How To Effectively Do a Brain Dump: An Amazing Productivity Hack

Last Updated on April 23, 2022 by Stephanie

Do you ever have a moment where you realize that you have so much to do and you have absolutely no idea what any of those things are? Or, my personal favorite… you have all the things to do, but you’re so overwhelmed by all of it that you sit on the couch and binge Netflix instead? An effective brain dump will help you get over that feeling!

All of us do this at one time or another. We become forgetful. We feel overwhelmed. Sometimes we just shut down because we feel like we have so much to do and not enough time to do it. Or, we don’t know where to start.

This blog post is for people struggling with that feeling. If you want the short and sweet of it, here are the steps:

  1. Make a list of everything that you want to accomplish, that’s bothering you, that you want to do.  EVERYTHING. – The actual brain dump.
  2. Categorize the list.
  3. Prioritize the categories.
  4. Figure out what is next.
  5. Review as often as you need.

That’s it!

For those of you that need a little extra explanation, keep reading.

What is a brain dump?

A brain dump is getting everything out of your head and somewhere else where you can see it. I am a huge fan of David Allen and his “Getting Things Done” framework. He is a big proponent of getting things out of your head to process.

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

– David allen

Did you know that our brain does not have a lot of working memory space? In the morning, we start with an amazing capacity to work through things. Every time we have to use our attention or shift our attention (this is key), it puts a little drop in the bucket. Depending on how you’ve used your time during the day, your bucket might be full by noon. What happens after that?


No, seriously. You won’t have the capacity to get important tasks done because your brain isn’t capable of much at that point.

The best thing you can do is keep that brain space free. In my post about effective to-do lists, I talk about how I always have a notepad near my workspaces. If someone comes in my room to say I need to do something, I write it down at that moment. I’m working on something else, my brain is occupied. I will absolutely forget what they asked me for. Or worse, I’ll keep thinking about that while I’m working on my other task so I “don’t forget.”

When you dump everything out, you know that you’ve got all those thoughts written down and it frees up so much of your working memory!

How to Effectively Do a Brain Dump; Creating Time For Life.

Step One: The Actual Brain Dump

David Allen refers to a process called “capturing” and this is essentially what a Brain Dump is. Whatever tasks, hopes, goals, etc. are in your head are going to come out in a hot mess of words that may or may not make any sense.

So, grab a notebook or a notepad with a lot of pages. I think that the first time I went through this process I filled like 10 pages of stuff. Also, give yourself an hour or two for this. Yes… that long. It is worth your time! When you’re done, you will have such a great action plan in place that you will view it as time very well spent.

I like to do this in a few different ways because I find that this really gets all the things out of my brain, which is what the key is!

  1. Just sit and write… until you can’t.
  2. Review the list.
  3. The walk through.

Just Sit and Write

This needs no explanation. Sit down and write anything that comes to your head. Don’t categorize it. Just put bullets and keep writing about whatever comes in your head. Thoughts, tasks, dreams, goals, whatever… just keep writing them out.

Review the List

After you’ve done that, now let’s look at some things that you might want to put on your list. I use the Level 10 life as my springboard for what I want to remember. This will spark all sorts of tasks and thoughts! Again, write it ALL down. Not the details, just write it all down.

  • Friends and Family (visits, presents to buy, upcoming events)
  • Fun and Recreation (hobbies you want to start, crafting, classes to sign up for, places to travel)
  • Personal Development (books to read, classes to take)
  • Giving or Contribution (places to volunteer, donations to make)
  • Spirituality (self-care you want to start, massages to schedule)
  • Physical Environment (home maintenance, rooms to redo, places to declutter)
  • Finances (things to save for, debts to pay, sinking funds to create)
  • Health and Fitness (weight to lose, PRs at the gym, classes to take)
  • Career (promotions to get, job changes to make, work to do)
  • Romance (date nights, gifts, connections)

Hopefully, this list gave you another whole bunch of things to write down. Nothing is too big or too small to put on this list. Just keep writing. Then, we get to the last one that I can tell you absolutely helped me because I am totally a visual person.

The Walkthrough

Grab your notebook or notepad and actually walk through your home. Write anything down that you see that bothers you. One example is that I needed to redo the caulk on our built-ins in the living room. Every time I saw it, it bothered me and reminded me that I needed to do it. Once it was on my list and I saw it during the weekly review each week, I stopped seeing it every time I looked at the bookcases in our living room. There is power in writing things down.

These might be home maintenance tasks that pop up, or you might see a book or something that you’ve been meaning to read. You might see a picture of you and a friend on the wall and realize that you haven’t texted her in a while… put it on the list.

Step Two: Categorize Your Brain Dump

Now that you’ve got a huge list of crap, you’re going to categorize them. I don’t rewrite anything during this phase because that would just make me go crazy.

Go grab a bunch of different colored markers or crayons or whatever your house has. After you’ve got colors, start at the very first item and pick a color. Let’s say your first item says “Do Laundry”. Cool, grab your first color and circle it or star it. On another random piece of paper, with that color, write down “Chores”. Any chore that comes up is now going to be marked in that color. Keep doing this until your list looks something like this:

Effective brain dump categories example. List of tasks and their categories color coded.

It is a colorful mess of stuff! I’m missing a category on here though. It’s a big one that everyone should have and the great David Allen introduced me to it. The Someday/Maybe list. 

