How to use a 'brain dump' or 'master' to-do list in your planner routine


A new blog I discovered called Planner Fun posted about including a 'brain dump' in your planner routine, and I thought – I have one of those, let's talk about how I use mine!

Thank you to our good friends at the Philofaxy blog for sharing my last blog post, and introducing me to the Planner Fun blog via their popular 'Web Finds' post.

I talked a little in my last post – 5 Habits for highly over-ambitious planners (and dreamers) – about how I want to practice more effective goal planning in my Filofax in order to better track achievements.

In this post I want to dive deeper into how I use a 'master to-do list' as my 'brain dump', and how you can use one to help clear your mind of all the noise, and focus in on the important things so you can plan more effectively.

What is a brain dump and why do you need one?

Over time our brains get cluttered up with a backlog of information. With so many different thoughts, feelings and things to remember it can feel overwhelming if you let it all build up. 

Plus, when you're experiencing this kind of brain-overload it can feel impossible to prioritise, and soon everything starts to get on top of you.

This is where a brain dump comes in.

The act of 'dumping' the content of your internal mind onto an external source means you're essentially freeing up space so that you can begin to sort through it all and work things out.

The benefits of using a brain dump

  1. Clear your mind of clutter –  by freeing up mental space you'll reduce stress.
  2. Increase productivity – Getting your ideas out of your head and onto paper will help you focus on what's most important.
  3. Improve organisation – A brain dump is the first step to being more organised, because once everything is externalised, you can go back and group similar ideas together in categories. This will help you to prioritise things.
  4. Enhance your creativity –  There's a good reason people like to start off with a brainstorming session... there are no restraints or limitations, which can lead to new and innovative ideas.
  5. Make better decisions – When you can see all of your options you're able to weigh up the pros and cons of each one. This means you can make more informed and confident decisions.

How to brain dump

People have various methods of 'brain-dumping', in which they regurgitate all of the internal noise and put it somewhere else. 

A board

I used to use an enormous whiteboard to jot stuff down when it occurred to me. It was great for when I wasn't sure if something was important enough to go in my diary or onto a to-do list, but I knew I didn't want to forget about it.

It really helped me to get the stuff out of my brain and onto something BIG that I could see more clearly and process the information over time. 

I also loved that I could just wipe the board clean periodically after taking what I needed from it. It was like giving myself a fresh start.

If you like the idea of having a large brain-dump, you might also consider using ... 

  • a cork board
  • a wall dedicated to post-it notes 
  • or a blackboard.


I have used various members of my family in the past to verbally brain-dump on. I think we all do this naturally to some extent.

Offloading to other people has the added benefit of receiving immediate feedback, but also the limitation of not giving yourself the space to process your own thoughts.

Talking things through with friends is definitely a good way to get all of your feelings out and receive some validation or advice. But just make sure that you take the time to process the information independently too.


A very effective form of brain-dumping is the use of personal journals. Spilling out onto the page without limitations can be a wonderful release of stress, tension, confusion, excitement or any other feeling or emotion.

The best thing about a journal is that nobody else gets to read it, so you can genuinely dump everything out without holding back. This is going to free up so much space in your head.

It's really important to use your journal as a place for self-reflection too though, as this will help you to minimise rumination on anything negative and focus instead on finding productive solutions to problems or things that have happened.

Have a 'master' to-do list in your planner

For anyone who loves lists, having a 'master' to-do list in your planner will help scratch that itch! There is something very satisfying about writing things down in a list. Some of us even enjoy doing it when the lists don't have a functional purpose.

A 'master' to-do list (according to me) is something in-between though. You can jot down anything and everything that comes to mind, but not have to worry about whether or not you ever get to the end of the list and complete all of your tasks. The point of this type of brain dump is for it to be never-ending.

The way I avoid feeling overwhelmed by having a never-ending to-do list, however, is to use mine in a systematic way – which I'm going to share with you next.

How I use a 'master' to-do list as a functional brain dump

My 'master' to-do list is located towards the front on my planner to make me more likely to use it. I also have a handy tab so that it's easy to get to.

It is a simple lined sheet titled: do all the things (I have a few sheets set up ready to go as I anticipate the list will get longer and longer)

I draw one vertical line down the page on one side so there are two columns – one to write the task and the other to mark whether or not I did it.

To use the to-do list I write my tasks continuously down the page as they come to me. I can then refer back to the list (usually on Sundays), assessing what to take from it to transfer over to my current weekly to-do list, which is a sticky note I bought from Muji and goes on my clear 'Today' page marker insert. 

I like these list-style sticky notes because they are also designed to be tabs ...

Once I have transferred a task out from my 'master' to-do list into my weekly one I simply tick it off. I also highlight the whole row so that it's easier to skim through the list and see the things that haven't been ticked off yet.

If, while going through my 'master' to-do list I notice there is a task that I never seem to get round to, and I decide it's not important or relevant anymore, I tick it off with a cross instead of a tick, and I also highlight the whole line.

So when I come to browse through my 'master' to-do list on Sundays, it doesn't matter how many pages long it is, because it's easy to see which tasks still need attention as the rows aren't highlighted.

Once a whole page has been completed, I highlight the vertical column of ticks and crosses. This makes it easier for my brain to pass over that page when seeking new tasks to add to my weekly to-do lists. You might choose to remove the whole sheet instead, but I don't, because I like to use the front and back of the paper,

If you're looking for a smart daily to-do list insert for your Filofax or other planner Crossbow Planner Co on Etsy has some lovely minimalist designs ...

Etsy | Crossbow Planner Co

What kinds of things to add to your brain dump

This is very individual, but if you're starting out with this idea and feel a bit blocked, here are some prompts to get you started ...

  • Everyday domestic tasks – like doing laundry or hoovering
  • Bigger home tasks – like washing bed linen or defrosting the freezer
  • Personal tasks – like deep conditioning your hair or waxing your legs
  • New personal goals – like establishing a new exercise routine or diet
  • New recipes you want to cook – including shopping for ingredients
  • Things you want to add to your planner – like when you get ideas from your fave YouTubers
  • Work related stuff – like new business ideas or projects
  • New hobbies – like things you need to buy or research
  • Kids/pets – like remembering to trim nails, do dog training or plan packed-lunches

Well, I hope this has been fun and useful to read. I'm trying to write and publish one post a week so subscribe to the blog and feel free to leave a comment if you have any ideas for a future post!

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