The Ultimate Guide to Completing a Helpful Brain Dump
I don't know about you, but there have been times in my life when I have felt completely overwhelmed in that "can't imagine how all of this is going to get done" state.
There have been days when it felt like my head was going to explode with all of the things I was responsible for. And it's not a nice feeling.
Is it any wonder parents today feel move overwhelmed than ever? It takes a village as we've been told, but most of us don't have that village right there ready to help.
And more women than ever are working outside of their home and contributing to their household income.
That overwhelmed feeling comes from feeling like you have to do it all, and then some. Social media tells us our friends are living in immaculate houses with perfectly dressed children, all wearing a smile on a beautifully made up face. Not a hair is out of place and we just sit there and say "Why can't I have that?"
Spoiler alert! They don't have that either. I've asked a lot of my peers if they have ever felt overwhelmed and under-prepared. I have yet to meet someone who didn't answer yes.
How can we fix it?
So what gives? How do you make that feeling go away? How do you organize your life and your brain so that you can get more done?
As mothers, we tend to keep everything in our heads. We write down the important stuff on a calendar for sure (Sophie has a doctor's appointment on the 9th, Liam has a dental cleaning on the 20th, etc.) but there's so much more to our lives than that.
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I went through a period where I forgot to do things. Important things. One month I forgot to pay the mortgage. Another time I forgot to buy a birthday present for a friend.
I was losing track of tasks, and it wasn't good.
It's so easy for things to fall through the cracks when everything is all jumbled up in your head. And honestly, your brain isn't meant to hold all the things.
If it could, we wouldn't feel as overwhelmed as we do.
I realized that something had to change in my life. And fast! I was able to form a plan and work through the overwhelm.
There are times when I still get overwhelmed every now and then, but I know how to get out of it. I know how to work through it and get back on track easily.
The first step is to get all that stuff that bouncing around in your brain out. It doesn't have to look nice and pretty. Also, it doesn't have to come out organized. It just needs to come out of your head.
We're going to start with a brain dump exercise to get your started on your path to peace.
What is a Brain Dump?
A brain dump exercise is when you sit down and dump all those thoughts and tasks that are rattling around in your brain onto a piece of paper or in a brain dump app. I use a journal personally with pen and paper. It's a powerful tool to help you get organized.
It doesn't matter what mode you use, paper or virtual, as long as it works for you. I'm a big fan of using speech to text on my phone because I find it's easier for me to just let it roll.
You're going to want to block out a decent amount of time for this (if it's your first time, at least a half hour). There's nothing worse than adding to your stress when you feel like you have to do a large task in an insufficient amount of time.
If you're going to use a notebook of some sort, start with a blank sheet of paper. If you're on a computer or phone, start fresh. Start with everything that is on the front of your brain.
You write a list of all the things you have to do, what's bothering you, and whatever else you need to unburden yourself of.
This is just for you. Nobody else is going to see it. So add whatever you need to for yourself.
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If you're a paper planner like I am (yay for analog tools), here are my recommendations for a dump:
If you're more of a computer person, there are a LOT of apps and programs out there that are great for doing these dumps. Here are a few of my favorites:
Things that you're going to dump:
Some questions to ask
I find it helpful to ask some questions of myself when I'm starting this process. Once I get going, I find that I don't need as much "help" but sometimes starting is the hardest part.
There are also some categories that I use. This technique can work well when you're still feeling like you're missing a lot from your brain dump lists.
They are suggestions to help you get your flow going, so if you don't have anything to write or if a category doesn't apply to you, don't worry about it and move on.
Taking on the List
At this point, you're probably going to have a fairly large list from your brain dump. For example, my journal has several pages of brain dumping.
Once when I did this exercise I ended up with six pages of two columns.
It seems like it's a huge project because it is. There's a lot going on in your brain.
If there wasn't, you wouldn't feel overwhelmed. And it took a while for you to feel this way, so it's unrealistic to think that you're going to untangle it all in one sitting.
But getting it all out is the first step. We have to start somewhere. And it's amazing how good it feels to get it all out. Now that it's all out, what's next?
First, we're going to walk away. As hard as it is not to jump into all the tasks you've just outlined, you need to give your brain a break. It's been working hard!
You're also most likely going to think of more things. You've stirred up a bee's nest so it's understandable that more things will come to you. I know you ll find more things to add.
I keep my journal with me for a few days because it's easy that way to write everything down as it comes to me.
Give yourself some time to think and then come back to it. Set aside a large chunk of time to make the first-pass at your list - at least 45 minutes.
Now we're going to go through the list and move items to new lists that we'll tackle in more manageable bites.
What is urgent?
First, we're going to go through our list and mark everything that needs to be done NOW as urgent. I like to use a highlighter to mark a color next to the line.
This is all stuff that can't wait. You should go through every page.
