Making to-do lists before bed can help you fall asleep (and solve problems)

The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest reports on a new study that finds that making lists before bed can “help you fall asleep more quickly.”

Before they tried to sleep, half of the participants spent five minutes “writing about everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days”. The others spent the same time writing about any activities they’d completed that day and over the previous few days.

The key finding is that the participants in the to-do list condition fell asleep more quickly. They took about 15 minutes to fall asleep, on average, compared with 25 minutes for those in the “jobs already done” condition. Moreover, among those in the to-do list group, the more thorough and specific their list, the more quickly they fell asleep, which would seem to support a kind of off-loading explanation. Another interpretation is that busier people, who had more to write about, tended to fall asleep more quickly. But this is undermined by the fact that among the jobs-done group, those who wrote in more detail tended to take longer to fall asleep.

I write in REST about the creative benefits of stopping work in mid-sentence. It makes it easier to resume work the next day, and it gives your creative subconscious a chance to work on problems while your conscious self does other things. (John Cleese talks about discovering this when he was first writing comedy; Linus Pauling developed a whole method for solving problems around intentionally thinking about problems before bed.)

And when I’m deep in writing, I will spend a couple minutes before bed making a list of the things to write about the next morning. I’ve never tried to figure out if there’s a correlation between list-making and how well I sleep, but when I’m writing I rarely have trouble falling asleep. So maybe that’s an unintended benefit.

Anyway, while this is an early study, it suggests yet another reason to make brief lists before bed: not only will to help you solve problems faster (and even make progress while you sleep), it’ll help you sleep better.

Here’s the abstract for the article on to-do lists and sleep quality:

Bedtime worry, including worrying about incomplete future tasks, is a significant contributor to difficulty falling asleep. Previous research showed that writing about one’s worries can help individuals fall asleep. We investigated whether the temporal focus of bedtime writing—writing a to-do list versus journaling about completed activities—affected sleep onset latency. Fifty-seven healthy young adults (18–30) completed a writing assignment for 5 min prior to overnight polysomnography recording in a controlled sleep laboratory. They were randomly assigned to write about tasks that they needed to remember to complete the next few days (to-do list) or about tasks they had completed the previous few days (completed list). Participants in the to-do list condition fell asleep significantly faster than those in the completed-list condition. The more specifically participants wrote their to-do list, the faster they subsequently fell asleep, whereas the opposite trend was observed when participants wrote about completed activities. Therefore, to facilitate falling asleep, individuals may derive benefit from writing a very specific to-do list for 5 min at bedtime rather than journaling about completed activities.

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