Writing a To-Do List Before Bed Could Help You Sleep

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A new bedtime to-do list, courtesy of sleep researchers at Baylor University: 1. Write a to-do list before bed.

2. Go to sleep.

3. Sleep better than all the non-list-writing people you meet tomorrow.

It sounds simple, but there's evidence that it just might work. According to a small study published in the January issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants who took 5 minutes to write out a to-do list before bed fell asleep more quickly than participants who wrote about tasks they had already completed. The key, according to researchers, is in mentally "offloading" responsibilities before bedtime, theoretically freeing the mind for sound sleeping. [How to Sleep Better]

"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," lead author Michael Scullin, director of Baylor's Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, said in a 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."

To test this hypothesis, researchers invited 57 men and women between ages 18 and 30 to spend one weeknight in a controlled sleep lab. The rules were simple: lights out at 10:30 p.m., and no technology, homework or other distractions allowed.

Five minutes before bedtime, each participant was instructed to complete a short writing exercise. Half of the participants wrote about anything they needed to remember to do in the upcoming days, while the other half wrote about tasks they had completed during the previous days. When the exercise was done, participants tucked in for bed. Researchers measured each participant's brain activity overnight using a technique called polysomnography, which records eye movement, muscle activity and other biological changes.

The researchers found that the participants who wrote to-do lists fell asleep an average of 9 minutes faster than those who wrote about already-accomplished tasks.

In fact, "the more specifically participants wrote their to-do list, the faster they subsequently fell asleep," the study authors wrote. "The opposite trend was observed when participants wrote about completed activities."

While 9 minutes may not seem like a lot of extra shut-eye, it's comparable to the improvement seen in clinical trials for some sleep medications, Scullin told Time magazine. A 2006 study similarly found that napping for just 10 minutes sufficiently improved participants' cognitive function and energy.

The authors acknowledged that the new study could be improved by a larger sample size and more data taking each participant's personality and propensity for anxiety into account. Still, the paper's findings are consistent with other published research on the therapeutic power of keeping a journal. Previous studies have observed that expressive writing — writing about emotions and stress for 20 minutes a day — was linked to boosted immune function in patients with illnesses such as asthma, arthritis and HIV/AIDS. Other studies have drawn a line between journaling in times of stress or emotional hardship and stress relief.

So, give writing before bed a try — and hope it's boring enough to put you to sleep.

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.