Updated: Feb 7, 2020
As life feels like it is dumping on you, dump all those things on the page!
February is a rough month. Rough.
Here in the North, it would appear that we are literally being buried. As the snow falls, yet again, breaking records for the month, the snow piles higher and higher. The children's toys have officially taken over the playroom, and the mud (i.e. snow and salt) has taken over the mudroom. Everything feels heavy. Everything takes longer, from commute times to the simple act of walking out the door. Yes, getting to the mailbox is currently a goal. Summer feels far away, and my disorganized closets, tangled electronic cords, piles of newly-collected grading, and personal goals and visions for leadwithgrace all compete for my attention. I need to protect my effectiveness and my high-level creative thinking. With all of these chaotic distractions, I feel myself being buried and not just under the newly falling snow.
This morning, perhaps as an assistance from above to maintain my survival and sanity, I stumbled upon an article in Experience Life magazine. This article featured David Allen's organizational system, Getting Things Done, focusing on Phase 1 "collecting." This strategy encourages people to complete a thorough brain dump. Allen explains,"If it's on your mind, write it down or record it somehow in a concrete way." He refers to the paper or digital page as an external brain, explaining our actual brains make for a pretty cluttered and ineffective office. We tend to forget things or are just not sure where to begin. I've used a brain dump technique before when planning larger goals and projects. In my teaching, we encourage student teams to create one at the beginning of their corporate projects. Entrepreneur and health and fitness expert, Chalene Johnson has been a big advocate of the brain dump, using it to combat her own overwhelm when embarking on new goals or business ventures. In the past, I found lists vital when planning large events like our Speech Invitational tournament, where I relied on a series of checklists by month, week, and days leading up to the tournament. Even though the book Checklist Manifesto from Atul Gawande remains on my to-read list, I've been trying to write more things down each day in my planner. Nevertheless, I had yet to actually dump everything onto the page, tangle cords and all. This technique is not just for tasks. David Allen encourages his clients to add to the brain dump intangible things that are claiming brain space, like future possibilities to decide and challenges to overcome.This exhaustive-style list might sound, well, exhausting, but the snow was still falling,and I wanted a second cup of coffee. So I began.
“You must use your mind to get things off your mind." David Allen
As the snow continued to fall and I dumped all the swirling thoughts down, I hoped for improved clarity and relief. Between the snow, my February schedule, and work demands of a new class, the current reality is that many of my tasks need to be completed a different day. How would writing them down actually improve my sense of empowerment in the face of all the things that just aren't going to get done today? Would writing them down prevent me from being buried underneath the weight of them? I kept writing and listing and looking around the house, finding anything I could that needed my attention. I thought through errands I need to run, people I need to contact, and things I need to figure out. This seemed to be taking a while. In fact, Allen says that for the mid-career professional he works with, it typically takes 1-6 hours to unload everything in the mental home office.
Perhaps it was that second cup of coffee, but as I dumped my brain on the page, I did begin to feel improved mental clarity. In fact, scientific research has been done in this area that would back up this sense of relief. A study done by University of Brussels' researchers Francis Heylighen and Clemet Vidal entitled "Getting Things Done: The Science" suggests that you do not actually need to finish tasks in order to clear your mind. You just need to be able to trust yourself that you WILL be able to finish the task when the time comes. In fact, automating more to habit or the page as a trigger point taps into what psychologists call "distributed cognition,"or the art of controlling our focus by having an external trigger for it. Just like with an automatic closing door, when we don't have to think about something, our brain is freed up for other tasks. I like to think of it as similar to having too many tabs open on an ipad. With all those simultaneous mental tasks, your brain just keeps spinning.
Nature's cycles teach that future growth necessitates rest. Winter's blanket of snow does not bury, only suggests then that we must do what we can do to rest the mind until we can do what we need to do. David Allen's TED Talk describes this mental state as "Mind Like Water," staying flexible, fluid, seeking balance, and reacting appropriately to the environment. Allen further questions the premise that we need more time to be creative, productive, strategic, loving, or present. It is not more time we need; it is "room."
The brain dump carves out room to allow for these important mental functions. The brain dump prepares us for what is ahead. The more present we are, the more ready we will be to respond to what is coming next. If buried, we will either over or under react.
So that's why I was in a state of intense (and somewhat irrational) emotion over the tangled cords.
"You must weed your mind as you would weed your garden." Astrid Alauda
Before the brain dump, I felt unmotivated, overwhelmed, frustrated, and irritated, judging by the pile of tangled cords in the office that sent me into a downward spiral of anger and blame. Luckily, I deleted the text rant to my husband about our lack of cord purging and labeling etc... Perhaps now after my complete brain dump, I will feel less buried in the swirling thoughts piling up in my brain. I'm not sure yet if I feel the entirety of promised relief. It is still February after all. The snow has lightened though. Spring is to come, and I have already weeded my mental garden.
Do you find value in brain dumping? Try the extended brain dump, and let me know your thoughts.
Resource: Brain Dump Printable