Worry Lists and Brain Dumps

Years ago, I got really into the Getting Things Done method created by David Allen. As with anything designed for productivity, I have tweaked it over time to make it work the best for me and now use my own personal twist of it. I’ve used it with at this point, a dozen different paper, electronic and cloud-based systems but one thing always remains the same. The brain dump. It’s game-changing for those of us with any anxiety. As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, last week I added a new list to the mix, a worry list” and the two combined have had such an impact on my mental state that I felt I had to share.

What is a brain dump? It’s exactly how it sounds. You are taking a few minutes to get all of the thoughts out of your head and recorded in one place. As Allen reminds us in his book (which I highly recommend if any of this interest you), the brain is designed for thinking, not storage. We are constantly walking around trying to use our brains as a filing cabinet and to do list. This makes us both not have room to problem solve and to forget things.

I do a brain dump two ways, depending on my mood. I either grab a piece of paper (I keep small pads of paper and mechanical pencils in every room of my home, my bag, and the car) and jot down whatever I need too, then take that piece of paper and put it in a pile on my desk. Or, I grab my phone and add it to the inbox of Todoist (which was created to compliment the GTD system). There is really no right or wrong here, it’s whatever works for you.

At a later time, (and this is key!) during a review block, I add these to my actual to-lists, the calendar and add tags and prioritize as needed. Note that at all times, if a task takes less than 2 minutes to do, you do it right then and there, stop writing those down. The exception is if you are writing it down to pop up as a recurring task, for example, I need a reminder to tell me to change my razor blade weekly, then you can write down that you need to add that.

This may seem daunting, or a long extra step, but there is not a quicker way to ease off the anxiety throttle than to know that all of the things you need to remember are safely recorded to be dealt with. This is especially useful before bed or at the end of a workday. Remember though that if you never deal with these slips of paper or full inbox, you are not solving the problem but adding to it.

Now for worry lists. I’m new to these, and by no means an expert, so you can google ways to do these. But I basically decided last week when I was spinning out of control, to create a new list in Todoist (Under the Health & Wellness area, seemed fitting) and then wrote down everything I was worried about. Nothing was too big or too small and once I got going it was easy. I was however worried (yes, I was worrying about my worry list) that I was giving power to these items by writing them down, so I brought this up with a psychologist friend. She assured me that it was quite the opposite. Worry lists are commonly suggested in therapy and a great tool. She gave me two tips. One is to allow time to add to the list, to review and worry. This becomes my allotted worry time, basically compartmentalizing it away from the rest of my day or week. Second, is to take action on what is worrying me on the list.

I enjoy specifics, so I asked how to take action on the not so obvious. For example, I am worried about Faye dying (my dog, who is advanced in age), and was curious about what action looks like on that. The actions are the obvious, like to be sure I care for Faye, with Vet check-ups and what not. But also to make sure that every day I reminded myself to be in the present with her and to enjoy the time we do have together. That being thankful for Faye is the best action I can take in that case.

That made sense. As for the more obvious worries, like if something more concrete, like a speeding ticket that has been unpaid for too long. Action in that case is to face it head on and make a call to see what steps need to be taken next and then do them. The worry list is not there to just acknowledge the worries. Like teh brain dump, if you don’t do anything with the things you’ve recorded, it won’t help you or improve your life.

When I reviewed the list a few days later, it was amazing how many of the worries which felt so intense at the time, were now taken care of or forgotten. Oh new things were added, but at least I know that I have time to worry about those later, I can focus on the present for now.

Do you use a worry list and a brain dump or have something that has been a help to your mental state regarding productivity? I’d love to know it! Comment below or email [email protected]

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