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How to Manage Anxiety with the Brain Dump Method

It’s Sunday evening, and you’re dreading the week ahead. Your mind is swirling with deadlines, meetings, and an ever-growing to-do list. As you sit down with a cup of tea to relax before bed, your thoughts refuse to settle. 

This scenario is all too familiar for many of us. 

But what if we told you there’s a simple way to tame the overwhelming rush of anxiety and gain mental clarity? Enter the Brain Dump method—a simple writing exercise that declutters your thoughts and calms the mind’s chatter.

In this article, we’ll discuss how this method works and how you can incorporate it into your daily schedule. Let’s begin!

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What Is a Brain Dump?

The brain dump method is a productivity and organization technique that helps clear the mind and enhance mental energy by transferring thoughts, ideas, tasks, and worries onto paper or a digital document. 

There’s no specific structure or pattern; you let your feelings out in a free flow without being critical or analytical. 

When too many thoughts and tasks occupy your mental space, it can overwhelm you, decrease productivity, and lead to more stress. Externalizing them potentially reduces your mental clutter and cognitive load. With the distracting thoughts out of your way, you can focus better, control your anxiety, and get more done. 

Brain dump offers visibility into all of your thoughts and tasks in one place, so it’s easier to organize them by priority.

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Brain Dump: The Origin 

The practice of diary writing or journal writing has been popular for centuries. 

If we look at the early instances of diaries (later published for public consumption) from the 16th and 17th centuries, they were majorly used for recording historical events and sometimes as a mode of self-expression. 

While poets and authors turned to writing to channel their innermost thoughts, the impact of writing on mental health was yet to become a subject of discussion. 

➡️ The exploration of writing as a form of therapy formally began in the 1960s, when psychotherapist Ira Progoff developed the Intensive Journal Method for self-development—a structured approach to journaling that goes beyond simple daily reflections. 

It uncovers latent feelings and encourages deep self-exploration and personal growth through a series of exercises. Progoff spoke at length about this method in his books At a Journal Workshop and The Practice of Process Meditation: The Intensive Journal Way to Spiritual Experience. 

➡️ Fast forward to the 1980s, psychology professor James Pennebaker pioneered the ‘expressive writing’ approach. 

His research established that when individuals engage in focused, expressive writing about traumatic or deeply emotional events over several sessions, they often experience improved mental and physical well-being. The writing process acts as a form of catharsis or purgation. 

💡 Interestingly, Taylor Swift once referred to the experience of writing songs about painful experiences as being akin to sucking the ‘poison out of a snakebite’. Quite similar to what Pennebaker’s research concluded!

➡️ In 2002, in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, David Allen explored the idea of a brain dump, even though he didn’t use this exact terminology. He spoke about following the five-step Getting Things Done (GTD) system, the first of which is called Capture. During this step, you have to capture things that cross your mind into an ‘inbox’ outside of your brain. He refers to this process as ‘Mind-Sweep’. 

We’ll walk you through the GTD framework in detail shortly. Before that, let’s examine some new research on the brain dump method.

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Up-to-Date Brain Dump Research

Here’s what recent studies have to say about the practice of a brain dump or journaling: 

  • A 2017 research paper explored whether bedtime writing focusing on future tasks (to-do list) or past accomplishments (completed list) affects sleep onset. 57 young adults wrote for five minutes before bedtime in a controlled environment. Results showed that those writing to-do lists fell asleep faster than those journaling completed activities. Specifically detailing tasks on the to-do list correlated with quicker sleep onset, while the opposite was true for completed activities. To go by this research, writing a specific to-do list for five minutes before hitting the bed may help you sleep faster, as compared to reflecting on completed tasks
  • In 2018, another study found that Positive affect journaling (PAJ), an emotion-focused self-regulation intervention, decreased mental distress among patients with various medical conditions. The depressive symptoms in patients were reduced after one month
  • A 2021 study concluded, based on a randomized control trial, that seven days of mindful gratitude journaling can reduce psychological distress in patients with advanced-stage cancer

More research is underway, but it’s safe to say that clearing the intrusive thoughts off your head can improve your quality of life. 

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Suggested Reading: Getting Things Done by David Allen

Getting Things Done by David Allen
via Amazon

In this book, David Allen elaborates on the GTD (Getting Things Done) system. He developed this framework to help individuals organize tasks and commitments effectively, reduce stress, and increase productivity.

