My mother used to make a to-do list every night. It was a ritual. It seemed to help her wind down after the cares of the day. She would make a list when we needed to go to the mall, writing out each item she planned to buy, and working out the optimal parking spot for the fastest route through the stores. When we were old enough, she would write a to-do list for each of us and tape it to the front door of our apartment. We weren’t allowed to go out to play until everything on the list was crossed off. (The loophole in this plan was that we didn’t necessarily mind staying indoors in our pajamas, watching TV all summer, if it meant we didn’t have to make our beds or vacuum or take out the trash). In spite of my mother’s example, organization didn’t take with me. I didn’t really start being mentally organized until I hit about 30. I was more of a journal-filler. The point of this story is that there is more than one way to get one’s thoughts squared away, whether on paper or some other medium.
One of the tools I use with my clients is something I call the “101 List.” The goal is to write down every single task that needs to get done, and have it all in one place. The assignment is to try to hit a hundred and one individual tasks, because that usually requires a trip through every room in the house and results in a thorough brain dump. Later, I discovered that this echoes the core practice of Getting Things Done (GTD). We start to gain mental clarity as we trust that all the details we need to manage are recorded in one place. The 101 List should not include recurring tasks, even if there is an immediate need to do them, because they can never be crossed off. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there will be more dirty dishes and laundry every single day, just as we continue to need to brush our teeth and eat meals. Sad but true. Darn it. We can include things like “get flu shot” or “renew driver’s license” because they won’t be coming up again for quite a while. Just don’t put down anything that needs to get done more than once a week, or the list will be trailing after you until your dying day.
When I first started doing the 101 List for myself, I could usually hit 101 items in one burst. Then I would do a time estimate. I could highlight items that had things in common, such as phone calls or errands, and blast through a bunch of things that usually took 1-5 minutes each. Gradually, it dawned on me that most of the stuff I tended to procrastinate was in fact quick and easy, once I decided to quit fighting it and just get it done. I started trying to do the 5-minute things as they came up. (GTD calls it the “two minute rule” but I set my own schedule, and I’d rather err in favor of having a shorter mental list). The last few times I’ve tried to write a 101 List, I could only reach about 35 items. I just did one, out of curiosity, and I hit exactly 35 again, 15 of which need to be done by the end of the week, 6 of which are specific to preparing for a road trip, such as “check weather forecast.” I set a timer and did 13 of the tasks in one hour and 20 minutes. There seems to be a mental “set point” at which we start feeling scattered and overwhelmed. Practice has taught me to get my thoughts straight at about 1/3 of the hassle level I once tolerated.
Another type of brain dump comes from the work management process known as scrum. There are two lists in scrum: a “product backlog” and a “sprint backlog.” The product backlog is a list of desired items, many of which may never be incorporated into reality. The sprint backlog is a list of what everyone on the team has decided can and should be completed in a two-week sprint period. I have started following this practice, and I really like it. My first sprint was pretty unrealistic, but that is part of the process. The idea is to learn what you can accomplish in a given time period, and start scheduling around that. For instance, I learned from keeping a time log that it takes me roughly 40 minutes every day to shower, get dressed, and do my hair. I can get out the door in 10 minutes, if I need to, but it feels like a shortcut, and I might as well plan for the average day rather than the unusual day. With my writing and business plans, I want to include every single idea for a potential project, while knowing and hoping that some of them won’t happen for perhaps three years. The product backlog is the opposite of the 101 List in many ways. It’s not a list of delayed tasks or procrastinated duties; it’s a list of future awesomeness. My goal with the 101 List is to keep beating it back until it’s as short as possible. My goal with the product backlog is to keep expanding it until it’s as long as possible, including more possibilities than I could ever possibly execute. Fewer distractions, more creative options. They go together.
I have a specific list called Topic List. Whenever I think of an idea for this blog, I write it down. Almost everything on the list is just a title, but on rare occasions I add a note so I will remember what I was thinking. After I’ve written the post, I delete the title from the list. At the moment, this topic list stands at 167 items. Often, I wind up writing something as soon as it crosses my mind, without adding it to the list. The list keeps getting longer. I can coast along for several months with no new ideas, if I ever reach that point, and decide what to do if I ever get “caught up.” If anything, the ideas seem to appear at a faster rate, of their own volition. The funny thing about this is that I originally started the blog as a place to post stuff I had written over the last two or three years. All of that material is still sitting in a folder, waiting to be edited and illustrated. The habit of keeping a running list to capture our mental traffic becomes a skill that results in creative inspiration.
Another type of brain dump that I do is called Ten Ideas. A lot of entrepreneurial types talk about this daily practice. The idea is to come up with at least ten ideas every day, on any topic, and write them down. “Good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas,” I often remark, “but the bad ideas are all on top.” Even if 90% of the Ten Ideas are stupid – I mean really, really stupid – at the end of a year, there will still be 365 good ideas. Most of them would not have been thought of by someone else. James Altucher always uses examples involving toilets, to emphasize that we shouldn’t be afraid to write down things that sound dumb. The example I share off my own list is the “singing whisk.” It’s like a singing saw, but it makes a different musical note depending on how fast you whisk. I told someone about the singing whisk, and she said she thought it would actually sell. If you make one, please tell me about it, although don’t expect me to buy one! The Ten Ideas practice is where I turn up many of my ideas for blog posts, as well as wacky inventions, though much of the time it turns into brainstorming for my daily life. Like the product backlog and the topic list, the Ten Ideas list is fun to watch as it expands.
I keep a reminder list on my phone for recurring tasks. The more I use it, the more useful it gets. I follow a housekeeping schedule that takes zero brainpower. My phone reminds me which day to vacuum my bedroom or clean my bathroom. I turn on a podcast and clean whatever room came up. Each one takes in the range of 12 to 20 minutes. There are other reminders that come up more rarely, such as checking our go bags, washing the dog’s bedding, or making reservations for our anniversary. As anything comes up that could use a reminder, I add it to the list and forget all about it.
My oldest brain-dumping habit is keeping a journal. I burned all my old journals a few years ago, and I honestly don’t miss them. The reason is that I would turn to a blank book whenever I was anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, stressed, panicking about money, or moping about a bad romance. Those books were radioactive with dark emotional energy! I would free-write for as long as it took to feel like I had figured something out. I write more than I did then, and I feel better about it, because I don’t mind if anyone else reads my musings. At that time, my journals were a way to do strategic thinking. Root cause analysis. “I feel bad. Why? What’s my plan?” Once I started a journal entry about trying to get someone to go out with me again, wound up writing three versions of it in a row, and finally realized FORGET HIM! I’ve resolved more of my problems and baggage by working out my emotions on paper than I have by making to-do lists of practical tasks. Now, I keep a five-year diary, with only the briefest of notes of what happened in my family today. Sometimes I will see an entry from today’s date a year or two ago, and my husband and I will dissolve in laughter at the memory that otherwise would have been lost. This is a useful type of brain dump!
I almost never write paper lists or journal entries anymore. Everything goes on my phone, on my laptop, or on my dry erase board. I like this because it’s so much easier to keep a running list. I don’t have to transcribe old items onto new lists anymore. I learned that the stuff that hung around long enough to need to go on a new list could either be dropped permanently, or that I needed to be a real samurai and just get it over with already. Usually those items belonged more properly on my product backlog, where they might or might not get done, depending on how important they were compared to my other projects. Basic life administration tasks are the ones to watch. As we get into the habit of tracking all our mental clutter, working to eliminate it, and creating a routine, the list gets shorter and life gets easier.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.