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This creative exercise turns disorganized thoughts into gold

This method can help you untangle your to-do list from your big, passionate ideas.

This creative exercise turns disorganized thoughts into gold
[Photo: Christian Beirle González/Getty Images; Peter Olexa/Unsplash]

Do you have days where you’re facing a huge stack of assignments, but you find yourself unable to get rid of all the thoughts buzzing around in your brain? It might be time to try a brain dump.

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A brain dump is when you gather all your disorganized thoughts and, appropriately, dump them onto a blank canvas. This exercise allows you to clear your mind and pave the way for new, creative ideas. You let all your thoughts tumble onto paper, and see what you come up with after the process.

To try it yourself, start with a completely blank slate, like a piece of paper or a new memo note on your phone.

Start recording everything—from your nagging to-do list, to budding creative ideas for your business—onto the paper or screen. You might write down a partial grocery list, or ideas you have for redesigning your house. Then, once you have a list of all the brain clutter spilled out in front of you, take a moment to double-check if there are any lurking thoughts you forgot to include. Maybe there is an upcoming but low-priority deadline you forgot about, or a networking follow-up you dropped the ball on.

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Once everything is written down, start to rank each idea or task by priority and category. You might try organizing work and personal tasks, and indicating if they’re long-term or short-term projects. Finally, start to consider which part of your brain dump can be assigned to yourself at this very moment, to other people, or to tackle yourself at a later point.

Some productivity bloggers have described the exercise as a “release valve.” Others emphasize that a brain dump should be a free-flowing and nonjudgmental process. So try to refrain from editing. Instead think of it as a way to generate creative material for later.

Here are three reasons why this practice can be so effective.

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1. Brain dumps stoke creativity

Contributor Aytekin Tank says he uses brain dumps as a means to tap into his creativity, as leader and founder of a company. “The truth is, our mind isn’t at its best or at its most creative when it’s being held under the weight of thousands of tasks and projects,” he writes.

Doing a brain dump can free up mental real estate by helping address attention residue, or leftover preoccupations from your most recent and unfinished task.”Keeping these ongoing mental lists leaves little room for the spark of new ideas to flourish,” Tank points out.

The act of writing thoughts down in a space outside your temporary mental archives, makes it easier to see the bigger picture. Research shows that just attempting to multitask can be harmful. Author and computer science professor Cal Newport told Fast Company in 2016 about how without putting aside dedicated time for focused work, people convince themselves “shallow tasks” are real work. “Many people have convinced themselves that it’s crucial that they are always connected, both professionally and socially, but the reality is that this requirement is self-imposed,” he explains.

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In Newport’s book Deep Work, he discusses how when you hop from one task to the other, you can weaken your focus, making it increasingly more difficult to jump into deep-work projects over time. Doing a brain dump can be a first step at making sense of the busy rush of tasks that fill our lives.

2. Brain dumps help us make sense of complicated feelings

Ultimately, the method has done its job when it helps you to organize your confused thoughts. Think of your tangled thoughts as a ball of yarn. If you don’t have time to untangle them at the current moment, you can do a brain dump instead, and throw the tangled mess into a separate receptacle for safekeeping.

Research into similar activities—like filling out a diary—suggests these endeavors help people cope with traumatic events. A study from the University of Texas with North Carolina State University suggested individuals who have experienced trauma can use expressive writing to tamp down distracting thoughts, as well avoid unhealthy behaviors.

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3. Brain dumps help us reconnect with our passions

When your mind is given leeway to calm down after a “brain dump,” the extra mental space can be great for focusing on what you love. Work and its constantly growing demands can make it extremely hard to break out of a cycle of busyness. And when we’re too overloaded with tasks, it can lead to burnout, not to mention a disconnection from your true passions.

Burnout is linked with symptoms such as lowered productivity and feelings of losing your identity. Moreover, a worker who feels burnt out may feel disillusioned in their job or feel like even meeting their goals is no accomplishment. These sentiments make it easier to lose sight of why you took on a certain role, or why you feel empowered doing a certain project. By trying a brain dump, you can more clearly visualize what’s standing in the way of doing what you love.

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About the author

Diana is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously, she was an editor at Vice and an editorial assistant at Entrepreneur

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