Here’s an overview of its five steps:

  1. Capture: The first step in GTD is to capture all your tasks, ideas, and thoughts into a trusted system outside your brain (Mind-Sweep). It involves collecting everything that’s taking up space in your mental real estate. You can do this using physical tools such as notebooks or digital tools such as note-taking apps
  2. Clarify: Once captured, you have to clarify each item. Ask yourself: What is it? Is it actionable? If yes, what’s the next action? If it’s not actionable, decide if it’s something you should store for reference, delegate, put on hold, or simply discard
  3. Organize: Organize the clarified tasks and actions into categories or lists. GTD suggests using lists such as Projects (multi-step tasks), Next Actions (single-step tasks that you can take immediately), Waiting For (tasks delegated or waiting on others), Someday/Maybe (tasks you want to consider for the future), and Calendar (specific actions with a date or time constraint)
  4. Reflect: Regularly review and update your lists and commitments. It keeps your GTD system up-to-date and ensures you’re focusing on the right things. Weekly reviews are helpful in GTD to reassess priorities and stay on track
  5. Engage: Finally, actively engage with your tasks and commitments based on the lists and priorities you’ve set. The GTD system encourages you to focus on one task at a time and emphasizes completing actions rather than just managing them

The core idea behind GTD is to clear your mind of clutter by externalizing tasks and commitments into a systematic approach. By doing so, you reduce stress, gain clarity on what needs to be done, and improve your ability to execute tasks effectively. 

The best part of this system is its flexibility—you can adapt it to different tools and environments. Let’s see how!

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There’s no right or wrong way to do brain dumps—you can tailor the process to your liking. Whether you want to use the method for therapeutic writing, brush up on your learnings, or induce creativity, the choice is all yours!

Here are some brain dump ideas for you to check out:

Gratitude Journal 

This type of brain dump involves writing down what you’re thankful for. 

Media doyenne Oprah Winfrey is one of the biggest advocates of maintaining a gratitude journal, and she has been practicing it for years. She suggests writing down five things you’re grateful for every evening so you spend your day focusing on the good stuff that happens around you. 

You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you’re aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.

Oprah Winfrey

Creative brain dump

This one’s more of a dump for creative ideas or a brainstorming session related to work rather than a personal exercise. 

You either sit alone or with your team for a specific amount of time and let your creativity flow. It helps you channel the ideas hovering in your mind, filter out the best, and put them to use. 

Post-learning brain dump

After attending a lecture/webinar, finishing a study session, or completing an online course, take a few minutes to write down the crux of what you just learned

Post-learning brain dump helps you actively recall vital information, identify areas where you need further clarity, and improve your understanding of the subject. 

Bullet Journal 

A bullet journal helps you track your daily to-do lists, habits, long-term goals, reflections, and more, all in a single notebook, using short bulleted lists. 

If you feel intimidated to write down your feelings or you can’t seem to find enough time for brain dumping, a bullet journal brain dump would be a good option to start with. 

💡 Fun tip: Use a notes app like ClickUp and turn it into your digital bullet journal! 

Worry Journal 

A worry journal is a safe space to jot down troubling thoughts, fears, and uncertainties. Writing them down helps you clear your mind off these feelings as if a heavy weight is lifted off your chest. When you regularly document your worries, you can identify recurring thought patterns and what triggers them and consult a therapist to come up with solutions.

Renowned gymnast Simone Biles uses a worry journal to cope with the intense anxiety that comes with her highly competitive career. She reserves a specific hour of the day to let out her worries and be present in the moment, allowing herself to feel her emotions. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with thoughts, worry not! You, too can effectively regain focus with some guidance.

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How to Brain Dump: A Step-by-Step Guide

1. Get a journal 

The first step is to keep a journal (or a ‘Capture Tool’, in David Allen’s words) handy to jot down what’s on your mind. 

In order for your mind to let go of the lower-level task of trying to hang on to everything, you have to know that you have truly captured everything that might represent something you have to do or at least decide about, and that at some point in the near future you will process and review all of it.[sic]

David Allen 

While a physical notebook is useful for collecting thoughts, a digital note-taking app or whiteboard software offers more flexibility. 

And might we suggest ClickUp as your digital brain dump tool? 

With ClickUp, it’s easier to review your thoughts, arrange them by order of priority, and categorize them. Access the ClickUp app from your phone, tablet, or laptop—no need to carry a separate notebook. 

2. Pick a time 

Choose a suitable time of day for this activity, depending on the type of brain dump you want to opt for. 

For example, if it’s a gratitude journal, do it at the beginning of the day or right before bedtime. If it’s a task list, work on it before sleeping so you can better manage your time the next day. 

