Dump Your Brain to Free Your Mind (Day 8 of 30 Days of Getting Results)


Day 8 - Dump Your Brain to Free Your Mind

“You must weed your mind as you would weed your garden.” — Astrid Alauda

Your Outcome: Turn your mind from a carnival funhouse or haunted mansion to your own private den.  Free your mind up to focus on better things.  This is part of achieving a “peaceful calm” state of mind, as well as getting rid of the “buzz” in your mind, or the nagging reminders that interrupt your focus throughout the day.  Rather than use your brain as a depot for random ideas, “To Do” lists, reminders, and general mind clutter — you’ll have a place for dumping your brain and unshackling your mind.

Welcome to day 8 of 30 Days of Getting Results.  In day 7 we learned how to setup boundaries and buffers as a way to recharge our batteries, set the stage for work-life balance, and create a foundation for a sustainable life style.  Today, we’ll de-clutter our minds and give ourselves space to think, dream, or simply wonder around without bumping into so much mental clutter, mental chatter, and noise.

The Mental Chatter is There for a Reason
Before we start doing any brain dumping, we need to know why this works and why it’s so important.  All those things on your mind, are probably there for a reason.  They’re reminding you that you’ve got stuff on your plate that needs attention.  There are things that could threaten your quality of life, or that are blocking you from the quality of life you’d like to enjoy.  Many of the things bugging you, are actually useful, whether it’s for motivation or simply for reminders.

Thinking on Paper to Dump Your State
However, your mind is not where all the things bugging you belong.  Stream of conscious thinking is way less effective than thinking on paper.  When you dump your state on paper, you can stop trying to remember what you were thinking about, and instead focus on what you want to do about it, or whether you can just let it go, or prioritize something else.  When it’s on paper, you free your mind.  When it’s on paper you can slice it and dice it in a more effective way, or sort it in a way that works for you, instead of against you.

Thinking on paper is how you go from soup to sanity.

The opposite approach is to let things lurk in your mind, where every corner you turn, something jumps out at you — surprise!– or each thought turns into a Jack-in-the-Box, or each idea is like looking straight into a Funhouse mirror.

3 Ways to Dump Your Brain
There are three common ways to dump your brain:

  1. Daily brain dumps.   Have a place to write things down.  For me, on my computer I keep Notepad (a plaintext editor) open and I dump things down throughout the day.  It’s a simply a tickler list.  Rather than let it bounce around, I write it down.  This helps me stay focused throughout the day, without worrying about what I’m forgetting.  At the end of the day, before I go home, I dump down whatever “state” I’ve built up in my mind, such as things I still want to accomplish.  If I have a bunch of browser windows open, I simply paste the URLs into my open Notepad in case I want to “rehydrate” my state at another time.  I simply save these brain dumps with the current date: “20010-08-06”, “2010-08-07”, “2010-08-08”, etc.  This way I can flip back through them if I want, or just let them go.  It’s my “dumping ground.”
  2. Periodic brain dumps.   This is where you periodically dump everything down that’s top of mind or tugging at you.  It’s just a long, flat bulleted list of anything that keeps popping into your mind.  You take a few minutes and you just keep dumping until your brain says, “OK, I think it looks like you got everything I’ve been trying to tell you.”  This might be many pages, or you might find your mind was simply a broken record and it’s been telling you the same five things again and again.  Once your mind feels heard, and you’ve echoed it back by writing it down, your mind can now shift into what it does best – problem solving.  In my case, again I use Notepad and I simply title the file today’s date (“2010-08-08 – Master List”)  I tend to add a distinction in case I have my daily brain dump and my mother-load.
  3. Pen and paper on the go.   Simply carry a notepad, a sticky pad, or index files with you.   It’s nothing fancy, but it is effective.  Rather than let things float around in your mind, jot them down.  You’ll get very effective, very quickly at keeping tight tickler lists to remember gobs of information.   A single word might be just enough to help you jump back to that idea you had to change the world.  As a key tip, use The Rule of 3 to keep things simpler.  For example, when I’m in a meeting or taking training, I’ll shoot for walking away with three take aways over a laundry list of things.

In all of these cases, you’re factoring your thinking from your chatter and your reminders.  This is like factoring editing from your writing – write it down, then edit.  (As an aside, Hemmingway edited for an hour and wrote for an hour.)

Once you have your lists, you are empowered to turn them into action, and you can simply do so by chunking them into stories, and fitting them into your three stories for the week, or three stories for the day.

Example of a Periodic Brain Dump
Here’s a quick example of a periodic brain dump.  All I did was dump the things that are bugging me around the house:

  • Clear the growth along the path
  • Clear the growth around the deck
  • Clear the growth on the back driveway
  • Get rid of stuff that’s no longer useful
  • Downsize book collection
  • Fix the gutters on the house
  • Fix the gutters on the garage
  • Fix the front deck
  • Fix the back deck
  • Re-tile bathroom 1
  • Fix the shower in bathroom 1
  • Add a border to the back lawn
  • Re-tile bathroom 2
  • Take down the tree
  • Get a new fence
  • Fix the floor in den 2
  • Fix the window in den 2
  • Fix the floor in the kitchen
  • Shred the papers

That was step one.  it’s random and it’s just a quick dump of my top of mind things.  Step two would be sorting it and analyzing it against what I want to accomplish.   That’s where my map of Hot Spots really comes into play, because I can see at a glance what’s on my radar and what’s important.

Today’s Assignment

  1. Dump your brain.  Simply make a list and dump out everything that’s top of mind or tugging at your thoughts.
  2. Take a moment to enjoy the fact that you uncluttered your mind and gave it some breathing room.  Let yourself play with the possibilities.
  3. If you’re really feeling gung-ho, then review your list and find some low hanging fruit.  For example, the simplest thing on my list is shredding papers, and I enjoy it, so I’m gong to tackle that.  For the other things, I’ll have to step back, prioritize against what I want to accomplish, then make a simple plan.

