All the time I tell people to “write it down, right away” – that is, to do mini brain dumps all day long, whenever something pops up that we need to remember. Our minds are unreliable reminder-ers – we need a system for not losing track of our ideas and our commitments. And all the time I hear women wonder how to organize a brain dump because the mess of information feels overwhelming.
Before we tackle organizing a brain dump, however, let’s reinforce why we need one in the first place.
Just this last week – on a Thursday – I was reminded of the importance of writing it all down right away because I did not. I was in the car (my son was driving) and took a phone call. During the call, I said I would take a family with a new baby a meal the next day.
Immediately after hanging up, I should have put that on my calendar, sent myself a text reminder, or in some other way written it down. But I did not. And as I was on my way to and from something with an agenda of its own, my mind was preoccupied and I did not remember to write it down later that day. Side note: I also did not do my evening examen (review) that night, at which time I probably would have remembered.
So on two counts I skipped my own advice, with obvious consequences.
In the midst of my Friday afternoon weekly review the next day, I suddenly remembered! It was 4pm. I quickly called the family and let them know I was bringing them a meal and would be there around 6. Then I scrambled and pulled together a meal just in the nick of time.
I am not immune to these situations – they still happen, even to me. But they happen when I don’t do what I know I should do. We can’t organize a brain dump if we aren’t doing it. Follow through is always the first step.
The more reliably we follow our systems and do the simple but seemingly tedious step of simply writing it down, the less stressful and harried we will be keeping up with our responsibilities.
However, once we do start keeping a brain dump – whether it’s our first and thorough and overwhelming or whether it’s an ongoing habit – we start to worry that we aren’t doing it right. How do we organize a brain dump without taking more time than just doing what we’re “supposed” to be doing?
The brain dump notebook seems so disorganized. How can this be an organizational tool when it’s such a jumble of thoughts and random bits?
First, we must remember than the organization we are after is the sort that allows us to prepare for and fulfill our responsibilities effectively and cheerfully. The organization we want is not the same as the organization that stores and magazines and Pinterest are peddling. They will tell you that organization means looking good and being in control of your life. They are selling you something – and it’s a lie.
You don’t need any stickers to organize a brain dump.
Organization, when we look at the root of the word, means holding together, being unified towards a purpose. It is the opposite of scattered, distracted, and haphazard, but it isn’t necessarily cute, curated, or controlling.
Related: What simplified organization means.
So before we can think about how to organize a brain dump, we need to think about its purpose. It is organized if it is clearly and functionally fulfilling its purpose.
Organized does not mean beautiful and put together.
The purpose of a brain dump is to download the thoughts out of your head and put them on paper where you can confront them.
It is actually your thoughts, plans, and systems you are organizing when you brain dump, and the brain dump is just the intermediate phase. We organize a brain dump by actually doing it.
If you were going to organize your pantry, you’d pull everything out so you could wipe down the surfaces and only put back what belongs.
A brain dump is the floor or table holding your junk while you process what needs to be organized.
Now, after pulling everything out of the pantry, you might start making groups in the stuff you pulled out. You would definitely comb through and toss what needed to be tossed. You’d combine two open packages of rotini pasta to consolidate. You might decide to pull out an unused container to hold something that you realized needed a better home.
Then, you’d start moving things back into their right places, but you’d not worry about the holding-surface being organized or looking good, right?
Yes, you would worry about the mess it will make to pull everything out. Yes, you would worry about not finding homes for what you find.
Yes, your pantry will be more organized if you do pull it all out.
You’ll use some stuff up you wouldn’t otherwise; you’ll trash things that don’t deserve a home; you’ll think of a new meal idea because you found that random can of pineapple.
Do you see how the table of pulled out junk is like the brain dump? You can sort as you go if that helps you stay sane, but the brain dump is just a tool on the path to organizing everything else in life, not another thing to organize.
It’s an inbox – a collection place. If you need something or are organizing a space (or a system), you know where to find the things that belong there. If you find something that doesn’t have a home, but it’s useful and needs a home, then you find it a home. If you generated a lot of random junk, uncovered lies, wrote down crazy ideas – cross them out and give yourself the physical and visible clue that you’re done with that and don’t need to think about it anymore.
Focus on organizing – or, better yet, using – your calendar, running to do list, and planner. Let the brain dump be what it is: a collection point for incoming data that may or may not belong somewhere else when you’re working your system.
Write it down, right away, no matter where you are – in a place where you won’t lose it.
That’s an organized brain dump.