However, you don’t need to have a specific time for all types of brain dumps. For instance, if it’s a collection of distracting thoughts taken down when you’re engaged in a crucial task, you can do it anytime. 

3. Find a quiet corner 

Look for a quiet place to sit at peace with your thoughts, without any external stimulants demanding your attention. 

This can be your home office, backyard, your physical office chamber, inside your car, or your favorite park down the road. 

Tip: If complete silence feels too numb to the senses, listen to soft instrumental music or white noise. 

4. Set a timer 

There is no hard and fast rule about how long you should journal. Set a timer for 5 to 15 minutes to record your thoughts as they come. 

A timer is not necessary for a brain dump. However, it helps if you struggle with procrastination or maintaining consistency. 

Allocating a specific time block ensures journaling becomes a regular habit rather than an occasional activity. The timer also gently reminds you to stay present and listen to your inner dialogue. 

5. Start writing 

Now, you’re all set to start writing. Your brain dump can fall under any of these categories: 

  • To-do list to jot down your tasks for the day or plan your week in advance
  • Upcoming deadlines that may be bothering you 
  • Worries and stress deterring you from focusing on your work 
  • Things you’re grateful for
  • Future plans for both personal and professional commitments 

No matter which type of journaling you choose, ClickUp offers a suite of tools and features to support your needs. 

For example, you can use ClickUp Docs for all things writing:  

  • Format your brain dump with bullets, bold, italics, strikethroughs, and more, with /Slash commands 
  • Highlight important text with color-coded banners
  • Elaborate on your thoughts by creating nested pages 
  • Convert written text into trackable tasks, assign them to yourself, and add timelines 
ClickUp Docs
Organize your thoughts better with nested pages on ClickUp Docs

When you’re in a creative flow and want an outlet to put your thoughts into words, ClickUp Whiteboards comes to your rescue. Here’s how you can make the most of it: 

  • Connect related concepts using connectors (lines and arrows) to understand their hierarchies 
  • Draw freehand, add shapes, write notes, and visualize your thoughts 
  • Add Tasks and Docs to your Whiteboard and edit them directly from the canvas
  • Convert ideas into tasks 
ClickUp Whiteboards
Capture your thoughts on a virtual canvas with ClickUp Whiteboards 

Bonus tip: It’s not necessary to create your whiteboards from ground zero. You can look into ClickUp’s library and find suitable whiteboard templates that meet your requirements. 

For instance, here’s the Impact Effort Matrix Template by ClickUp. This framework offers a fully customizable whiteboard to improve decision-making at the personal and organizational levels.

Prioritize your tasks effectively with ClickUp’s Impact Effort Matrix Template

The template segregates your ideas/tasks based on their impact and the effort required. The four quadrants represent the following: 

  • High Impact-Low Effort: Do Now 
  • High Impact-High Effort: Do Next 
  • Low Impact-Low Effort: Do Later 
  • Low Impact-High Effort: Don’t Do

Use this structured approach to:

  • Assess which tasks you should work on and when
  • Prioritize important tasks first to maximize ROI 
  • Get a visual of the effort required for each task 
  • Identify which tasks you can afford to eliminate from your list

This template is particularly helpful if you have a lot on your plate and are finding it difficult to prioritize your task list. Personalize the template with Custom Fields and Custom Statuses to accommodate your specific needs, and get started!

Feeling overwhelmed with random thoughts interrupting your deep work session? ClickUp Notepad is the tool you need! Use this handy digital notebook to: 

  • Write down the distracting thoughts that interrupt your workflow and come back to them once you finish the task at hand
  • Create bulleted lists of pending to-dos and check them off one by one as you complete them 
ClickUp Notepad
Jot down your thoughts, to-dos, or shopping lists with ClickUp Notepad, tick them off, and turn important notes into tasks by adding deadlines 
  • Quickly take down meeting notes, ideas, and work plans
  • Turn notes into trackable tasks
  • Drag and drop items to move tasks up and down the list 

Bonus tip: We spoke about David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) framework earlier. If you’re interested in implementing it for your personal and professional growth, we have a bunch of GTD templates in store. Take your time and explore all of them; but here’s a quick sneak peek of our in-house favorite, ClickUp’s Getting Things Done Template

Put David Allen’s GTD system to use with the fully customizable Getting Things Done Template by ClickUp

Equipped with multiple pre-built views, custom fields, and Docs, this template helps you prioritize, track, and carry out your tasks effectively using the GTD framework and stay productive. 

