A new study brings good news for those of us who can’t make it through a day without making lists, especially if we also happen to have trouble falling asleep at night. It turns out that to-do lists may be the answer to some of our troubles, at least.

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Can writing a to-do list before bed help us to fall asleep quicker?

Do you like lists? Do you spend half an hour each morning writing down your tasks for the day ahead in bullet-points? Do you sometimes have trouble falling asleep at night?

If your answer to all of those is “yes,” then I have good news for you. You may be able to achieve that sweet night’s sleep much faster if you start writing your to-do lists just before bed, instead of first thing in the morning.

Recently, Michael K. Scullin and other researchers from Baylor University in Waco, TX, set out to investigate whether writing down all the tasks that we have to finish over the next day or two could help us to achieve a more peaceful state of mind, conducive to falling asleep more easily.

“We live in a 24/7 culture,” Scullin says, “in which our to-do lists seem to be constantly growing and causing us to worry about unfinished tasks at bedtime.”

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 night-time difficulties with falling asleep.”

Michael K. Scullin

The researchers’ findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Scullin and his team recruited 57 university students aged between 18 and 30 to participate in their study. The volunteers were split into two groups: those who dedicated 5 minutes before going to bed to writing down to-do lists with their tasks to complete the next day (or in the next few days), and those who used that time to list already completed activities.

This comparison, the researchers explain, was born from the existence of two distinct perspectives as to which approach is most likely to help people lower their stress levels before bedtime.

“There are two schools of thought about this,” says Scullin. “One is that writing about the future would lead to increased worry about unfinished tasks and delay sleep, while journaling about completed activities should not trigger worry.”

“The alternative hypothesis,” he adds, “is that writing a to-do list will ‘offload’ those thoughts and reduce worry.”

To monitor the participants’ brain activity at bedtime, the team used polysomnography, which is a test that records multiple sleep-related physiological parameters. Electrical brain activity, for instance, is monitored through electrodes attached to the scalp.

The participants were asked to go to bed at 10:30 p.m. “in a controlled environment,” where, Scullin explains, “[w]e absolutely restricted any technology, homework, etc. It was simply lights out after they got into bed.”

The experiment confirmed the working hypothesis that writing down a to-do list enumerating outstanding tasks helped the participants who engaged in this exercise to fall asleep more quickly.

The same was not true for their counterparts, who listed tasks that they had completed that day or in the previous days.

Although Scullin and team got the confirmation that they wanted in their study, they warn that the small participant sample size does not lend itself well to broader conclusions and advise that the experiment’s findings should be duplicated in a larger study.

“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,” explains Scullin.

He adds, “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.”

But in the meantime, we might do well to grab our journals at bedtime and start to organize tomorrow’s activities. I, for one, will be more than happy to do that if it will prevent me from obsessing over upcoming deadlines and allow me to catch an extra hour of sleep.