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A Symbol System To Organize Your Brain Dumps

Brain dumps. The junk drawer of the journal.

Originally published in Write A Catalyst on Medium.


You can fill a page with ideas, thoughts, to-do’s, and more. Much like a physical junk drawer, it can sit and collect dust. So, how can we use these emptying-of-the-mind sessions to our advantage? How can we make sure we return to our ideas and to-do’s?

A close up of a journal key.

The Key of Signifiers and Symbols

Using a key is a known concept to journalers and bujo-ers.


The bullet journal creator, Ryder Carroll, suggests using only a few signifiers — for example, an asterisk or an exclamation point to mark important tasks.


However, I have a more thorough approach.


While less is more, sometimes we need a way to differentiate between a normal note and an idea. An idea and a blog post topic. A blog post topic and a book we want to read.


Let’s Set The Scene

Before I head straight to the solution, let’s set the scene, shall we?


One day, I started a brain dump spread and had a difficult time differentiating my thoughts and ideas. My scattered thoughts needed to leave my mind and fall to the page to sort through and make sense of them.


I used a simple dash to mark each new thought. Some thoughts related to my blog so I’d draw a small circle with a marker next to it. I had this colour-coding system established and I thought it would be enough.


Surprise! It wasn’t.


To find a specific note I had to scan through all of them.


These brain-dumping sessions, or as I like to call them “Randomness” spreads, were proving more tedious than advantageous. They hindered my journaling practice instead of helping it.


Instead of dropping the spread altogether, I simply needed a new system. So, I ditched Ryder Carroll’s advice and adopted more than two signifiers.


Brainstorming for Brain Dumping

I started a new spread in my journal and began drawing simple symbols.


These symbols needed to do two things, 1) be easily replicated and 2) be easy to remember. (I’m no artist so I wasn’t about to step out of that comfort zone and complicate the process further).


Next, I thought about what my notes contained. The subject matter of my notes. This would determine how many symbols I needed to differentiate my thoughts.


Lastly, I figured out what type of note best matched each symbol.


For example, I use an asterisk or star to mark notes that are important or of priority. I also use an exclamation point to represent ideas and things to remember.

A close-up of a symbol key for a journal.

The Final Key of Symbols

Now, let’s bring it all together.


What symbols did I decide to use?


  • An open book for book titles and authors.

  • A question mark for things I want to research or look up later.

  • A capital B for blog post ideas and topics.

  • A heart for things I like or want to save.

  • An ellipses for journal prompts.

  • A squiggle for poems, story ideas, or story notes.

  • Two upwards pointing chevron lines to record my beliefs and insights. Like this >>, but pointing up.

  • A swirl for recording my dreams.


Final Thoughts

Before I wrap this up, I think it’s important to note (no pun intended) that signifiers are usually written next to the dash of a note. Like so:


! — a cool idea here


For the symbols I described above, I actually use them in place of the dash. Thus, it becomes:


! a cool idea here


I do this mostly to take up less space, but it also helps visually. It makes everything look nicer and easier to read.


All in all, this system has worked well for me. I haven’t felt the need to add more symbols or remove some.


It is also important to say that I don’t always use all the symbols. For example, the swirl for recording my dreams only comes up once in a while when a dream sticks out to me.

It’s a simple, flexible system that’s easy to remember and can be turned into or added to a journal key. The system organizes the junk drawer of my mind while still keeping everything in one place.

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