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How To Take Advantage Of Your Brain's Hidden Productivity Powers

Your mental lists are distracting you from other, more productive uses of your brain. Here's how to do a weekly brain dump instead.

[Photo: Flickr user Roco Julie; App photo: Gene Lester/Getty Images]

If you think keeping everything you need to know neatly packed away in your head is a smart way to run your life, you’re probably hurting your productivity and stifling your creativity.

"Many if not most people carry around a lot of stuff in their heads that they are trying to keep track of and remember, including appointments, meetings, project deadlines, and to-dos," says Scott Shafer, associate dean and professor of management at Wake Forest University School of Business.

The reality is that mental lists distract you from other, more productive uses of your brain like solving problems, he says. Mental lists are more difficult to manage than physical lists. They often feel larger and more overwhelming than they actually are, and they are nearly impossible to prioritize and estimate.

Instead, Shafer recommends doing a brain dump—getting workflow, ideas, commitments, and to-do lists out of your head and onto a physical list and calendar.

Brain Dumps Fill Your Calendar

Once a week, set aside a half hour and write or type all the loose thoughts in your brain about what you have to do or need to remember. Capture this information in whatever way feels most comfortable to you, says Shafer, such as in a Word document, Excel file, task list or legal pad.

"Once you have dumped all this stuff from your brain, you can then process it and integrate it into your time management system or calendar," he says.

In his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, time-management expert David Allen recommends doing a brain dump exercise by breaking down random thoughts even further into categories, such as work, house, family, and health-related tasks.

Once the list is on paper, review the items to determine action steps. If you can do it right now in less than two minutes, do it. If you can delegate it, contact the delegate and assign the task. If it needs to be done on a specific date or time, schedule it on your calendar. Or if it has no set time but is something you want to pursue, put it on a "Someday" list.

Brain Dumps Can Also Jumpstart Creative Projects

Barnet Bain, producer of the Oscar-winning film What Dreams May Come and author of The Book of Doing and Being: Rediscovering Creativity in Life, Love, and Work, says a brain dump is a fertile starting point for any creative project. Begin the process by suspending self-criticism, holding nothing back.

"You need to be willing to let your inner censor take a break, just as you would suspend criticism of a child who is sharing an idea with you or showing you an art project," he says.

On a page, canvas, or recording device, pour out your initial ideas, feelings, images, words, or inklings without concern for what you might do with them next, suggests Bain.

It might help to lessen your inhibitions to look at the humble beginnings of classics, he says. The Atlantic's website offers a glimpse at the first drafts of some classic works of literature, including the first handwritten pages of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and early line edits of Madame Bovary.

"Some of our most beloved movies, plays, songs, and works of art started as bits and pieces of loosely formed ideas barely strung together," he says, adding that a brain dump is meant to provide the humble first steps. "Refining our ideas comes later."

Using your head as a place to store information and ideas is not an effective use of your brain, nor is it an efficient way to keep track of your work, says Shafer. "Trying to keep track of everything that way just creates mental and physical stress," he says.

Related: Productivity Tips from the Busiest People

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