Brain Dump

Crowded mind – image by John Hain from Pixabay

I gave the National Day of Unplugging from screens a try these past 24 hours. I was fairly successful. My phone and laptop charged. I made my Fitbit happy with my steps for the day. I took a walk with my wife to a coffeehouse and we talked about some of the good things we have planned in the spring. I cheated a bit in that I used a phone, but it was our old landline which has no screen. But those two calls were pretty important. I had also queued up some social media posts for the time offline, so I still appeared to be online to most people. I checked my email and messages once at noon today just in case there was something critical. That’s not so much FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as it is the reality of how we communicate now. I have a family member who is having serious medical issues, so I really can’t be completely unplugged. When the sun went down, my laptop went on and I went back to this post which I had drafted a few weeks ago and revised it for this weekend.

One thing I did away from screens was read some on paper, and one book I picked up again from the shelf is somewhat connected to the unplugging. It was David Allen‘s book that posited, amongst other ideas, that multitasking is a myth. The book is Getting Things Done with the inviting subtitle of “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” Wouldn’t that be nice?

There are several things I took from the book. One is that my poor old brain is not meant to hold all of the things I put into it or all the things I want to do (or feel I have to do). Believing that I can hold on to all this information and finish all those things will mean disappointment.

That doesn’t let you off the hook for being productive though. There are people who are pretty good at using tools to help. That can range from a notepad and lists and journals to apps on your phone. Though I feel a bit guilty when someone asks me what my wife’s phone number is and I have to look at my phone, I am relieved that the phone remembers all the numbers I need. I shouldn’t feel that guilty because it’s just an electronic address book like we had next to our old rotary phone when I was a kid back in the last century.

But the idea I remember best from the book is about doing a “brain dump.”

Even if you are someone who lives in the digital world, you still need to sometimes write stuff down using simple analog tools.

To do this brain dump you don’t need a special pad (though they do sell them and that might help some people) to get started. A pen and a notebook are fine.

I’ve seen research that seems to indicate that when we write something down by hand it somehow sticks in our memory better.

You’re going to create 3 lists to get started. I’ve seen them labeled in different ways but in the book they are 1) Must (things you’ve committed to doing)  2) Wants (things you would like to do but haven’t committed to yet) and 3) Perhaps (things you may want to do in the future).

Do the three lists in that order and focus on one type of thing at a time until there are no more items for that list to dump from your brain.

Next, you evaluate each list trying to eliminate items that don’t belong. You can move between lists here. The objective is to get the least amount of things on your Must list, because you really want to get to doing the things on the Want list.

Since the ultimate goal here is to complete the things on the lists, you might ask – as I did when I had first read the book – Isn’t this just another To-Do list? Where’s the brain dump?

It is getting all of your thoughts down on paper so that they are “dumped” from your brain to give you some freed up memory space. It’s more of a rapid freewriting exercise than a slow, methodical, overthought process.

Organizing these things on paper can help clarify, prioritize and lead to taking action.  You may be tempted to get out your phone or laptop to make the lists neat and clean but it is really recommended to do the pen and paper method.

You can later use colored pens, pencils, or highlighters to color-code your thoughts and that can help you see connections and patterns in what you dumped.

This post is just a primer on the technique. Besides the book, there are a good number of online articles on approaches to the brain dump and there are variations on the lists and their labels.

Of course, the only way this works and makes you less stressed and productive is that you actually start on the Must list. If that list has 55 items, I don’t think this technique will work.

Your motivation to clear that Must list is your desire to get to the Want list and completing items there allows you to make those Perhaps items to become Wants.

Full disclosure. My Must list has gotten smaller since I first did this exercise almost two years ago. I wrote about it here but took my own approach to it. The lists have been many times revised and have never been empty. That’s partly because I moved some Wants up to Musts as slots opened. I limited my Must list to a maximum of 10 things which meant some evaluation of “must” meaning “required” and by whom these things are required.

I don’t have any work/job/career items on my lists. I suppose I could do a separate set of lists for that but I never have done it.

You might have had some lesson in a psychology course about wants and needs which is what this reminded me of when I first read about the lists. A need is something that is essential to your survival. Some are emotional needs. Some are about goals and dreams. Wants, on the other hand, are things that we would like to have, but that are not essential to our survival.

As much as I want to have my poetry manuscript published, I know I don’t need to have it published.  I know I must find long-term care for my aging and ill sister, and until I do, I will feel stressed and never get to things like that manuscript.

You may say that a vacation is a must to your survival, but honestly, two weeks in the Maldives isn’t a must.

Do I cheat on the lists sometimes and focus on a want while ignoring some must items? Absolutely. I need some of those items to keep moving forward and maintain my sanity. Spending more and better time with my wife and family is an emotional need.

Still, I recognize that the Must list is essential. And if I ever do clear all the items on it then, quite happily, the manuscript, the vacation and other things I want to do will become must-do items. That’s a very pleasant thought.


How to Untangle Your Mind with a Brain Dump



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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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