January 28, 2016 | Alyson Stanfield

The Liberating Magic Of The Brain Dump

Every so often, you have to conduct a brain dump.

I hear you asking: What is a brain dump?

A brain dump is a magical process that gets everything out of your head and onto paper. And, yes, I find that paper is where it has to happen. The computer is too distracting.

Brain Dump Notebook
All the tools you need for brain dump magic: paper and pen.

You know it’s time for a brain dump when you’re overwhelmed. Your head is about to burst, your stomach is fluttering, and your chest feels tight.

You’re feeling like you can’t get all of your tasks done in the time you have, and God bless the poor person who asks you for a favor right now. Oh, boy! Will they ever get an earful!

Another sign it’s time for a brain dump is that you are unfocused – you know that you have a lot to do, but can’t decide what is the best use of your time in this moment.

Brain dump to the rescue!

Here are the 6 steps I recommend for the process.

Step 1: Prepare For Your Brain Dump

I like to begin tasks with focused intention and name the task: Now, I am sitting down to get whatever is in my head onto this piece of paper. Sometimes I even say it out loud.

Naming it provides space. You’re not doing anything else at this time. You’re only working on this one thing.

If you find your attention is still wandering, get up and run in place for 1 minute, walk up and down a flight of stairs, or lift your free weights for 10 reps. Physical movement should help jolt you into a different mental state.

You understand, don’t you, that you’re in real trouble if you can’t focus long enough to do a brain dump that will help you focus?

Step 2: Lay Out Your Projects

Brain Dump Headings
Lay out your brain dump with headings for each project currently on your plate.

Make headings for specific projects that are on your plate at this moment.

Each project has its own set of tasks that must be completed to ensure a success. With this step, you are identifying projects, not individual tasks.

Leave plenty of space below the headings.

Your projects might include:

  • Planning an upcoming exhibition
  • Creating content for your teaching
  • Promoting a class or workshop you are teaching
  • Working with a private client
  • Completing commission for a collector
  • Writing a grant or residency proposal
  • Gaining gallery representation
  • Writing a book

Step 3: Identify Individual Tasks

Under each heading, make a list of the individual tasks that must be accomplished in order to complete that project.

Brain Dump Tasks
Tasks associated with the project Inner Circle.

Each task must be a single step. You will be blocked if you have to complete multiple steps for something you’ve identified as a task.

For example, if your project is promoting an upcoming exhibition, your tasks might be:

  • Get venue clearance on press release.
  • Post details to website.
  • Post weekly about the exhibition to Facebook.
  • Contact designer about postcard.
  • Create special email announcement.

You don’t have to get it perfect. You just have to document everything that is in your head right now.

Step 4: Prioritize Your Tasks

What tasks must be done first? Either it has to be completed before you can move on to other tasks or the deadline is closest.

I label mine with a 1, 2, or 3 (and sometimes add a decimal point if I need to squeeze something in between two digits).

Brain Dump Priorities
Prioritize each task by assigning it a number.

Step 5: Add Tasks to Your To-Do List

You can use your brain dump paper as a to-do list only briefly. It’s too nutty to use it for more than a couple of days.

Add the tasks you hope to accomplish today to your working paper list (I keep mine next to me at all times). If something needs to to be taken care of in the future, add it to your electronic task list.

If the task needs to be assigned to someone else, make note of that on your list and then notify that person.

Step 6: Review

In order for a brain dump to work with your tasks, you have to look at it and keep it active.

If you find yourself avoiding a task, ask yourself:

Is this really a single task? Or do I need to break it down further?

Does it really need to happen?

What is the best thing that could happen if I do this?

What are the ramifications of not doing it?

I call this the “liberating magic of the brain dump” because when you’re done, you should feel much better about what you need to accomplish. Liberating! You should be able to see what is most important right now, what can wait until later, and where you need to enlist help. Magic!

Your Turn

What do you do when you’re overwhelmed? How do you prioritize your projects and tasks?

49 comments add a comment
  • This is a fantastic idea! I have had all of the symptoms and needed a brain dump for a long time and now I know where to start! Thank you!!

  • Funny – I just did this today! Its really useful when you feel overwhelmed. Something I said to myself yesterday, when I was feeling overwhelmed, was ‘You can’t do it all, but you can go and paint’ That really helped too. And now I have a painting waiting for my signature!

