Writing This One Thing Down at Night Will Help You Sleep, Study Finds

Kali Coleman
·3 mins read

Good sleep is the recipe for good health. However, getting a full night's rest is often easier said than done. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation reports that 55 percent of Americans think that they are not sleeping well enough. So, how can you guarantee a good night's sleep? According to a study, writing this one thing down before bed will actually help you sleep better: a to-do list.

The 2018 study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, set to discover how specific bedtime routines affect our sleep. They found that spending just five minutes writing a to-do list before bed aided in sleep.

"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," Michael K. Scullin, lead study author and 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."

woman working at home and sign business paper. Focus is on hand. Close up. Space for copy.
woman working at home and sign business paper. Focus is on hand. Close up. Space for copy.

The study's researchers observed 57 participants aged 18 to 30 who were all asked to complete a writing assignment for five minutes right before bed. Some were randomly assigned the task of writing a to-do list of unfinished tasks for the next few days, and the others were assigned to write a completed list about the tasks they had finished the days prior. The participants who wrote a to-do list fell asleep significantly faster than those who were tasked in writing a completed list.

Plenty of research has already been done about how stress can affect our sleep, like an American Psychological Association survey where, on average, adults who were less stressed reported sleeping more hours than those with higher reported stress levels. Much of that research is based on the stressors of past events, but the Baylor researchers wanted to know how stress about future events could play a part in sleep disturbance.

"One potential stressor is knowing that one has incomplete tasks, that is, items left on the to-do list. In the cognitive science literature, incomplete tasks are known to remain at a high level of cognitive activation, spurring automatic thoughts about the incomplete task," the study stated. The researchers also noted this was why people find it harder to fall asleep at the beginning of the work week.

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And while many may assume that writing about future unfinished tasks could just result in further worry about those things, it actually proved to do the complete opposite. Physically writing a to-do list down decreased the likelihood that participants would mentally ruminate about these unfinished tasks while trying to fall asleep.

But the study is limited in the participants that were used. After all, none of the participants had prior sleep disorders or other disorders that may play a part in sleep disturbance, as well.

"Measures of personality, anxiety, and depression might moderate the effects of writing on falling asleep, and that could be explored in an investigation with a larger sample," Scullin said. "We recruited healthy young adults, and so we don't know whether our findings would generalize to patients with insomnia, though some writing activities have previously been suggested to benefit such patients." And for more sleep help, Never Put This In Your Body Before Bed If You Want to Sleep, Doctors Say.