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



4 Reasons Why I Dislike and Like Lists


I am a list maker. In fact, I make way too many lists. I have multiple TO DO lists of things that I need to do around the house, out in the garden, things I want to blog about, even lists of movies and TV shows that I want to watch.

Though I still make lists on paper, I keep lots of lists on my phone these days: things to buy at the store, restaurants to try in various cities, donations for taxes, sights to see and more. I even have a list of lines or ideas for poems that (embarrassingly) has 300+ items.

Obviously, I like lists. But I also dislike them. For example, that Things To Do Around the House list is a constant reminder of things I have NOT done. There are items on that list that have been there for several years (paint the garage door, caulk and paint the foundation, replace the bathroom window trim, and clean out the basement and garage. (Luckily, I don’t have an attic.) Even the lists of unread books, unwatched movies and places to visit – which are things I enjoy doing – are a reminder of things NOT done.

I also dislike lists that are opinions. The end of the year and January are full of “Best of” lists. They rarely agree with each other. Every critic and person with a blog has the best: films, books, TV shows, foods, websites, beaches, vacation spots, cities…  Pick a category and there is a list for it. I was told that blog posts and articles that start with a number get more views. (Hence this post’s title – let’s see if it works.)

There are some very official lists that are attached to awards. In aggregate, the Golden Globes, Oscars, SAG and New York and Los Angeles Film Critics lists should give you a pretty good sampling of movies to watch. The same goes for some book awards – although the list of best-selling books or biggest moneymaking films generally tells me things to avoid.

So why do I like lists?  Those annoying “best” lists can guide you to some things you might have missed. If five critics all put a book on their best list and it wins the Pulitzer, Booker or some other big award, it’s probably worth checking out.

My personal lists are actually useful because I do forget things more these days. Those shopping lists (food store, Home Depot, clothing) are necessary reminders fo those rare times when I venture into a store or more likely are searching online.  The garden things I never did last spring or summer are still there for this spring and summer. I have started putting some lists on my phone/computer calendar so that they repeat at intervals and send me notifications and emails.

Clearing Your Brain


A brain dump is letting out all your thoughts. Not in a barrage of conversation, but via pen to paper. It’s a form of release. It is a way to face reality. It means putting thoughts somewhere else.

I came across several articles lately about how to do a brain dump. Try and I originally read about it in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. It seems so simple – too simple – to be effective, but it does seem to work.

I look at Weekends in Paradelle (and perhaps my other blogs too) as a kind of brain dump where I work out and organize my thoughts.

Brain dumps also have another application that is less noble. On forums and social media sites, students ask for answers to exams. Some requests are not so lacking in academic integrity and may want training material or practice items. In academic circles,  a brain dump is when a test taker goes from an exam online to dump everything that they can recall about the test questions and answers. Yes, it is cheating.

It can also be the transfer of a large quantity of information from one person to another or to a storage and retrieval medium. In slang, it can describe a hurried explanation of a system, job, skillset. In computing, the phrase describes the taking of a snapshot of the internal state of a knowledge database for transfer or archiving purposes.

For a legitimate brain dump of yourself, you might want to start by trying doing one before heading to bed for the night. You dump all the things still lingering in your mind onto a piece of paper and let them go. The idea is to get out everything that has the potential to keep you up at night. Don’t make it a To Do list for tomorrow. That will just keep you up! But if upcoming things are on your mind, put them down, but let them go.

According to “the rules,” after you write down anything and everything, you should start a new page and organize. This is where I depart from the rules because I don’t like turning the dump into a To Do list, and putting categories and priorities to the list does just that.

I do find it useful to just write my thoughts in little group in the corners of a page. One corner for concerns, one for errands, places I want to go – whatever things seem to be filling my head. I have seen actual brain dump pads online, but a blank sheet works for me and you could just make a sheet that works for you on your computer and print out a few. I also have seen brain dump journals and perhaps keeping your sheets in one place might be useful to look back on later – but a blank book would work fine and is probably cheaper.

Is this a daily practice? Not for me, but I suppose it could be a daily practice. I seem to do it when I need it. It often happens late at night.

I know that academic brain dump is all about getting access to other people’s brain dumps, but I think the real value is in examining your own thoughts.

Embracing Chaos and Messiness


I bet that a lot of people reading this post are making resolutions for the new year, and I suspect that cleaning up messiness both literal and figurative in their life is on many of those lists.

Your parents have been telling you this since you were a kid. Your spouse, roommate, officemate and others may have been suggesting it. I am constantly trying – and failing – to achieve a state of orderliness that I can maintain.

The  chaos of a house or room or closet, garage, basement, or even a desk drawer or desktop just seems wrong. I also think that achieving even a small feat of order – such as an empty inbox – gives us not only satisfaction but the hope that we can accomplish the same order in our larger areas. may even in our personal life.

People are writing books about how to clean and organize, and I wrote here about the combined joy and sadness of throwing things away. But that process (and those readings) can make you very anxious and just remind you of your failures to get rid of the mess.

A good amount of the rhetoric of the recent election was about cleaning up the mess in Washington D.C. and across the country. Donald Trump’s campaign was a mess. But he won.


But I have to thank podcast episode 53 of Hidden Brain for turning me on to the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. For the New Year, I appreciate a book that  celebrates the benefits that messiness has in our lives.

Embrace the messiness and chaos! It is important. Stop resisting.

The author, Tim Harford, is an economist, but he looks at research from neuroscience, psychology, social science, and examples of people who did extraordinary things in messy and chaotic ways.

Some qualities that we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – seem to require a degree of disorder, confusion, and disarray.

