Think about all the things swirling around in your head right now—groceries you need to get, an email you need to respond to, dry cleaning to pick up or drop off, a hostess gift for the party you’re invited to this weekend. Your brain is absolutely CLUTTERED with items, some minor, some major, but all of them taking up space and vying for your attention. On top of that, you carry the stress of possibly forgetting something important.
I try to do a brain dump at least once a week. I take a pad of paper and a pen and sit for 15 minutes or so and just dump every stray thought out of my head. (You can use whatever works for you as long as it’s written down somewhere.) There’s no particular order when I do the initial brain dump. Do I get everything? Nope. But I get most things and I can always add something I remember later to the list.
Then I go through the list and categorize it: client work, my business work, my personal writing, personal life. Your categories may vary. You can take different colored highlighters if you like and color code your categories. I tend to just put the category in the margin.
From there, I set up a page for each category. This is the point where I usually open up a Word doc on my laptop. I type in all the items for each category and I’ll add a short line next to each item so I can check it off upon completion. (Yes, I am one of those people who loves to check things off or cross something off a list.) Putting it into Word means I can move things around to create a more logical order and even add sub-tasks to a task if necessary.
I actually print out my list for the week. You can keep yours on your laptop (or phone) if that works for you. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that you got all that stuff OUT of your head and into a place where you won’t lose it or forget about it. You’ve just taken a mental load off.
Brain Dump for Books
I start my books with a brain dump. The dump is everything I want to put into the book I’m working on—that I can think of at the moment. I will add things as I go along, of course. Sometimes I uncover things in the research or someone asks a question I hadn’t considered and it’s one that should be answered. Some items may be a quote that I can use at the top of a chapter to create a theme or to illustrate a point. Some items may be a simple phrase or a note to myself: “How does this relate to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?” They all have the potential to be a jumping off point for deeper discussion. This is just the initial brain dump that helps me get a feel for the scope of a book.
From that initial dump, I categorize each item. A lot of items under one category tells me I have a chapter, maybe two. A stray item might become a break-out box or may never be used in the book.
For non-fiction books, I usually have anywhere from ten to fifteen categories which become my chapters. The individual items can become chapter subtopics or just paragraphs within a subtopic. But having them written down is the first step towards organizing your material.
What if you do a brain dump for your book and you run out of ideas about ten items in? My first thought is you might not have a book. Maybe it’s a blog post or article. If you feel confident that the topic can be expanded, then it’s time to do some research. Start by taking a look on Amazon or go to Barnes and Noble to find other books on your topic. If there aren’t any books on your topic, there may not be enough of a market for it. Another good indicator is whether or not there are any magazines being published on the topic. Several monthly magazines on a topic indicate there’s solid interest. No magazines tells you there’s no market.
If there’s a market, pretend you know absolutely nothing about your topic. What would a rank beginner need to know? What were some of the things that surprised you about the topic? Move on to a Google search and a quick look at Wikipedia for background. Then go onto the “ask” sites like Quora and type in your topic. What questions are people asking? What do they want to know?
Use these to spark other ideas and topics and add to your list. If your list is not as long as you had hoped it would be, but you know your information is solid, have the confidence to write a short book. It’s better to write a short book with solid content than to add fluff to pad it out. Time is at a premium for most people these days. In the nonfiction realm, people want their information in a “grab and go” style.
Add the Brain Dump to Your Organization Arsenal
Whether you are organizing your day, week, or next book, a brain dump frees up your brain to move forward. It helps you organize your thoughts and gives you a place to put additional thoughts. I advise all my clients to start their books with a brain dump. And I have seen the value of weekly brain dump in my own life. Give it a try.