My Related Posts

Photo by Robert. S. Donovan.


  1. I can definitely see how this process would be beneficial for many people. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if people have constitutionally different styles and minds and might need different approaches.

    For example, I rarely look at anything I write down and I consistently lose to do lists. Anything I put in an electronic file is virtually gone once it’s closed, I rarely look at it again. I even lost my page of weekly and daily outcomes for last week, but I still got a tremendous amount out of the process. I’m not sure if this is simply poor disciple or just a different style of being. (BTW) I do have an analytical mind and have run organizations fairly well despite the above.

    What’s been helping me lately is simply using an always open 30-31 day wall calender that sits on my kitchen counter to track appointments and reminders and writing to-do’s on a plain piece of paper next to it. Not very high tech, but working for me.

    I’m definitely willing to give brain dumps a try…will see how it works.

  2. this is so in synch with how my brain tends to work… i have always had a multitude of ideas to do or ideas on how to do things better.
    i also feel that if i dont write it down i might forget them.

    …over time most actually outlive their usefulness to me.

    i now have a deeper grasp of how this program really works and believe i can make it work for me better now…

    it’s really mastering the discipline of simplification and amplifying focus “day to day”. will be getting and appreciating my results from hereon..:)

  3. Resonates a lot with me.
    I dump my tasks into OL posts – it’s fastest for me. And it’s scannable and searchable too.
    I adopted sticky on the go and it seems to be super effective …and cheap 😉

  4. @ Fred — It sounds like you’ve mastered the art of the brain dump!

    @ Sandra — My To Do lists and brain dumps are all throw aways by design. The process brings the right thing to the forefront, then The Rule of 3 chops them down to size. The only time I need to go back to a brain dump is when I dumped some of my best insights that would be very difficult to rehydrate. My wall calendar is one of my favorite tools — I like to have information at a glance.

    @ Riza — I find writing things down helps me let them go … because I can look them up again if I need to. This simple act, makes room for new ideas, instead of ideas that play like broken records.

    @ Alik — You’re a regular brain dumper and it serves you well — always moving up the stack.

  5. Hi JD .. I can definitely see the value in that .. and will do it – & I know you use Evernote .. I must get in the habit of using my iphone to some of its potential – that’ll be a start!

    I’m still in between homes .. so life is a little messy – but I’m vaguely in gear and know what I want to do and where I am heading .. so gently progress along that path ..

    Wonderful post again .. thanks – Hilary

  6. J.D., I like this quote: “You must weed your mind as you would weed your garden.” — Astrid Alauda

    and also this is why I love journaling so much, it grounds me so much, as does walking. 😉

    have a great day!
    xx Jenn

  7. @ Hilary — That fact that you know what you want to do and where you’re heading is huge … it sounds like you’re on path. The key is alway having effective metapors that empower us, whether we are in between homes or on a nomadic journey or getting a fresh start on the rest of our life.

    @ Jenn — I was so glad to come across that quote. It was like poetry in motion.

  8. Hi JD .. I certainly know where I’m going .. just need to set the paths ahead for the actions – that will come fairly soon; loose ends to tie up first .. and lots I’m working on .. Thanks .. I’m thinking again! just not doing .. need to up the thinking – will do. Hilary

  9. When I tried the brain dump for the first time a month ago (2/3), I realized the impact of exercise from day 1 through 7. I had a clear mind that day because I spent lots of time and energy in the previous week to analyze and write down my hot spots along with relevant thoughts and activities, what kinds of things I have trouble sloughing off, effective/time boundaries and buffers. 2/3 was a busy day, so my mind didn’t wonder off much. I felt defeated but good at the same time.

    After few days, my daily brain dump file started getting longer. I reviewed 2/3-2/20 brain dump file (excel sheet). I compiled all ideas, but I didn’t feel like going over it to turn them into action items or add it to hot spot. 2/21-3/4 files are untouched… I will make some time this weekend or Friday to go over those files… I have a feeling that it’ll be fun.

    Yes, I’ve been experimenting what I can do better, faster, and easier since I got my Baseline Schedule and Start-up/Shut-down Routines figured out. The best example would be… I used to take forever to go through Getting Results exercise because I was getting distracted and doing other things in between. Now I can get it done within an hour because I created a step-by-step guide to review your article, my note from it, reading your feedback from the previous day, reading other people’s comments, and posting a comment here. Tedious? Well… I am a goal/process/format oriented person, obviously. I love a good flow, especially productivity one.

    Speaking of “Strength Within” …here is my quote of the day – “Dig within. Within is the wellspring of Good; and it is always ready to bubble up, if you just dig.” Marcus Aurelius

    The Brain dump activity reveals our bubbles within. We see bubbles because we take time to listen to ourselves. We can take it deeper if we so desire, and we can even make it one of our main focus in this life if it’s a significant one… M. Aurelius is my favorite philosopher.

    • > The Brain dump activity reveals our bubbles within.
      I like that, and I like the quote.

      One thing you might start to notice is that you’ll get more and more fresh ideas, the more you free your mind. Your brain will naturally start getting resourceful and creative, once it no longer has to keep cycling through the same reminders and thoughts.

      I think the Zeigarnik effect helps explain this. The Zeigarnik effect says that we remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than the ones we complete. So if we don’t have a way to dump things, or let things go, or let things slough off, then our brain just keeps looping through the noise, and it creates, as my friend would put it, “psychic weight.”

      I also love a good flow.

      The beauty is this is your “personal process” and that’s where you can find both your “strength within” as well as your unique value.

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