If you lie awake at night because your mind won’t stop racing, taking five minutes before bed to write out a to-do list for the next day might help you get more shuteye. In a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, people who wrote down future tasks they wanted to accomplish fell asleep faster than those who wrote about things they’d done that day.
Research has shown that writing down worries, in general, can reduce stress levels and help people perform tasks more efficiently. But psychologists at Baylor University wanted to see if writing down future-focused thoughts, specifically, could help people sleep. To test their theory, they recruited 57 healthy adults, ages 18 to 30, to have their sleep patterns monitored overnight in a lab.
Half of the people were asked to take five minutes to write down, in bullet points or in paragraph form, “everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days,” the study authors write. The other half were asked to write down tasks they’d completed earlier that day and in the previous few days.
Data from the participants’ sleep studies, including eye movement and brain-wave activity, showed that people who wrote to-do lists fell asleep nine minutes faster than those who wrote about completed tasks. What’s more, people who wrote longer and more specific to-do lists fell asleep faster than those who wrote shorter, more general ones.
“We think that when people offload everything in their mind that might be hard to remember otherwise, it gives them some relief from that rumination,” says lead author Michael Scullin, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. He suspects that if people were asked to merely think of a to-do list in their head, they’d have much more trouble falling asleep. “It seems to be the act of writing it out that’s the key ingredient,” he says.
Nine minutes of extra sleep may not seem like a lot, but it’s comparable to the improvement seen in clinical trials for some prescription sleep medications currently on the market, says Scullin. “It’s not insignificant,” he says. “Getting nine extra minutes of sleep every night can actually make a real difference.”
The fact that people who wrote longer to-do lists fell asleep faster was a pleasant surprise, says Scullin. “You might think that people who have busier lives and more things on their plate would lie awake longer thinking about them,” he says. And in fact, they did find that people who wrote longer lists of completed tasks took longer to fall asleep, compared to those who wrote shorter ones.
For the 40% of Americans who have trouble falling asleep at least a few times a month, Scullin says that writing a to-do list is certainly something worth trying. “It’s a quick and low-cost thing you can easily do for a few days to see if it has any benefit for you,” he says. If restless nights continue, he adds, talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist.