Do you sometimes wake up stressed for no reason? I know I do.
And what annoys me the most is not knowing the cause.
So I started searching for answers until I found a self-reflection technique: the brain dump. It helps you clear your mind and become sharper by just writing for a few minutes.
But first: why do you feel overwhelmed?
Here’s the problem:
It’s stressful to remember the right information at the wrong time (e.g., when you’re in bed), not to say useless.
If you’re tired of overthinking, brain dumps are a must. Here are four ways to do it and how to get the benefits in less than five minutes.
The 4 Types Of Brain Dump
1. Free Flow
Best For: Putting in order a chaotic mind
- Grab a pen and a piece of paper
- Set a timer (10-20 minutes)
- Write everything that’s on your mind
If you have an obvious reason to feel confused, you should center around that. But if you don’t know where to start, try to ask yourself any of the following:
- What have I been worried about?
- What do I keep forgetting to do?
- What would make me really happy?
- Did something go wrong today?
- What really worked today/this week?
- What tasks never seem to get done?
- Was there something I didn’t get time to do?
- Is there an upcoming event or special occasion you need to plan?
- Is there someone you should contact?
- What part of my routine is not working?
- Is someone or something annoying me?
- Is there something you would love to learn?
Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to answer the whole list. Pick one or two and stick to those for 10-20 minutes. The rules are:
- You cannot stop writing for more than five seconds
- You can’t delete or correct anything you write
- You have to use a time limit to avoid thinking without direction
That doesn’t mean you have to follow the timer though. If the exercise feels really helpful, feel free to keep writing after the timer goes off.
Pro Tip: Create a “registry” (AKA “not-to-think list”) where you summarize everything you’ve talked about and your conclusions. This way, if later you think of something that’s on the list, you know you figured it out and don’t have to think twice.
2. Goal Focused
Best For: Planning your day the night before
- Write and underline your top three priorities for the month
- Below, divide the sheet with a vertical line
- Write on the left every task you’ve done that helped you progress on those goals
- Write on the right those that didn’t move the needle
- For the first list, start with the tasks that take less than two minutes. Then you do the urgent & important tasks, then every other project
- For the second list, eliminate, postpone, or delegate
For a simpler exercise, you can write everything you need to do in one list.
Pro Tip: You can group similar activities. Starting tasks is hard, but if you batch 10 tasks, you only need to start them once.
Best For: Resetting your brain and stop worrying for no reason
- Write 3 things you did right today (or five done this week)
- Write 3 things (minimum) you feel grateful for
A common argument I hear:
“Gratefulness doesn’t get things done. Why should I do this?”
Because getting things done isn’t enough to relax.
Maybe you keep worrying because you’re insecure about your ability to solve problems you don’t even have yet. But gratitude teaches us to focus on everything we have and did right. Which brings confidence and prevents stress.
If you feel overwhelmed for no reason, gratefulness may be the emotional relief you need.
Best For: Reviewing at the end of your week
- Start with questions:
- What have I achieved last week compared to my expectations?
- What are this week’s goals? Am I excited? Why/why not?
- Do I dread a particular day? How to make it more enjoyable?
- What’s the most annoying task? If you do that first, you’ll be relieved for the rest of the week.
- What work did I assign for last week but later moved to this one?
- Take a 15-minute break when finished
- Come back, re-read, highlight, and migrate the relevant content to a to-do list or calendar
It helps to divide your goals into your areas of life. But you don’t need to be detailed at all. Only expand on the ones that worry you the most.
5 Mistakes To Avoid When Brain Dumping
1. Don’t Start Too Late
It helps to think of brain dumps like cold showers. You don’t want to do them because of the discomfort, but once you take them, you’re glad you did.
There’s not a wrong way to brain dump. But the no.1 mistake I see is that people delay doing it, myself included.
The problem is, nobody has that high self-awareness. But you don’t have to!
You can’t miss a single day if you make it a daily habit.
Here’s how to use all four:
- Goal-focused brain dumps every night when setting goals
- After the goal exercise, write three things you did right and three things you’re grateful for
- At the end of the week, you do the weekly brain dump
- Do an emergency free-flow brain dump anytime you feel too lost
Too hard? For the first one, yes (about 20-60 minutes). But when you do it daily, it takes less time/effort because you have fewer “junk files” to dump (in 5-10 minutes, you’re good to go).
2. Trust Your Notes
You write your thoughts to create clarity. If you don’t “trust” your notes, it’s no different than if you didn’t do the exercise. You wrote about it but didn’t unload the thoughts.