This messiness doesn’t have to be visible, like that pile of stuff on and around your desk. Think about how unexpected changes of plans and unplanned events can generate new ideas and opportunities. Yes, these things can also make you anxious and angry, but you need to let that part go.

The book (and the podcast for the not-lazy but more aural learners) can help you stop underestimating the value of disorder. I’m typing this on the couch surrounded by unread magazines and notes for things I want to write and the remains of breakfast – and I feel fine.

Fight the urge to untangle the rope mess.

Improve Your Life in 100 Days

A well meaning friend sent me a link to an article on the

I should have just clicked on the article about “Seven Reasons Why Bentos are Good for You” or “7 Ways to Make Commuting Suck Less” but the link pointed me to “60 Small Ways to Improve Your Life in the Next 100 Days.”

60 ways and 100 days is a lot of changes.

Unfortunately, I am a compulsive To Do list maker and always ready to start another campaign at self-improvement.

The article’s author is Marelisa Fábrega. She blogs about creativity, productivity, and getting the most out of life over at Abundance Blog. She has a book “How To Live Your Best Life – The Essential Guide for Creating and Achieving Your Life List”.

Maybe if I lived with Marelisa, I would put be better at doing what my To Do lists tell me to do. I’m excellent at making the lists. Not great at completing them.

The appealing thing about the article is that I agree with the premise that “you don’t have to make drastic changes in order to notice an improvement in the quality of your life.” Small steps, taken consistently, for 100 days will show results. So, what might I try between now and September?

You might want use a calendar and just use one of the categories. How about a plan to do a little bit of decluttering every day? Day 1: Declutter Magazines, Day 2: Declutter DVD’s, Day 3: Declutter books…

I actually got a start on that when I boxed up 6 cardboard boxes full of books from my collection and donated them for an environmental center’s book swap day. Check one off the list of 100.

Or, you might choose the 100 days to happiness calendar. Write down 5 things that you’re grateful for each day, or make a list of 20 small things that you enjoy doing, and make sure that you do at least one of these things every day for the next 100 days. You want little things like eating your lunch outside, calling a good friend to chat, taking time to read each day.

One suggestion is to “keep a log of your mental chatter, both positive and negative, for ten days.” This one sounds anti-happy to me. “How many times do you beat yourself up during the day? Do you have feelings of inadequacy? Are you constantly thinking critical thoughts of others? How many positive thoughts do you have during the day?” Sounds like therapy. Yes, you’re supposed to spend the next 90 days changing your emotions for the better by modifying this negative mental chatter. Good luck.

Maybe you’re one of those people who rips through a good book over the weekend. I am not. In fact, I have gotten so much slower and much more distracted in my reading since my English major undergraduate years. So, a plan to pick a book that requires some real effort and concentration (though that already sounds like work) and read a little of it every day with a plan to finish in 100 days, sounds doable to me.

Here’s another one that’s doable for some of you. “Set your alarm a minute earlier every day for the next 100 days. Then make sure that you get out of bed as soon as your alarm rings, open the windows to let in some sunlight, and do some light stretching. In 100 days you’ll be waking up an hour and forty minutes earlier than you’re waking up now.” I’m not a morning person. I don’t want to wake up 100 minutes earlier. What I need to do is go to bed a minute earlier each night. Too many nights of post-midnight reading, watching and writing.

There are others: learn something new each day (You better write them down so you don’t forget what you learned.) There are a group of financial plans: Create a spending plan and track every cent that you spend for the next 100 days to make sure that you’re sticking to your spending plan. Scour the internet for frugality tips, choose ten of the tips that you find, and apply them for the next 100 days. Go to the grocery store with cash and a calculator. Pay for everything with paper money and keep any change that you receive. Then, put all of your change in a jar and see how much money you can accumulate in 100 days.

Track how you spend your time for 5 days. Note the ways in which you regularly waste time. Set a time budget to limit those things like no more than half-an-hour for television, or social media sites, such as Facebook, or video games.

Record every night what happened that day. A business-like diary. What did you accomplish? What went wrong?

What went right?

Of course, there are the obligatory health suggestions too. Reduce your caloric intake by 175 calories a day for the next 100 days, you’ll have lost 5 pounds in the next 100 days. Push yourself to eat five servings of vegetables or three servings of fruit of every day, or pick the one food that constantly sabotages your efforts to eat healthier and go cold turkey for those 14 weeks.

I actually started up again on the idea of wearing a pedometer and walking 10,000 steps a day. The only problem is that most of my walking during the day is too slow to really make much of a difference.

My wife would probably like the work on your relationship section. Write down something positive about your partner every day. Create a scrapbook of all the things you and your partner do together during the next 100 days. At the end, give your partner the list and the scrapbook you created.

This is not creating a Life List (not crazy about the Bucket List label). But just to rub it in, Marelisa has already crossed off 50 things from her personal life list including: Visited the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt; Took a cruise down the Nile and visited Abu Simbel; Graduated Cum Laude from Georgetown University; Got her J.D. there too; Passed the New York Bar (on the first try); Lived in Florence, Italy for a year and learned to speak fluent Italian; Visited Shakespeare’s birthplace; Got deported from Malta (Was that really on her list? I think she’s adding things along the way.); Saw the Mona Lisa; Rode in a horse-drawn carriage in New York; Saw the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Washington, D.C.; Achieved second-degree Reiki, the Japanese technique for channeling healing energy; Published a popular blog and created several sources of income online.

Don’t you feel a bit guilty and inadequate?

I may just start a list of things to accomplish if I live to be 100.