For each task, ask yourself, does this need to be done right away? Can I afford not to do this right now?
We're not going to do any of it right this minute, but we do need to identify what those urgent tasks are.
Next, we're going to go back through that list of urgent tasks and we're going to look for the important ones.
What are things that are both urgent, and important? These tasks are going to be our top priority. We'll start our brand new to-do list with those. They should get done in the next few weeks.
What types of tasks are the ones we just identified? Usually, they are things that have sprung up. Those tasks seem to come from nowhere and have this great sense of urgency.
It's worth it to take some time and see if there's anything we could have done to prevent this. For me, a lot of these tasks are negated by having a clearly defined goal and a prioritized to-do list.
Sometimes all it takes is a fresh look to realize we can schedule some of these things in the future.
Urgent but not super important?
Now we're going to look at what's left of those urgent tasks, but the ones that honestly aren't that important. Email, social media, and tasks for other people.
If you have a lot of tasks for other people on this list, it's time to do some soul searching.
Can that person do the task themselves? Does this task align with your goals? Are you being paid to do it (then you probably should do it)?
It's OK to say no. It's perfectly fine to say "I'm sorry, I cannot complete that task right now". You aren't required to give a reason.
If you can't say no, these tasks are good ones to be rescheduled or delegated. Overwhelmed with laundry?
This is YOUR life. You have to start taking control. And the biggest tool you have at your disposal is the ability to say no.
Maybe you can turn it into a game with your children. Who can fill a laundry basket with dirty clothes the soonest? That's just one example, but it's OK to get creative here!
Another trick is to set aside time to do these urgent but not important tasks. Set an hour of your day, for example, to deal with these tasks.
Once the hour is up, you move on and tackle the next items during your hour tomorrow.
What is important but not urgent?
Next, we're going to go through our list again. This time we're going to look at all the non-urgent tasks and we're going to identify the ones that are important.
These tend to be the tasks that align with our personal goals. They are the things that we want to do, but they aren't screaming to be done right now.
These are tasks that need to get done. They just don't have to be done right now.
If we ignore them long enough they may become urgent and important. We don't want them to get to that point. When too many of these tasks stack up, we get overwhelmed.
We're going to schedule these tasks. I like to pick a few that I'm going to get done in a week and then I schedule time for them.
It's amazing what scheduling these tasks in advance can do. And remember, if you don't get them done on your schedule, they may turn into another type of task that is harder to schedule.
And everything else...
And now we have everything else. Here comes the fun part.
These tasks are not urgent. They don't need to be done right now. They also aren't important. They aren't something that even needs to get done.
So what do we do with them? If you feel attached to that particular task, add it to a "someday" list.
Someday you might find that it's important to you or you might be looking for something fun to do. Now you have a someday list! Yay!
If you don't feel attached, consider deleting it. This is something that you are saying "no" to.
You are reclaiming your time and making a decision that these tasks won't bother you anymore.
Is it easy? At first, it won't be. We're trained to think we need to do all the things all the time. And that training is hard to break!
But if you're missing important things because the unimportant things are weighing you down, you'll never break out of the cycle of overwhelm.
Take a deep breath and start crossing things off. It's important to put a line through it or delete them from your app.
Sometimes I move them to a "don't do" list as a reminder that I'm not worrying about those things or focusing on them anymore.
This is where you start setting boundaries in your life. Over time, you will start recognizing these tasks as they come at you. It makes it a lot easier to say no in the future when you know what they are - distractions.
And others will soon learn that you are not the person to go to with that stuff. It's a huge part of living an intentional life.
Now that you've completed your brain dump, gone through your list, and made a plan of all the things you need to schedule and do (and just as importantly, what not to do), what's next?
And keep in mind, I know you probably have a large list. But make sure you remember that multitasking doesn't work. So focus on one thing at a time and get your task list done.
Just because you finished one brain dump doesn't mean you'll never have to do it again. In fact, it's easier and quicker if you make it a regular habit.
It's a fantastic habit to get into, especially if you make it a priority to brain dump once a week. I tend to do these on a Thursday or Friday so I can relax over the weekend and know my next week is planned out.
Other times that are perfect for a brain dump are when you are feeling overwhelmed, before a big project, or before the holidays. It's amazing how much better you'll feel.
Here are some more resources that I love:
I've also got a Brain Dump Template, a Brain Dump Cheat sheet, and a set of Prompts to get you started. You can download all of these by signing up for our subscriber list (you get free access to the resource library as a bonus!).
You don't have to go another day being overwhelmed and under-prepared. Get these cheat sheets NOW to help you organize your successful brain dump. Friends will be looking at you wondering why can't I live like that!
If you're looking for more help with organizing your time, I have an entire series dedicated to helping moms beat back the overwhelmed and change their lives. You can read more about it here: From Overwhelmed to Organized: 7 Steps for Taking Control of Your Life.