hot-air-balloonsWhether you call it a “mind sweep”, a “brainstorm” or a “noggin dump”, “it” is a simple exercise designed to clear your mind and capture EVERYTHING that has your (or your group’s) attention. It’s all about putting thoughts and ideas in a place and format that is tangible (on a list, a mind map, an inspiration board, etc.). This activity, in all it’s simplicity, typically has the effect of “unsticking” a person or group from feelings of drowning in overwhelm – freeing us from the “quicksand” of our own running thoughts. Wonderful things happen when our brains are empty. Once we free our minds from the task of holding on to our thoughts and ideas, clarity takes over and resolving problems becomes easier. There are two times / scenarios when a good mind sweep is in order – (1) weekly, during a weekly review of all my personal and professional commitments, and (2) ANY time I need to get “unstuck” about something.

Mind sweeping can take on a variety of styles and formats. This is how I like to characterize and define different types of mind sweeps:

Full Noggin Dump
This is where I sit down with an empty sheet of paper, set a timer for 10 minutes, and just start making a list of items that have my attention – personal or professional, within all of my areas of responsibility, across any of my projects, the grandest of visions, the teeniest of “to do”s. And, if I’m still writing after 10 minutes and I’m not pressed for time, then I keep going. I keep writing as long as the thoughts keep coming.
Running Thoughts Log
This is very similar to the Full Noggin Dump, but it’s a list that I keep by my side and keep adding to throughout the day. When at the office, this is usually a list where I can jot down thoughts or ideas when they come to me, during a Pomodoro, during a meeting, etc. When I need to be focused on something else, but my mind wanders, jotting stuff down on my Running Thoughts Log allows me to get little things off my mind and shift my focus right back to where it needs to be. When I’m (literally) running, I like to have an empty Evernote open on my iPhone where I can jot down ideas that come to me. And, a great trick for insomnia, is to jot down thoughts that keep me up at night on a notepad on the nightstand.
Brainstorm on a Project
David Allen defines “brainstorm” as a mind sweep on a particular theme. Sometimes the best way to get unstuck on a particular project is to brainstorm on that project (by myself or with the project team).
Brainstorm on an Area of Responsibility / Focus
I love to choose one area of responsibility / focus each week during my weekly review and do a specific and detailed brainstorm for that area, using trigger lists for each area that I have developed over time. I rotate through all of my areas of responsibility / focus and then start all over again. At this rate, I typically brainstorm on each area about once per calendar quarter.
Visual Sweep
A visual sweep is a brainstorm of a physical environment or context – a room of a house, for instance. With a capture tool in hand, I scan the environment and write down a list of all of the items that aren’t in the form they need to be permanently, like “Need to order 5 x 7 photo print for empty frame” or “Take items to donation center.” I once heard a GTD coach say that she likes to stand in the middle of a room, start at “12 o’clock” and work her way around that clock, scanning the portion of the environment that represents each “hour”. What a fantastic technique for a visual sweep!
Journaling
Journaling is a mind sweep in narrative form. Especially when it comes to difficult or “icky” topics, I often find that I need to tell a story on paper in order to get clarity about it. Journaling can be an incredible tool for getting unstuck from a situation.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
And, once in a while, after all the day-to-day “ankle biters” have been collected and processed, I find it refreshing to rise above, to lift my thinking to higher horizons and sweep my mind on larger goals, visions, purpose and values and collect those into a tangible format. I have lists set up in my OmniFocus for this very purpose. Some people have a single statement of their purpose and core values, and that is perfectly fine. I, personally, keep individual “Hot Air Balloon” lists for each area of focus and responsibility.

GTD® and Getting Things Done® are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.
The Pomodoro Technique® and Pomodoro™ are registered trademarks of Francesco Cirillo.

HOT AIR BALLOON IMAGE | © Jesse Millan | Flickr Creative Commons

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