The Brain Dump – How to Combat Overwhelm and Stress in 3 Simple Steps

Ever feel like your mind is full to the brim? Like there’s so much on your plate that you don’t even know where to start? Having too much on your mind is a one-way ticket to overwhelm, stress and anxiety, especially if we feel as though everything is just piling up. Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, my favourite thing to do is take a big ol’ brain dump. No, it’s nothing rude… It’s just the perfect way to declutter your mind. I’ll show you how it’s done.

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What is a brain dump?

While it may sound like something you definitely wouldn’t talk about around the dinner table, brain dumping is far from crude. Put simply, it’s a way of untangling everything that’s racing around your mind. Imagine tipping out your handbag and sorting through it (if you’re anything like me, this is a daunting job). BUT, how good do you feel once the bag is empty… And you don’t have to sort through a load of sweet wrappers just to find your purse?

A brain dump works in a similar way. Except you’ll be spilling the contents of your mind out onto paper instead of your bag out on the table. It’s ideal if you have too much to think about and need to declutter your mind. The brain dump technique is often thought to hail from the David Allen book, ‘Getting Things Done,’ but it has since been adapted a million times over. I’ll share how I brain dump to get things done in three simple steps below.

I also adapted the humble brain dump into a full journal to help overcome overwhelm once and for all. Take a look at the (aptly named) Overcoming Overwhelm journal here.

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The benefits of brain dumping

Before we go through how to brain dump, it’s important to understand what the whole point of this exercise is. There are numerous benefits that come from brain dumps and so you’ll always be able to get something out of doing one. Here are some of the benefits of brain dumping that I’ve experienced or experts have claimed:

  • It gets the thoughts out of your head. If you have too many thoughts racing around your mind, it can be almost impossible to untangle them or prioritise. This is especially helpful for those random, niggling thoughts that appear whenever you least expect them – “I can’t forget Aunt Shirley’s birthday next week” – usually before you drift off to sleep.
  • Organise those thoughts. Getting them out of your head is one thing, but organising them is even better. With a brain dump, you may be able to notice problems or patterns, or see a solution to an issue that was hiding in plain sight. Seeing your thoughts written down on paper makes it much easier to simplify and organise them.
  • Can help with anxiety and over-thinking. Sharie Stines, Psy.D. believes that brain dumping is an excellent way to manage anxiety and over-thinking, as you have the time to actually process your thoughts. You might find that the one thing you were anxious about isn’t actually as scary as you first thought.
  • You can come back to it time and time again. As soon as you feel the overwhelm creeping in again, simply go back to your brain dump and re-work it. What do you need to add? What can be taken off? The more you brain dump, the easier it becomes.
  • Boost your productivity. If you spend all day just thinking about all the things you need to get done, chances are you won’t get a lot done! Brain dumping ensures your mind is clear to focus on the tasks at hand – meaning you’ll be super productive. Combine brain dumping with the Pomodoro technique for a double-whammy in productivity.
  • The modality effect. Experts have found that writing things down can help things to stick in your memory and improve your recall, known as the modality effect. You may find your memory improves by brain dumping!
How to brain dump - Step 1: Write it all out
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How to brain dump and declutter your mind in 3 simple steps

As mentioned, this brain dump technique first rose to fame through David Allen, but it has since been adapted many times over. Everyone has their own ways of doing things, so use the steps below to create your very own brain dumping routine. This is how I like to brain dump in three easily digestible chunks.

Step 1: Write it all out

The first thing you’re going to want to do is get everything out of your head, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed! To make the next couple of steps easier, I like to do this in categories. On a piece of paper (or a few pieces of paper) write out the categories that best represent your life. For example, home, work, family, social, relationships, well-being, etc. Make sure you have a category for ‘everything else’ as there will likely be something that you feel doesn’t fit into any of these. Now, start writing.

Write down everything that pops into your head. Everything that’s cluttering up your mind. Things from your to-do list and projects. Important things you can’t forget (Aunt Shirley’s birthday)! Keep going until you feel as though your whole handbag has been tipped on the table. You may also want to leave this brain dump somewhere visible for the next few hours, just so you can add to it whenever something else crops up.

Some people like to write this all out in a diary or bullet journal, some people like it as just a big sheet of paper full of ideas. You can even use a note taking app if you prefer to do things digitally. What matters is that it’s something that you can come back to easily and that you can decipher. If that means investing in beautiful new stationery for your brain dumps… Well, then so be it.

Step 2: Find the quick wins

If you’ve ended up with a huge list that looks even more overwhelming than when you started, don’t panic. Just think, your poor brain was holding all of that inside! At least now, it’s out and can be dealt with. First of all, I look for important dates or reminders that I need to set myself on my brain dump list. I add these to my ToDoist app or calendar, so they’re also now out of my head and I can’t forget them. That’s a whole load of thoughts out of my head and neatly filed away where they should be.

The next thing I like to do at this point is look for anything I think can be done in just a couple of minutes. There’s always something on the list that will be quick to do and I love quick wins. Normally mine are things like clean the dishwasher filter, send that important email, or add something to the food shop. Find a few of these and just get them ticked off. Your brain will start to feel free already!

Finally, if some of the items on your brain dump list are anxieties or stresses, look to see if there are any that can be struck off. Are there any concerns that seem less worrisome or daunting now they’re written down? Can you get them out of your mind and off the list? This is a difficult step, but one that will really help free up some space in your head.

Step 3: Process the bigger tasks

Now that you’ve got some quick wins under your belt, you may be feeling on a productivity roll. You may even want to tackle some of the bigger tasks, ideas or projects on your brain dump list. However, my advice to you is to process them first. Look through them, prioritise them, and understand what needs to go where on the to-do list. That way you don’t end up doing all the fun things first and leaving the daunting (but important) things until they become overwhelming again. Something I do often!

I like to have another piece of paper for this, or I use my ToDoist app. I go through each of the bigger tasks, new ideas, and things I’ve been putting off, and put them in order of priority. What is the first thing that needs to be tackled? What’s next? And what’s the third one? Top three priorities make long to-do lists far more manageable and are another calling card of David Allen.

After my top three most important priorities, I make a list of another three priorities that are important but not THAT important. Basically, ones that could hold out until tomorrow. Finally, I make a list of another three priorities that probably could wait a few days or even a week. Everything else stays on the brain dump master copy for me to come back to another time.

You should now have three lists of three priority types – top priority, second priorities, and things that probably can wait a little bit. This is a lot easier to manage than trying to do everything at once. Now, set your timer for two minutes and two-minute trick your way into getting these done! Alternatively, use the Pomodoro Technique and add these to your 25-minute pomodoros.

These are the basics of a brain dump, but like I said, people can choose to adapt these to suit them better. Some people have dozens of steps when it comes to their brain dumps, but others like to keep it simple (like I have here). Find what works for you and then try sticking to a routine with it.

I find a brain dump to be so therapeutic for me, especially if I’ve had a stressful week. I like to get mine done on a Sunday, ready for the week ahead. However, some people prefer to do this on a Friday so they’ve got the weekend without any stresses. Find a day or time that works for you and stick at it! You will find that the more often you brain dump, the easier it will become. You will soon become a brain dump pro, with a decluttered mind and much better mental health. Good luck!

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