For the millions of people who have trouble falling asleep, a new study suggests adding a simple practice before bed may reduce the time it takes to drift off. It’s not meditation or even journaling per se—it’s writing a list of all the things you need to get done the next day. Writing a to-do list may allow the brain to “dump” all the items it’s trying to keep track of, effectively freeing it to fall asleep.
If you’re one of the many people prone to tossing and turning at night and waking up in the morning after what turned out to be a fitful sleep, there might be a simple, quick way to help you fall asleep faster and get more rest — taking about five minutes before bed to write a to-do list.
As part of a new study detailed this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, a team of psychologists from Baylor University in Texas recruited 57 young adults aged 18 to 30 and monitored their sleep patterns. According to Time, about half of the subjects were given five minutes to write bullet-point or paragraph-form lists for five minutes, documenting everything they needed to do in the coming days. The other participants were asked to write down what they did earlier in the day and in the few days prior.
Basing their results on eye movement, brainwave activity, and other sleep-related factors, the Baylor researchers found that the group that wrote to-do lists for five minutes fell asleep nine minutes faster than those in the group who documented their recently completed tasks. The study also revealed that the participants whose to-do lists included longer, more detailed explanations of their future tasks fell asleep faster than those who briefly summarized their upcoming activities.
In a statement, study lead author and Baylor University assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience Michael Scullin said that people may feel more relieved when they actually write down upcoming tasks and effectively “offload everything in their mind” that they might have a hard time remembering. He added that people also might have a harder time falling asleep if they simply thought of their to-do lists, instead of actually writing them down.
“It seems to be the act of writing it out that’s the key ingredient,” Scullin commented.
Although nine minutes might not sound like much of an improvement in terms of additional sleep, Scullin stressed that this seemingly short period of time is “not insignificant” in the grander scheme of things and that his study yielded results similar to those of clinical trials for certain types of prescription sleep medicine. Still, Scullin was “pleasantly surprised” at the study’s results, as it would normally stand to reason that people with “more things on their plate” would spend more time lying awake and thinking about those things. Interestingly, the study revealed the exact opposite, as the subjects who wrote longer lists of recently completed tasks didn’t fall asleep as quickly as those who wrote shorter lists.
As such, Scullin believes that people who have a hard time falling asleep should try writing to-do lists, albeit with the disclaimer that it may be better to see a medical professional if sleeplessness continues.
“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.”