Do a Braindump to Help with Stress

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A recent conversation that I had with one of my workout coaches was about how "open loops" in his mind prevent him from having a good workout. I was curious about when the coaches at the gym workout and, as the owner of the gym, he can pretty much workout whenever he wants, but there are some days that he can't workout when he has things on his mind. These are open loops.

The same thing happens to me. I can't workout in the middle of the day because there's always tasks left undone when I leave my desk and those open loops are on my mind during the workout. Sometimes, if I haven't managed all my tasks and to-do lists properly, these open loops creep into my weekend and ruin the time off that I have.

If you've ever experienced anxiety, stress, or overwhelm, it's most likely because you have too many open loops that you're carrying around in your head. A technique that I've used successfully in the past to deal with these loops is the brain dump. This post talks about open loops, how to manage them with a brain dump, and the tools and resources I use for my brain dumps.

Open loops

The concept of open loops comes from David Allen's Getting Things Done:

Anything that does not belong where it is, the way it is, is an "open loop," which will be pulling on your attention if it's not appropriately managed.

It's these open loops which are a component of stress. Of course, there are emergencies, distractions, difficulties that also cause stress, but too many open loops is a major contributor of stress and anxiety on a daily basis.

Think about this past weekend. How often did you think about work related tasks? And how did you feel? If you're like old me, first, I tried not to think about work during the weekend. And on those occasions when I did, I had feelings of apprehension, uneasiness, and just general worry.

I would worry about these things that I couldn't do anything about in the moment and so my old solution was to try to forget about things through distracting myself or beat myself up for having so many undone things in my life.

Enter GTD

So I don't remember when exactly I discovered David Allen's GTD work (GTD stands for Getting Things Done), but when I finally understood the GTD system, I could see how someone gets after the book's tagline: "The art of stress-free productivity."

In general, the system is illustrated through the five steps below.

In GTD, these are the five main steps in processing your "stuff." In the context of this post, the "stuff" are all the open loops in your head.

I used to tell my friends that there are two types of people in the world, doers and planners. I would say that I'm a doer not a planner, because I wasn't good at planning. And it's true ... I didn't have the skillset and framework to consistently plan.

The GTD framework gave me that structure to get to a stress-free state of productivity and brain dumping is technique for accomplishing the "capture" step of the GTD system.

So what is a brain dump?

David Allen actually calls a brain dump a mindsweep. This article points out that brain dumps are a step above coping for stress and anxiety. A brain dump is a technique to deal with stress and anxiety by getting open loops out of your head and onto something that you'll refer to later. So think of a brainstorming session with the intent of getting all the things that are gnawing at you out of your head.

What I've learned is that our brains aren't actually good for storing things (i.e., remembering). Sure, we'll be able to recall a handful of tasks, but think about all the tasks that you currently have to complete (written down or otherwise). It's all too often that we'll forget an important task if we don't have a system for reliably recalling these things.

What are our brains good for? Well they're best at creativity, decision making, planning, and thinking.

A brain dump (or mindsweep) is the first step to take to get those gnawing things out of your head and onto something else, so that you can be on your way towards stress-free productivity.

Tools for brain dumping

Beyond paper and pencil, here are some different tools that I've tried out out in the past that you might want to try:

  • Whiteboard / chalkboard
  • Default notes app on a mobile device
  • List making app (ToDoist, Microsoft To Do, Google Tasks)
  • Journaling (specifically bullet journaling)
  • Notetaking apps such as Evernote or Microsoft OneNote (currently my favorite)

I've tried each of the things above as part of my productivity system and they have all been useful in accomplishing my brain dumps. As I've learned about productivity, I've progressed through the list and my favorite two tools are Evernote (for personal tasks) and Microsoft OneNote (for work tasks). The reason these two apps are my favorites is because they're part of my larger productivity system.


So a word of caution. Although I've billed brain dumps as a way for dealing with stress and anxiety, unless you have a reliable system for reviewing and acting on your open loops, the relief you'll get will only be temporary. It's great that you're able to get things out of your head, but if all you've done is move your open loops from one space where you do nothing with it, to another space where you do nothing with it, the stress and anxiety will return.

This is why brain dumping is just one technique in the "capture" step of a Getting Things Done productivity system. I encourage you to check out the resources below in learning about holistic systems for productivity.


As always, I end all of my blog posts for other resources I've found or have that will help in learning about the topic of this post. Below are articles and books on brain dumps and the productivity system I use, Getting Things Done.

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