages of Cultivate What Matters' Refresh | Brain Dump Journal

How to do a brain dump:

At its simplest, a brain dump is simply writing down every thought in your mind on a piece of paper. We like to take it one step further by expanding the brain dump into a four-step process that will help you get clear on what mattersand then make it happen! By walking through these simple action steps at a cadence that works for you, you’ll clear your mind and gain fresh perspective.

In his book Getting Things Done, productivity expert David Allen summarizes the process of a brain dump nicely: “We (1) capture what has our attention; (2) clarify what each item means and what to do about it; (3) organize the results, which presents the options we (4) reflect on, which we then choose to (5) engage with."

The Cultivated way is similar. Let's expand a bit on each step!

1. Capture

Just like the organizing expert Marie Kondo’s principle of discarding first and then tidying, the first step in a brain dump is to empty your brain of thoughts. Write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t analyze what you’re writing, don’t judge yourself for what’s on the page, don’t organize your thoughts in any way, and do not begin looking for solutions.

Emotions, memories, everyday to-do list items, big-picture goals, worries, things you’re looking forward to, regrets, next steps in current projects, text messages to send—simply get it all out on paper. Unrelated items will sit side-by-side on the page, and that’s fine. Just remember to give each thought its own bullet point to make the next step easier.

Depending on how often you brain dump and your goal for doing so, you might find it helpful to set a ten-minute timer. Force yourself to write until the timer dings—often, the most helpful minutes spent writing are the final ones when you think you’re out of thoughts. If you brain dump less frequently, you might simply write until you can’t think of anything else to put down on the page, no matter how long it takes.

When you feel finished or when the timer sounds, sit quietly for a minute or two to make sure no other thoughts surface.

2. Sort

Grab a set of colored markers or highlighters and return to your list. Read through it once, noticing any patterns that jump out. Then, make a simple key at the top.

Your key might include responsibilities in life, such as family, work, a creative business, or a volunteer organization. You also might choose to code by type of thought: to-do list items, worries, needed conversations, and tasks to delegate, for example.

Read through your list again, assigning each bullet a color. You can cross out the lines that need no further action or simply leave them unhighlighted.

3. Organize

Once your thoughts are sorted, it’s time to move them to their next destination:

A QUADRANT

To group similar items together, you might find it helpful to organize them using a matrix, or quadrant. We’ll talk more about all of the ways to use quadrants below (there are many!).

A LIST 

Tasks and things for your to-do list can be transferred to your planner or your favorite digital project management system.

A JOURNAL

For fears, worries, and other emotions weighing on your mind, you might find it helpful to work through them by journaling, sketching, or mind mapping them in a journal. (Mind mapping is where you brainstorm by writing down one central idea, with supporting ideas branching off of the main idea.) Sometimes, that’s what’s needed to fully process something and clear it from your mind. Other times, a heart-to-heart with a friend, family member, or professional might be a helpful next step.

4. Take action

Your tasks have been organized, prioritized, and transferred, and your journaling prompts are ready. Hopefully, your mind is feeling clear, focused, and refreshed. Channel that energy into taking action on what matters most, one step at a time!

How to organize a brain dump:

You know how we talked about sorting your thoughts into a matrix, or quadrant, above? And that there are many ways to do that? Let's discuss!

Start by drawing a cross on a blank piece of paper. (Our brain dump journal includes many matrix pages just waiting for your thoughts!) Then, label the quadrants however is most helpful. Here are a few ideas to get started:

THE EISENHOWER MATRIX

Pioneered by the 34th president of the United States, the Eisenhower Matrix helps you prioritize by urgency and importance. To use the Eisenhower Matrix, label the upper left quadrant “urgent and important,” the upper right “important and less urgent,” the lower left “urgent and less important,” and the lower right “less urgent and less important.” Once sorted, the traditional method of dealing with each quadrant is to complete tasks in the upper left immediately, to schedule tasks in the upper right, to delegate tasks in the lower left.

BY TIME

Similar to the Eisenhower Matrix but more specifically related to time horizons, you might find it helpful to label your quadrants Now, Next, Later, and Never, and then sort your tasks and thoughts accordingly.

BY CATEGORY

Choose any four categories that arise from your brain dump. For example, you might label your quadrants Family, Work, Creative Business, Volunteer Organization, Health, Legal, or Home—whatever is on your mind (and your metaphorical plate). If you brain dumped specifically about a project or event, you might label your quadrants with things like Guest Experience, Programming, Decor, Food, Logistics, or Communication.

BY TYPE OF TASK

If it’s helpful to sort your bullets by type, consider labels like Tasks to Complete, Tasks to Delegate, Worries, Needed Conversations, Things to Communicate, Issues to Solve, or Thoughts to Consider.

brain dump matrix showing examples of how to organize a brain dump

When to do a brain dump:

When and how often to do a brain dump is up to you! Here are a few ideas to get started:

Different Frequencies

A daily brain-dump practice will ensure your brain stays as clear as possible. The thoughts you journal will likely be focused on day-to-day concerns.

A weekly brain-dump practice can set you up well for the week ahead, especially when paired with other weekly reset practices like aligning schedules or meal planning. If you struggle with transitioning from home to work and back, a weekly cadence may also be helpful.

A monthly brain-dump practice might help you take a big-picture view and pace yourself over the next several weeks.

Different Times of Day

It’s common to feel overwhelmed in the morning when the day’s possibilities seem limitless (but your time to complete them does not). A regular morning brain-dump practice can help you organize your day at its beginning, helping you move confidently into your day with a plan for spending your time on what matters most.

An evening brain dump is a restful and restorative practice that can help you make sense of your day, feel prepared for the next day, and rest easier. By emptying your mind right before turning out the light, you give yourself the opportunity to capture any last thoughts and go to sleep with a quiet mind.

Taking a few minutes to brain dump during or after an experience—like a meeting, learning session, conference, or conversation—can help you capture swirling thoughts and get the most out of your time spent with another person or learning something new. Different from traditional note-taking, brain dumping frees you from judgment as you write and assures you that every fleeting thought will be captured.

Different Emotional States

Feeling stuck? A brain dump gives you the time and space to dislodge what’s on your mind. This allows you to see obstacles and paths forward more clearly.

Feeling overwhelmed? It’s tempting to barrel on without thinking about how you’re feeling when there’s a lot to do. But you’ll find better solutions and accomplish the right things—instead of just staying busy—when you pause before diving into a day of work or a list of tasks.

Feeling eager? It’s also tempting to dive right in when you’re excited about what’s on your plate. To help you work systematically and efficiently instead of bouncing from one task to another, spend a few minutes on a brain dump first. This will allow you to capture all of your creative ideas while your enthusiasm is high.

Inside task pages of Cultivate's Refresh | Brain Dump Journal

Ready for more?

Have you fallen in love with brain dumps after reading this post?! Ready to dive in deep with matrixes, lists, and journaling? We think you'll love the Refresh | Brain Dump Journal! It includes the exact brain dump format we've outlined here, with room to complete more than 100 brain dumps. You'll love the flexible quadrant pages (that you can customize with your own categories!) and the accompanying task lists and open journaling pages. 

Shop now!

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Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is Cultivate What Matters' Content Strategist and Writer. With over a decade at Cultivate, Emily loves helping women uncover what matters, set good goals, and live them out with joy. Her free time is spent with her high-school-sweetheart husband and three young kiddos.

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