  • There is something freeing about seeing it all on paper as opposed to floating endlessly through the mind. Paper makes it managable, puts some structure around it…thanks for reminding us of the best way to get the brain hamsters off the treadmill. Headed to make my list right now!

  • I have found that using sticky notes instead of writing lists works very well for me. I can do a brain dump and get lots of ideas/tasks down. I can use different colors for different priorities/projects. I can easily move the stickies onto separate sheets, such as “To Do TODAY,” “Long Term Projects,” “Ideas for Future Thought.” As the status of a sticky changes, I just move it to the right place for that day. I can also create project sheets and use stickies to list the steps I need to take. I can then arrange and rearrange and insert stickies as needed without having to rewrite the entire information or drawing arrows all over the place. As I complete items, I just remove the sticky. I either throw them out, or if I’m looking for proof of what I’ve accomplished, I date it and place it on a sheet of other items I’ve completed.

    • So happy you have a system that works for you, Vicki. All of those sticky notes would drive me bananas, but that’s why we have variety and why no single system works for everyone.

  • I have done this for years but it is in the form of a handwritten To Do List. I just list everything that I can think of that is on my plate and put a check off box in front of it as I complete something I cross it off the list and get a feeling of accomplishment, At the same time I add new things to the bottom of the list until the page is full. Then I rewrite the list without the completed task and the list grows shorter. I find that the things that I don’t have control over or that I have been procrastinating about rise to the top and stick. I sometimes forget about the list and come back to it months later to find that I have completed everything or that the task were not important after all. it is an interesting exercise and sometimes completely needed to keep my sanity. I will have to start calling it Brain Dump.

  • The brain dump is a most productive tool. The key is to remember to keep the project list with you. I write mine, because I love the physicality of pen and paper. I also make a photograph of it into Evernote.

  • Christine Sauer

    Love the “brain dump” term! I use this process all the time to stay on track. Always start by cleaning my desk area before the creating the list. Tamps down the chaos!! Use this process for studio tasks too. Like the sticky note idea by Vicki, may try that. Thanks for the post Alyson!

  • Phil kendall

    Hi aAlyson,
    For me it has to be typed into the computer…separate pages for each topic…big fonts…with dates….what ifs?…what nots?

    I loose stickies/post its then their order is gone…

    And with my writing I’d need a dispensing chemist to read it back to me!

  • Actually yellow and red make green in an additive color scheme such as light. Orange is subtractive as in pigment or is it vice versa?

    I’ve been doing this dump-awful word in my view-I call it making a list. The most important is to describe each little step towards that project. and it feels so good to cross each one as one proceeds to do them. Sense of accomplishment even though the whole project is not finished.

  • Michelle Paine

    I am familiar with the term, but I like that you broke this process down into even more steps. I realize today that in order to get back to painting (we just moved out of state) I actually need to make a list of much smaller, menial tasks in order to get things set up. “Paint” is way to overwhelming!

  • This is super useful! Thanks for the step by step instructions. And I love seeing your handwritten examples. As a mom, artist, gallery owner, board member, etc, I am in a near-constant state of mental overwhelm and often find myself in the “I have so much to do I can’t accomplish anything” rut. I am definitely going to add this to my toolkit. Grabbing my pens and paper right now!

  • Eileen

    Great idea Alyson! I get “stuck” most on prioritizing. Ill write your questions down on a 3×5 card and paperclip it to each page I’m working on as I go for quick reference. I recently read and used, “When your stuck in the procrastination mode set a 30 minute timer and just start doing anything. ” and it has busted through that wall of feeling conflicted and paralyzed by it and after the 30 minutes I’m able to move forward with more tasks. Now with your ideas i should manage more efficiently. But I’ll have better aim on what to start with if I ever need the 30 minute timer trick again.

  • I use Asana for the overall picture of the projects and tasks that I need to accomplish. Asana works particularly well for those projects and tasks that periodically repeat. I also use paper and a “brain dump” list for all of those other things that need to be done – some can be organized into projects and get put into Asana to be tracked there but other are just a list of things that need to be done. I recently started using bullet journaling for the day to day lists and in my journal I have a page for that long list of things that I want to do “someday”. I am just getting going with this way of organizing my brain dump but am finding it a useful way to see at a glance where I stand on what has to be done today, what has to be done this week and all the other things that I don’t want to forget about, but that just do not need to be done right away.