The pre-saved lists keep you on track with the five steps of the GTD system, ensuring your tasks move swiftly through the steps. The List View, Board View, Docs View, and Calendar View offer complete visibility into the status of tasks to give you greater control over your workflow.

For every view, there are two pre-built Custom Fields to add context (task category; e.g., dividing your tasks into categories such as Home, Work, Full Focus, Fun, etc.) and effort (the amount of time and energy a task requires). Rename these Fields based on your needs and add more Fields to create a highly contextual task list. 

6. Review and organize

After the brain dump, it’s time to review what you’ve written. Opt for weekly brain dump sessions to understand your thoughts more deeply and turn your visions into actions. 

With ClickUp, you can simplify the review process and save time. Here’s how: 

a. Turn notes/thoughts into tasks 

When you’re on ClickUp Docs or Notepad, you can quickly turn your scribblings into action items. 

For ClickUp Docs 

  1. Open Docs
  2. Highlight the text you want to turn into a Task
  3. Select + Task from the text toolbar 
  4. Click Select List and choose a list where you want to add the task 
ClickUp Docs
Use ClickUp Docs to convert your thoughts into tasks
  1. You can also click Create to create a new task immediately

For ClickUp Notepad 

  1. Open Notepad
  2. Go to the text you want to turn into a Task and click the + icon
ClickUp Notepad
Convert a note to a task using ClickUp Notepad
  1. Choose a list where you want to add the Task 
  2. Input Task details 
  3. Click the Create Task button located at the lower-right corner of the task creation modal

b. Set your priorities right

Flag your tasks as Urgent, High, Normal, or Low priority with ClickUp Task Priorities. This step clarifies which tasks need immediate attention and which ones to schedule for later.

ClickUp Task Priorities
Divide your tasks into Urgent, High, Normal, or Low priority with ClickUp Task Priorities and focus on tasks that have the greatest impact on the outcome 

c. Create a layout of your thoughts 

Arrange messy trains of thought into an organized layout with ClickUp Mind Maps. Break down complex ideas, build connections between tasks, and visualize your brain dump for greater clarity. 

ClickUp Mind Maps
Sort the knotted thoughts in your head into a neat structure with ClickUp Mind Maps

If you’re new to the world of Mind Maps, feel free to take inspiration from ClickUp’s mind map templates. They’ll give you a ready-to-deploy framework to get started with this visual tool right away. 

Let’s take ClickUp’s Blank Mind Map Whiteboard Template, for example. This minimal framework allows you to outline your thoughts and ideas freely while maintaining a cohesive structure for the map. 

Draw connections between ideas with ClickUp’s Blank Mind Map Whiteboard template and customize it to your requirements 

Use the Main Idea as the anchor and divide it into Sub Ideas and Inputs. The visual of the template is enough to help you understand the correlation between ideas at a glance. You can customize the template however you like—add text, images, videos, sticky notes, website cards, or even doodle if that’s your jam!

Here’s an example to help you understand the template better:

Let’s say you’re brainstorming a plan to revamp your home, so the Main Idea within the bulb would be Home Renovation. Divide it into Sub Ideas such as Interior and Exterior. 

For the Interior node, you can have Inputs such as Bedroom, Living Room, Dining Hall, Kitchen…you get the drift. For each Sub Idea or Input, embed your inspiration—a Pinterest image of your dream living room, a YouTube video, or a link to your favorite interior decor company. 

So when you open the template, you can get a bird’s-eye view of your ideas and go into granular details under each node and sub-node. 

The best part is that this template works well for both personal and professional needs, so be creative and use it to its full potential!

7. Practice regular brain dumps 

Try to stay consistent with your brain dump journal. Weekly brain dumps may help you better monitor your anxieties and thought patterns. When you review your brain dump after an interval, you can identify the recurring patterns and take action accordingly. 

For instance, if a heavy workload and short deadlines are constants in your brain dump, perhaps it’s time to talk to your manager and work things out to manage your workplace anxiety. 

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Brain Dump Your Way to Mental Wellness with ClickUp

Use this article as an inspiration to understand the best practices in journaling. However, remember that, ultimately, it’s you who makes the rules. 

And for a truly personalized brain dump exercise, what can be a better option than ClickUp? 

From bulleted lists and detailed brain dumps to mapping out your ideas on a visual canvas, ClickUp gives you the creative freedom to let your thoughts flow freely. At the same time, the app empowers you to declutter your mind, organize your brain dump entries, turn your visions into actions, and take mindful steps toward your well-being. 

Try ClickUp today and explore what it has in store! 

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