How To Supercharge Your Productivity with Brain Dumps

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Why you’re not using your brain the right way

The soon-to-be father of modern social psychology, Kurt Lewin was sitting in a restaurant. While it’s unclear whether it was a cafe or a dine-in place, the more important fact is what he observed.

Curious enough, he noticed the ability of waiters to remember the orders of the customers. The waiters could precisely recollect the orders of the customers who hadn’t paid the bill.

But those who’d already paid? They couldn’t remember sh*t about any of those bills. This piqued the interest of Lewin. He passed on this observation to one of her students, Bluma Zeigarnik. This simple observation would soon uncover one of the most cited effects we all have heard of.

Bluma carried on a number of experiments to verify the hypothesis. She told people to perform simple tasks like making a clay figure or solving a puzzle. Then she would interrupt them before completion and shift them to another task, which she allowed them to finish. She would then call the participants to check which tasks they remembered more about.

The results were clear. The first group remembered 90% more about the unfinished tasks and the second group remembered twice as much.

This effect came to be known as the Zeigarnik effect, which for the sake of simplicity, states “people tend to remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks.

The Key Insight

Your head is a terrible office — David Allen

The Zeigarnik effect explains why we cannot carry around thoughts and tasks in our heads.

When we try to remember all the different things we do, the brain is constantly trying to not forget the information. In the quest to remember, it stops performing.

The problem is not with you. *The problem is *you used your brain for a purpose it wasn’t designed for.

Tell me if this happens with you.

You open your email inbox to access an important piece of information. You’re bombarded with five other emails that you get lost in. After you close the tab, you have no idea why you opened it in the first place.

Familiar? Thought so.

Again, you’re not using the brain for what it’s designed.

Your brain has limited cognitive capacity. And when you use it to store things and worry about stuff, you lose the opportunity to do valuable work. How many times have you woken up at the middle of the night thinking about the one client you forgot to follow up with?

Small bits of information and tasks like these start to pile up inside your brain if left unchecked.

So what’s the solution?

A “Mind Sweep” as David calls it. Or better known as a Brain Dump.

Brain Dump 101

Like your workspace, your brain too can get cluttered. The only way to make space is to turn it upside down and shake the hell out of it.

Meaning, you write every stray thought that bothers you.

  • Need a new light bulb?

  • Friend’s birthday coming up?

  • Want to plan for an important project?

  • Need to take your dog to the vet?

Just about anything. Don’t hold back. Don’t stress over the mechanics. Just do it.

Write it down on paper or on your laptop — especially, when you feel stressed, tired, or overwhelmed.

A helpful tip is to set a timer and write as much as you can before it runs out. This way it’s not an open-ended slog and you don’t overthink every word.

Once you do this, the brain no longer has the pressure to remember things. You’ve in essence exported everything into one place.

Now you can pick a task of choice, and focus on that. Or you can leave everything and have a good night’s sleep.

Another benefit is batching tasks together. Once you see all errands on one page, for example, you can batch them up into one trip to the supermarket. If you want to follow up with a few people, you can batch them together and take all those calls at a specific hour.

The benefits are immense.

There’s a caveat though.

You’ll always be late to do a brain dump. The right time to do a brain dump varies but it’s better to do it before you’ve “lost your mind.”

I’m always late when it comes to this. I wait too long to write things down. It takes time for me to notice my stress levels rise.

But there’s a way out.

To avoid reaching this state of overwhelm, write down thoughts as they come to you.

Pick two-three places where you can take these occasional mind dumps. For example, I use my whiteboard and my phone. I’m guaranteed to have at least one of them within my reach at all times. For the rare occasions when this is not the case, I write on my hand.

Side Effects

While the benefits of doing a brain dump are itself great, you can also get these freebies if you do it right:

A Shutdown Ritual

The preparation for the next day starts the night before. By writing things down not only do you sleep better but you start the day with confidence and a sense of purpose.

The last thing you want to do is spend your days at the mercy of your email inbox.


It’s a great way to get started with journaling as a daily habit if that’s one of your goals. The brain dump is simple enough that you can’t find an excuse to avoid it.

Once you’ve established this as a daily habit before or after work, you can incorporate other forms of journaling as well.

Final Thought

In all my posts, I always tell you to start today. Not this time.

Instead, start now. Write down all the things running through your mind right now. It hardly takes five minutes.

See how relieved you feel.

Get into the writing habit now and reap the rewards for years to come.

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Written on August 5, 2020