What you write has to be reliable so that your brain can afford to not worry. Here’s a small checklist:
- Have I included EVERYTHING that I have to do?
- Are my tasks organized by priority?
- Did I define the steps to complete each task?
- Have I scheduled when to do each step with calendars/to-do lists/phone reminders?
- Eliminating unnecessary tasks: have I written why I did so? If you don’t remember, you could get them back.
- Postponing projects: did I specify for how long?
These questions tell your brain what you’ll do when you get back to the task (so you can stop thinking of it).
3. Write on Paper Instead
If you don’t have paper, it makes sense to write on your phone. Otherwise, what’s the point of using a note app to do this exercise?
Here’s something curious: technology will eventually become more connected to ourselves. Maybe one day, you can search on Google or perform tasks just by having a thought.
That defeats the purpose of this exercise. The whole point of brain dumps is to get your thoughts out of your mind. Even if it takes a bit longer, paper works better because:
- It’s more visual and satisfactory
- It’s more intentional when you’re writing the letters instead of tapping/pressing buttons
- You probably watch thousands of device screens but only read a few papers per day. So you’re more likely to remember an actual sheet than a virtual note
4. Take a 15m Break
You go through your days trying to avoid all these random thoughts. But when doing a brain dump, you’re making the effort to expose everything you worry about. It can be exhausting to compile, filter, and organize each piece of data, even if you only spend a few minutes.
What better opportunity to relax than now, after you got rid of all your thoughts? Take a 15-minute break, then complete all the two-minute tasks, and then continue your projects.
If you start working right after the brain dump, you won’t have time to switch the context. So if you want to stop overthinking, don’t skip this short break.
5. Address The Cause, Not The Symptoms
It’s relieving to know that a brain dump can fix things whenever you feel bombarded with information. If you do enough of them, you may find that some problems keep repeating whenever you do it.
That’s when you should stop to think at a higher level. Where do all these thoughts come from? How can I prevent them from even appearing?
Dieting couldn’t be a better example. You can choose to eat healthier, but if you keep buying junk food, that undoes the work.
If junk thoughts are the symptom, decisions are the cause. You’ll find a detailed overview of smart decisions here, but here are some ideas you should try:
- Work on fewer projects or do one at a time
- Delegate or eliminate tasks that are urgent but not important
- Stop wasting mental energy on distractions
- Create a default to avoid making the same decision repeatedly
Top 3 Brain Dump Benefits
1. You Start to Enjoy Work
After you free yourself of worry, you don’t need to think as much. You’ll find it easier to be present.
This happens because:
- You’re more focused at work, which means you make progress faster and enjoy it more
- When you’re resting, you can 100% disconnect and have fun. You don’t dwell on what you haven’t achieved, and you don’t dread getting back to work
Once you enjoy working more, you become more patient, which allows you to get better at what you do. With improved skills, you’ll get more results with less effort, which makes it more enjoyable (creating a positive loop).
2. You Stop Having Random Thoughts
Do you know why people feel unable to relax? Because the moment they do, they start remembering all these other things they left for later.
It’s like opening one tab after another until the 10th one has nothing to do with the first. Once you start closing them, you see the first tab again, your original intent.
Or maybe you leave many projects incomplete, so you’re constantly worrying about them. That’s why they say you should turn off notifications when working.
But how do you turn off your “brain notifications?”
Guessed it. The brain dump clarifies what each thing is, what to do, and when. Once you trust those events to your calendar/to-do list/registry, you won’t think about it anymore.
Look, random thoughts may keep appearing. But if you do the exercise, you’ll stop them before going off into the weeds. A brain dump can turn a 20-minute monologue into 20-seconds.
3. You Think and Work Faster
After years of usage, your computer accumulates junk files, which slows the operations per second. If you free that memory, it will work fast again.
After years of junk food, your body accumulates fat, which affects your thinking and energy levels. If you take care of yourself and free that mass, you will feel much lighter.
It happens the same with work. After weeks of work, your brain has more information to process, and it sacrifices performance to keep remembering everything. With a brain dump, you empty your mind while remembering your crucial tasks. You’ll encounter less friction and think faster.
It’s so basic, yet it’s so easy to get it wrong. It’s too attractive to search for hacks to increase productivity, but we forget about the essentials.
It’s like trying to boost your energy with supplements, coffee, and diet. And skipping sleep.
The brain dump exercise will help you reach that 100%. Then, you’ll find that all those other hacks are more effective.
Keep in mind: lasting results come from long-term practice, and brain dumps are no exception. You can instantly see improvements after doing one. But the biggest benefits appear in the long run.