How to Take a Massive Brain Dump

Your brain is like your body’s inbox.

Every time we think of an idea, or are given a to-do, or come across something we want to remember, it goes directly to the brain. Like an inbox, though, it’s possible for the brain to get overloaded.

When we fail to process our desk’s inbox, more and more things accumulate until the inbox is overflowing. This inundation creates both physical and mental clutter. Our desk is literally buried under paperwork, which in turn makes us feel stressed and claustrophobic.

Our minds work the same way. Like an inbox, our minds contain a finite amount of space. When too many things build up, the result is chaos.

An item placed in an inbox will remain there until it is acted on by an individual. Likewise, a thought in our mind will remain there until we either forget it or act on it. Since forgetting things is usually bad, we struggle to retain as much as we can.

When our lives get busy, we find our minds overflowing with thoughts, ideas, and to-dos. Left unprocessed, these thoughts bounce around in our heads, usually crashing into other thoughts and making us feel stressed and overwhelmed. If you’ve ever felt like your head was going to explode thinking of all the things you need to do, then you know what I’m talking about.

The solution is what David Allen calls a “mental sweep”, otherwise known as a brain dump.

The idea is to get all of your thoughts and to-dos out of your head and down on paper. The process is simple: write down every single thing you can think of that is competing for your attention. And I mean everything, no matter how big or how small:

Return library book.
Send thank you cards.
Pay auto-loan.
Email Auntie Sally.
Do laundry.
Buy deodorant.
Finish thesis.
Research carry pen.
Buy Mother’s Day present.
Finish transferring DVDs.
Move tax return to savings account.
Investigate adjunct jobs.
Finalize Manference XIII.
Process email.
Make dinner plans with Keith.
Email Kevin and Caitlin about November.
Reschedule doctor’s appointment.

And so on. Write until you can’t think of anything else. You want your mind to feel clean and empty when you’re done.

None of these tasks are that big of a deal, but storing all of them in your head at once is a recipe for a mental breakdown. The fact that you haven’t captured these thoughts on paper means your mind is constantly working to remember them. “Oh, I forgot I need to do this… Which reminds me I need to do that… And I still haven’t done this… And I need to do this, that, and the other thing… AHHH!”

Writing everything down in one big list frees your mind from having to remember it all. Even if your list turns out to be three pages long, it’s OK. It’s better to have everything in visual form because it allows you to keep things in perspective. OK, this is everything I need to do. When it’s all bouncing around in your head, you can’t get a sense of the big picture. You’re missing the forest for the trees.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I always try to sit down and do a mental sweep. I empty out every thought, idea, and to-do and put it down on paper. Then my mind is free and calm because I don’t have to worry about remembering everything. It’s all right there on the page, and I feel better. Instead of struggling to keep my brain from exploding, I can focus my energy on actually getting things done and crossing items off the list.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with things to do, I strongly encourage you to do a mental sweep. Dump your brain out on paper. You’ll feel much better.

If you’d like more, check out Merlin’s post on the subject.

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