If you have trouble falling asleep from time to time, you’re not alone. Forty percent of American adults report that they struggle to drift off to sleep at least several times a month.
Many factors can contribute to keeping us awake at night, but among the most common ones, according to research, are worry and rumination. And high on the list of things we tend to ruminate about at bedtime are the tasks we’ve left unfinished — our seemingly endless “to-do” list.
Work-related tasks often top that list. Indeed, research has found that difficulty falling asleep is most common early in the work week.
So, how do we stop ruminating at night about all the things we need to get done? A recent study suggests the answer may lie, at least for some people, in taking a simple but rather counterintuitive action: Write down your to-do list before you get into bed.
Spending just five minutes before bedtime creating a written accounting of yet-to-be-completed tasks appears to help people fall asleep faster, the study found.
“We live in a 24/7 culture in which our to-do lists seem to be constantly growing and causing us to worry about unfinished tasks at bedtime,” said lead author Michael K. Scullin, a sleep psychologist and neuroscientist at Baylor University, in a released statement. “Most people just cycle through their to-do lists in their heads, and so we wanted to explore whether the act of writing them down could counteract nighttime difficulties with falling asleep.”
How the study was done
For their study, Scullin and his colleagues brought 57 young adults, aged 18 to 30, into a sleep lab. The participants were randomly assigned into one of two groups. One group was given the following instructions:
We’d like for you to spend the next five minutes writing down everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days. You can write these in paragraph form or in bullet points. Use all five minutes to think and write about tasks you have to complete tomorrow and in the near future, even if few are coming to you.
The other group was given similar instructions, except they were asked to write down tasks they had recently completed. All the participants used pen and paper to create their lists. Once the list was finished, the lights in the sleep lab were turned off (at 10:30 p.m.).
“We had them in a controlled environment,” Scullin said. “We absolutely restricted any technology, homework, etc. It was simply lights out after they got into bed.”
The students were hooked up throughout the night to a machine that measured their eye movement and brain-wave activity, as well as other biological activities. This type of sleep test — known as polysomnography — is considered, as the researchers note in their paper, “the gold standard” for pinpointing exactly when someone falls asleep.
The study found that the people who wrote the to-do lists fell asleep an average of nine minutes faster than those who wrote about completed tasks. Furthermore, the people whose to-do lists were longer and more specific fell asleep faster than those whose lists were shorter and more general.
“This finding is surprising in light of the evidence that unfinished tasks are a significant source of cognitive activation and worry,” Scullin and his colleagues write. “The key here seems to be that people wrote their to-do list rather than mentally ruminated about their unfinished tasks.”
Limitations and implications
This study comes with all sorts of caveats. To begin with, it’s a very small study, and the participants were all young healthy college students. It’s not at all clear that the findings would be similar in a larger, more diverse group of people — or in a real-world setting (at home) rather than in a sleep lab. Nor is it known if the findings can be generalized to people with insomnia.
As Scullin also notes, “”Measures of personality, anxiety and depression might moderate the effects of writing on falling asleep” — issues that would need to be explored in a larger study.
Still, the study’s findings support other research that has shown that journaling about worries at any time of the day can help reduce stress and anxiety.
So, if you find yourself having difficulty falling asleep because you’re ruminating about all the unfinished tasks facing you in the morning, you might want to spend a few minutes before bedtime writing up that list.
Just don’t do it on your electronic tablet, smartphone or computer. Other research has shown that accessing those devices shortly before bedtime hinders our ability to fall asleep.
FMI: The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, but the full study is behind a paywall.