  • Susie

    This is way too organized for when I need to brain dump. Some call it journaling. Some call it planning. I literally brain dump all the thoughts in my head. It’s important to write them down instead of typing as it gets you to really have to slow down and step away from electronic devices. Sometimes it will be all personal stuff that is clogging my way. Usually there is art goals in there. But it’s like throwing everything on the table and clearing you head. Then I can go back, re-read it, and see what things I need to prioritize, make lists like you mentioned, or maybe just leave the frustration in the book I write in, take a deep breathe, and move on. Writing by hand on paper is huge part of it. We are so connected to everything in our world through technology. It’s like putting that all in a closet for a little bit and slowing down to focus on ourselves. Sometimes it will end up a short writing. Usually it’s like taking a dump truck filled with chaos and circumstances to give my brain a time out. Then I can get back to business. But I do it slowly so I don’t become overwhelmed right away. Focus on priorities. Funny, I always call it “brain dump” too.

    • Burgy

      This is true for me, too. My brain dumps include way more than just project-related stuff; personal and dayjob stuff that is often what is getting in the way. After the full dumpety- dump, then I can pull together project notes out of that.

    • Susie: We all think differently. I am one of those people that wants to find a place for things/ideas.

  • Dorothy

    Because I work at home, when I’m overwhelmed the first thing I do is either go for a short walk or spend a half hour in my garden doing something to clear my head. I agree with keeping the list on paper, it’s less complicated and I think writing it down cements things in my head more than using the computer for the same purpose.

  • I probably don’t use brain dumps as often as I should but I do use them more as brainstorming for specific subjects especially when I’m ready to work on a specific project. On the other hand, when I am overwhelmed it usually means I need more sleep.

    My brain dumps aren’t always list format though. Sometimes I use Schematic Mind mind mapping.

  • Doing brain dumps have been very helpful for me but I find the list of questions to ask about those tasks that never seem to get done even more so. I’ve gotten rid of some lingering things on my To Do list realizing I don’t want or need to do them. And if I do need to do them, I become more motivated.

  • Norma Jean Moore

    I love the name, because it is that built up feeling that needs releasing. I do this process as a long list . It isn’t as analytical as yours. I’ll have to see if it helps to incorporate some of these building blocks.

  • Randall Jordan

    Been thinking along these lines for years,……this will help me insert this into my daily routine. After running my own art gallery for 5 1/2 years, re-establishing myself as an individual artist is priority #1!

  • I so needed this today! I have been juggling a few different clients and submitting info to them all this week has been overwhelming. You’re right, putting pen to paper is most efficient. I slowed down, mentally and physically, and got everything organized and out of my creative brain space. Now the juices can flow again, thank you so much!

  • I have often used a mind map to get the thoughts out of my head. This idea of a brain dump would be a great next step – taking the ideas from the mind map and sorting them into an actionable list. List making doesn’t come naturally for me so this would be a focussed way to start working on moving the ideas from my head to paper.

  • Like Patricia C Vener, I like to do a mind-map when I get overwhelmed.

    Mindmaps help me see connections between things I thought were unrelated or – the opposite – see that something I thought of as central, is really quite peripheral and unimportant. Using a visual process also helps me sometimes reframe things so that I understand more about their why and rather than just a list of why.

    I use an app on my iPad called Ideament which rather handily offers the chance to switch views from mind-map to hierarchical list as well – so I get the best of both worlds ;)

    • Neat! I’ve never used mindmapping for a brain dump. Maybe I’ll try it. I use “My Thoughts” on my computer.

    • Honey Lea

      I have used mind mapping for years as a problem solving technique or for organizing my reading or writing, but I would have never thought of it as brain dumping strategy. Thanks for that idea, Paige. Also, thanks, Cherry, for the information about Ideament. I didn’t know about this app. It sounds really useful especially the going back and forth between formats.

  • I’m currently using a combination of Priorities, to keep track of *everything* (generally things I want to do that don’t have time value) and Reminders for what needs to be done now or soon or asap. The combination has finally freed me from the multiple bits of paper that I kept moving from the studio to the living room and vice versa- wash, rinse, repeat into infinity. So I really wanted to move away from paper as much as possible.

    I guess Reminders is kind of my brain dump or at least the place I jot stuff down so I don’t forget it.

    For something with multiple steps like an exhibition, I use Priorities. It’s also where I track juried show deadlines and note what work I might enter. In fact, going through all the pages to review everything is on my To Do list. :0)

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