From time to time I struggle to fall asleep. Sometimes this is because of something to do with my sleep environment. Maybe it’s too hot or cold, for example. At other times I’ve eaten too much, too late. And now and then it’s because it’s Saturday night and I’ve been reckless and had too much booze and caffeine… again.
However, most of the time my difficulties falling asleep arise from rumination on something related to work. And it turns out that I’m not alone. About 26% of US adults struggle to fall asleep at least a few times each week, and preoccupation with worries may be a key contributor to this difficulty. When we don’t get as much work done as we intend, many of us cogitate about our perceived shortcomings. This deliberation can disrupt sleep, especially among people who expect a lot from themselves.
Now, I’d known that during therapy to help them sleep, people afflicted with insomnia are often advised to write lists of their sleep-related concerns. The premise is that if they do this during the daytime, they can unload their anxiety ahead of sleep the following night. But I hadn’t known that putting pen to paper may enhance the sleep of those of us without sleep disorders. I therefore read recent research on this subject with great interest, and I’m keen to share its findings, since I think you might benefit from this work.
Dear Diary, What Shall I Write About at Bedtime?
Professor Michael Scullin wanted to understand whether writing about either 1) plans for things to do in the coming days or 2) recently completed tasks affects sleep in healthy young adults. He and his colleagues used the gold-standard method to record overnight sleep, and these measurements took place on the first night the participants visited the sleep lab. This is an important detail because during the first night of sleep in a new location people generally sleep worse. This is known as the “first-night effect”, and in such circumstances it’s as if during sleep half of the brain stays on guard against potential threats in the novel environment. So, studying the first night of sleep in the lab is useful to scientists who want to understand the transient bouts of insomnia we all experience every so often.
Back to the study.
Professor Scullin’s team divided participants into two groups:
- At bedtime, one group spent five minutes writing to-do lists for the upcoming few days.
- The other group spent this time writing lists about tasks they had completed over the previous few days.
So, what did the scientists discover?
Want to Fall Asleep Faster? Write a To-Do List!
The scientists’ most important finding is that people who wrote the to-do lists fell asleep faster. Interestingly, people who noted more items on their to-do lists dozed off quicker too.
Your To-Do List
If writing a to-do list at bedtime is practical, inexpensive, and probably has no real downside, why not try the following?
- Get a pen and a piece of paper and spend five minutes writing a to-do list each evening at bedtime. Do so in dim lighting. The more accurately and comprehensively you list your future tasks, the less likely you’ll be to experience the kind of worry about impending tasks that can impair your ability to fall asleep.
This practice is likely to be especially useful if you’re prone to having a busy mind at this time.
The To-Do List Researchers’ To-Do List
This was a well thought-out study. First, since both groups did a writing task, placebo effects were unlikely. Second, the design let the scientists make sure that differences between the groups weren’t because of personality traits.
Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that we don’t know if the same findings would be evident outside of the context of the first night of snoozing in a sleep lab.
What else might we benefit from knowing about?
- Whether bedtime is the best time to write to-do lists.
- Whether it’s better to write about the the next few days or the next day only.
- Whether it’s as effective to make to-do lists using electronic devices. (A potential issue being the effects of the light emitted on our circadian systems and sleep, as discussed in the humanOS course on how to keep our bodies’ clocks on time).
- Whether personality traits modify the effects of making to-do lists on sleep. My intuition is that very laidback people might not benefit from this strategy, for example.
Personally, I don’t follow the exact strategy tested in this study. Instead, I make a to-do list for the next day only using a note-taking app named Workflowy (save the trees and all that), and I usually do so about two hours before bedtime. I don’t have objective data showing whether this has helped my sleep, but I’d bet that it has.
This study reinforces an idea that when put to use can have widespread positive effects on your health and performance: If you seek to better manage stress, the times at which you engage in various activities are critical. (More on this in an upcoming episode of humanOS Radio.) If you must have an important conversation with your spouse, for example, you certainly don’t want to have it shortly before bed if you want to sleep well that night!
Finally, good news: Pro members among you will soon have access to our how-to guide that compiles our most effective tips on how to best prepare for restorative sleep each evening… stay tuned!
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