Learn how to do a brain dump and turn your huge to-do list into an actionable, prioritized checklist you can actually stick with.
So you’re all set, huh? You’ve made your New Year’s Resolution to get more organized, you’ve identified everything you need to tackle, and you made a to-do list the size of Texas. Time to get started, right? Ouch, I may have just hit a nerve…especially if you’re like a lot of my clients. And truthfully, especially if you’re just like me.
Here’s the reality, my friend. We’re all awesome at making lists and dreaming dreams, but when it comes to execution, it’s straight-up hard! You’ve got this giant list of things you need to squeeze into your day, on top of all the other stuff you’re just barely scraping by to get done by the end of the week before a whole new week of madness starts all over again. Sound familiar? I know it does because I live the exact same life. Making lists is easy, but making game plans, and sticking to the game plan? Now that’s hard.
Start Off Right
I’m about to blow your mind. Wait for it…waaaaiiiiit for it…….you don’t have to do it all. Not right now, not all at once, not even a little bit. Whoa, crazy right? Here you are stressing over the million things swimming around in your head, and I just burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid mascot and rocked your world.
You know what? All that stuff in your head, all those to-do’s, I bet you only half of them are important. And I bet one fourth of them can (and probably should) be put on the backburner. And the other fourth of them? I almost guarantee they don’t even need to be done at all.
But how do you know? How do you distinguish what’s more important than others? And what needs to be done tonight versus next week? And how do you know that you can even afford to do all that right now, anyway?
These four steps are going to help you clear your mind, get a solid action plan together, and stop stressing over the never-ending honey-do-list. This is exactly what I do myself when I’m feeling stuck and overwhelmed. And it works. It really freakin’ works.
1. Brain Dump
Brain dumps are easy-peasy. They help you get all that nonsense out of your head and onto a piece of paper. They help you visualize all the crap you keep bottled up. And they help you get clear as day on what’s really important. You can see what really is important, and what just looks silly when it’s written into words.
Here’s how it works:
Grab a piece of paper (a full sheet, not a sticky note or a Starbucks napkin. You’ll need some room.) and a pen, and find somewhere quiet to hide out from the rest of the world. Your office, your bedroom, your car…heck, if you have to lock the bathroom door and turn on the shower, then do that! This is YOU time.
Set a timer (I use my Alexa for this because she’s a rockstar at keeping me on task) for five minutes. Then just let it flow. Mindlessly write down anything and everything that comes into your brain. Appointments, things you want to do, places you want to go, chores that need to be done, people to call, shows you want to binge on Netflix, anything that shows up in that pretty little head of yours.
When the timer is done, you can stop if you want. Or if you’re really in the flow and want to keep going, by all means, get after it! You can keep going as long as you want. When you finish, put the brain dump list away for one full day. Don’t look at it, try not to think about it, just leave it alone.
Now that you’ve spent a whole day away from your brain dump, and you’ve let your mind settle a little, you can bring back out that mondo-sized-anxiety-ridden list of yours. But before you freak out, don’t worry, we aren’t jumping in head first and knocking them out one-by-one.
Grab 4 more sheets of paper (or one segmented page) and another pen, and go hide out in that quiet place again. Label the four papers with these categories:
- If Time
Did you feel a little weight lifted off your shoulders just by making these four categories? That’s awesome, right? That’s the feeling of comfort in knowing that you don’t have to do everything right now. You don’t have to make space for all of it and blow up your entire schedule. You don’t have to be a superhero.
Now all you have to do is take that Brain Dump of yours and move all your items into a suitable category. Don’t worry about any specific order, just go down the list and rewrite each item onto the new Category page. When you’re done, put those lists away for another full day. This will give your mind time to clear, reset, and ditch any biases you may have.
Here’s where things start happening. Bring back out those 4 categories, and a pen of another color. If you used black to write your lists, grab a red or blue one. Then, beside every item, write how long it will take to complete the task and how much it will cost.
Whoa, did I just throw in time and money to the mix? Bet you didn’t think about that! Here you were thinking you just had to restain the deck, paint the laundry room, install new bookshelves, and stock the freezer with ten new meals, all by the end of the week. But now that you realize how much time each one will really take, and how much money you’ll need to make them all happen, you may realize that you can only do one of them this week.
By factoring in the true cost of a project, and the real-life amount of time it will take, you can create a new priority list based on facts instead of emotion. It’s not about what you want to accomplish, it’s more about what you can accomplish. You may even notice that some items that were originally in the Immediate category may need to be moved back to a less important category, or vice-versa.
Once you’ve given everything on your Brain Dump an estimated cost and time frame, you guessed it, put that paper away for another day. Don’t get overwhelmed and burnt out before you even get started. Just let your brain breathe and come back to it tomorrow.
This is where things get real. This is where you finally figure out where to start and how to stay on track. You’re going to take all your tasks and turn them into one checklist. It sounds scary, but I promise, it’s really easy.
Just break out those 4 categories and start with the Immediate one. From that category, on a new sheet of paper, pick out the one you can realistically do first based on the time and money you have available and write it first on your checklist. Then pick the next one you can do and write it below the first one. Then the next. Keep going until you’ve finished that category, then keep going through the other three categories.
What you’re doing is making a logical action plan instead of an emotional one. You’re not just flying by the seat of your pants trying to do it all. You’re making educated decisions on what you need to do and when. This is so important because we often get caught up in projects we don’t have time and money for, while pushing the real priorities aside.
After you’ve finished that action plan, get after it! Schedule the tasks in your calendar, carve out time in your day, and enlist your family to help out. You’ve got a written roadmap now, and as long as you stick with it, you’ll never feel lost or stuck. Just work on things when you can and cross them off when they’re done, working from top to bottom and finishing one project entirely before starting the next.
Day 1: Use a full sheet of paper for a five-minute brain dump.
Day 2: On separate sheets, divide your tasks into four categories.
Day 3: Prioritize each task on your Categories sheets based on true cost and time frame.
Day 4: Combine all tasks into a one-page action plan.
I really believe you can do it, and just like all of my clients, this will work for you as long as you put in the time and effort. I actually use this same process once every 2 months to keep myself and my business on track. So go ahead; you’ve got this!