Someday/Maybe List

You ABSOLUTELY need this list in your life. These are the things that you’ve always wanted to do. My someday/maybe list includes things like trips I want to take, the money I want to spend, odd things I aspire to, and everything else.

Did you notice that it isn’t only the someday list? It has the word maybe in there. There have been things I put on this list that I have taken off. Just because you write it down, does not mean you have to do it. When you review your list of stuff, you should be looking over this list as well. I go through it during my weekly review every week. It is a fantastic list to have.

Step Three: Prioritizing and Organizing

You’ve done the hard part, you really have. Now, comes the fun stuff. You get to take action on your list of craziness, and that’s the whole point of this.  Before you get started with your prioritizing, you have to figure out what you want to do with this massive list. You can go many different routes for this, but here are some great ideas.

My Personal Catch-all

I am obsessed with the App Todoist and I could write on and on about how awesome it is. I pay the yearly fee for all the pro features, but it really is my catch-all for all my lists of things.  Here is a screenshot of what my Todoist looks like:

Screenshot of Todoist app for Brain Dump organization.

All of my categories are lumped into projects on the left. Under each project, there are subcategories. For example under Home Repair/Maintenance I have it separated into House, Car, Outside, and Remodel/Improvements. It is so easy to organize everything this way. And you can see my Someday/Maybe list on the side with 174 items.

My favorite part about Todoist is that you can schedule things. I can set up a task to recur monthly, weekly daily, etc. Or, I can remind myself on a specific date. If I know that I need to sign my daughter up for classes on May 10th, I put it in Todoist and it magically pops up in my list of tasks on May 10th. It’s AWESOME!

For the Paper/pencil Lover

You can absolutely create all your lists and keep things in paper-pencil format.  I would suggest having something that you can easily remove paper from. Personally, I love the planners and notebooks from The Happy Planner because I can “hole punch” my own templates and things and they come in creative colors, you can create divider tabs for them, and so much more. A plain binder will also work as well.

Create a page for each category if you’re going this route because you definitely still want things in categories! Figure out a way to organize that is easy for your eyes as well. Think about color-coding things in a way that you can very easily see what “box” something fits into.

For the Digital Planner

I LOVE digital planning and notebooks. One of the best things about digital notebooks for doing this is that they are never-ending! You can add page after page and keep adding. The color possibilities are endless and you can typically find ones that have hyperlinked tabs.  If you have a tablet, you can check this one out for free:

Digital Notebook Freebie Creating Time For Life

Typically digital notebooks like the above are meant to be used with a PDF annotating app like GoodNotes or Notability. They are super easy to use, and like I said… endless. You can keep adding the pages you need!

How to Organize

Now that you know where you’re going to put all of this brain dump goodness, put it there. Rewrite things and put them into nice categorized lists of things. You will be reviewing these as often as you have to, so having them organized nicely and in a way that makes sense to you is super important. 

Special Note: If you do this and find out a week later that the way you chose to organize things doesn’t work for you… CHANGE IT! Don’t keep using a system that doesn’t work!

The above is so important. Check out my post about checking your systems and give yourself permission to change things when they don’t work well for you.

Step Four: Figure Out What is Next

One of the great things that I learned from Getting Things Done was the idea of next actions. This list might overwhelm the crap out of you. That’s okay! Look at each item on there and figure out the next possible action you need to take on that. Some items like cleaning out your car don’t need a next action because cleaning out your car takes 5 minutes to do.

These next actions can go on a list of their own so you know the things that you need to accomplish that week. I like to assign my next actions a day of the week when I’m looking through them in Todoist. It lets me have a daily list of tasks that I can work from.

Special Note: If you don’t plan on taking action on an item in the next couple of months, it belongs on your someday/maybe list and not in your main list.

If you follow the next step, then you will be fine with putting things on that someday/maybe list instead of on your main next actions list. Don’t clutter your main list! You can choose to categorize these next actions, prioritize them, etc. however you want. Just know what actions you need to take to get things moving forward.

Step Five: Review As Often As You Need

The absolute key to this brain dump being effective is that you review your lists often. Often can mean very different things for different people. You might want to review these big lists monthly. You may want to look at things daily. Or, you can do my personal favorite and review everything weekly. I LOVE my weekly review and can personally sing its praises. If you haven’t checked out my post about the weekly review here, please do!

You do have to review it for this to help you. Looking at everything and making choices about it is what keeps it out of your head. Remember my caulk story from above. I seriously stopped thinking about it because if I started to think about it, I knew I had it on my list and it would get reviewed at a different time.

Another thing that reviewing does is help you plan for the coming week. Looking at each item on your list keeps things at the forefront of your mind. For example, if you’ve got several errands to run on Monday, you may check your next action list and realize that you can grab a few things for other projects that you wanted to get done that week. It’s a beautiful thing!

Final Thoughts

This process of doing a huge brain dump helped me tremendously. Realizing how freeing it was to write it all down instead of trying to keep it all in my head was amazing. Knowing that I have a place for all my to-do items is awesome.

We all get overwhelmed with our to-do lists from time to time. This is totally normal. Take control of that situation and put it all out there. You may realize that you’ve got more control over everything than you thought!

Have you ever done something like this? Do you already practice a regular brain dump?

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