As you can probably tell I don’t really know what else to call this practice of mine.
I’ve been utilising it since 2013 and it never became more then just The Brain Dump, because, as you’ll see, it’s the ultimate list. The list of everything. The list that supersedes all lists.
It deserves a name of some precedence. With a hint of foreboding. But for now we’ll go with The Big, Mega, Brain-Dump, To-Do List.
Take yourself a week to try this out for yourself and see how it feels.
Back in 2012 I had what can only be described as a life changing moment when I came face to face with my own mortality.
The subsequent trauma of that led to what I like to call a huge shit storm, where, I took a good hard look at every aspect of my life and asked myself the painful, difficult questions that we all tend to avoid until it’s too late, in the hope that maybe, whatever future I did have, would be worth living.
As a mother of two very young children in my mid twenties I was, to put it kindly, overwhelmed. I was isolated, exceptionally angry, not coping in any sense of the word, and beyond tired. I was broken.
I can’t stress that enough. BROKEN.
So I did what any broken person on the verge of self destruction does and I wrote a to do list. But this list didn’t just stop at ‘take the bins out’, no, I poured out my life and soul into the list. From ‘make the beds’ to ‘learn Chinese’, ‘fix the radiator cover’, ‘clean out the car’, ‘see the Northern Lights’ and ‘learn calligraphy’, I wrote down every little thing I needed to do and wanted to do, ever.
I walked around the house and wrote down what needed to be done… what I wanted to change… I looked at myself in the mirror… I thought about the things I wanted to teach my children. I looked through my books and chose the things I wanted to learn or explore or places I wanted to visit. I went through my recipe books, the TV listings, my Pinterest account and I wrote down every craft project, every film I wanted to see and every restaurant I wanted to eat in.
I spent literally days purging every single last little action I wanted to vaguely attempt that was floating around my head.
’Go camping in Switzerland’
’Sew a corset’
’Own a horse’
By the end of it I had nearly 400 different tasks on my Big, Mega, Brain-Dump To Do List. But I didn’t stop there. Next came the highlighters…
Pink for ‘Take Action Now’
Orange for ‘Take Action Soon’
Green for ‘Take Action First’
Blue for ‘Take Action Whenever’.
Then I went through each task and assigned it a colour. Immediate tasks or tasks I could or needed to complete very quickly like cooking dinner, posting a letter or making the beds were pink. These were the tasks I wanted to get done ASAP because they were just holding me back or would make the greatest amount of difference soonest. These were followed by tasks that were important but less time dependent, in orange, such as doing the ironing or moving a pile of annoying boxes out of my way. Things I needed a little more time to complete or required planning, but were none the less equally urgent.
Ever heard of the phrase ‘eat the frog’?. Mark Twain suggested that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning you can spend the rest of the day knowing the most difficult task is behind you. Pink and Orange tasks represent this well and were a good opportunity to just bite the bullet and do the icky stuff I’d been putting off but really needed to be done. Nope, I didn’t want to deep clean the carpets or do my tax return but once I’d focused and got the job done a huge wave of relief would flood over me and that sense of being overwhelmed rapidly began to deflate. I started to feel in control again.
Green and blue tasks were full of the fun things. Green tasks were activities that I wanted to do first because they were the most interesting to me at that time and blue tasks were ones that I loved the idea of but may have needed some time to arrange, achieve, or just weren’t as interesting as green tasks. They were also the big tasks that needed a lot of time committed to them such as learning a new language or building a business.
These tasks were just as important as the Pink and Orange tasks, because without them I was always going to be cleaning up and firefighting problems rather then growing and enjoying my life.
Then, despite being smothered in grief, stress, anxiety, loneliness and fear… I was able to focus.
Immediately, one by one, I began completing and striking through the pink tasks. Then the orange. Moving onto green and blue.
A month after I had started I had reduced my list by half.
I’ve been doing brain dumps for several years now and apart from the obvious organisation benefits this is what they’ve taught me:
When you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis it’s really easy to forget what interests you, what your goals are, what piques your curiosity. Brain dumps are great for reminding yourself what looks fun and what needs to be done, at a glance.
They’re procrastination busters. You don’t need to think about what needs to be done. You just pick something off the list and do it.
They work brilliantly alongside goal setting and journals. Take a task, break it down into even smaller steps and voila! Goal achieved.
If you want to get to know yourself better brain dumps introduce you to even vague passing interests. Fancy visiting that local Roman ruin? Do you have a forgotten passion for history? Cringing at the long drive you need to take to visit your mum? Maybe taking the train would be a better option this time?
You come face to face with the reality that you do a lot of stuff because it’s expected of you rather because you want to and part of being a grown up is trying to figure out which matters. This helps alleviate SO much guilt and self sacrifice. You CAN say no and you can say YES.
The satisfaction and sense of progress that comes from ticking things off the list never fails to lift my mood. It’s a great self care tool.
How to do your own brain dump:
Grab yourself a notebook, pencil and highlighters.
Divide a page in half and leave room for numbers at the side (this isn’t essential but it’s a good way to keep track of how many tasks you’ve got)
Spend a minimum of 48 hours writing down tasks. Download my prompt sheet HERE if you’re looking for ideas. Take no longer then a week. If you remember tasks after this time, just add them onto the bottom. This is an ongoing project but it’s not an excuse to procrastinate!
Don’t think too much about what you’re writing down. This is a list of things To-Do, not a life plan. They don’t need to be in order, realistic or even the most exciting things ever. Most stuff on my list is pretty basic household chores and responsibilities followed by activities that I’d like to know more about or would like to try. The list is purely a collection of ideas which you can choose to take action on or not.
You will probably start running out of ideas around then 200-300 mark. If you’ve only got 50-100 ideas you’re not being generous enough. Do you want to write a book? Would you like eat a picnic by a lake? Do your shoes need cleaning? Get EVERYTHING out. Even the most fleeting interests that you probably wont ever seriously attempt. The funny thing is, as soon as they’re down on paper they suddenly become possibilities, or, they at least stop bothering you enough for you to say ‘you know what, I’m not that interested in learning Russian’.