WACO, Texas — Having trouble going to sleep? If you have counted one too many sheep, try writing a to-do list before hitting the sack instead.
A new study conducted at Baylor University set out to discover which bedtime routine nets the most peaceful slumber. Scientists wondered whether thinking about the future before bed might lead people to worry more about their upcoming day, and thus worsen their sleeping habits. Could focusing on achievements from the week create a more restful mindset?
“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,” says lead author Michael K. Scullin, the director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory and an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, in a release. “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.”
Researchers compared the sleep patterns of 57 students in the university lab. Participants were placed randomly in one of two groups. Each group was given a five-minute writing task before going to bed. The first group was asked to prepare a to-do list of things to accomplish over the next few days. The second group was asked to list items they had completed within the last few days.
“There are two schools of thought about this,” explains 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 is that writing a to-do list will ‘offload’ those thoughts and reduce worry,” he says.
Although there has been anecdotal evidence to connect to-do lists with restful sleep, this study added the element of overnight polysomnography to measure electrical brain activity. Researchers call this the “gold standard” in measuring sleep patterns.
Participants slept in the lab on weekday nights when they would most likely have unfinished tasks to deal with the next day. The environment was strictly controlled with an established bedtime of 10:30 p.m. “We absolutely restricted any technology, homework, etc.,” Scullin said. “It was simply lights out after they got into bed.”
Scullin says the study results support the use of to-do lists to fall asleep more easily. He says the sample size was just right for a laboratory study, but he would like to see a large-scale study conducted.
“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,” he says. “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.”
At the end of the day, we might sleep better if we adopted Scarlet’s famous line from “Gone With the Wind”: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
The full study was published in the Jan. 2018 edition of American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology.