How A To-Do List May Help You Fall Asleep Faster

This article originally appeared in Sleep Retailer eNews on March 22, 2018


When struggling to fall asleep at night, people often have a number of tricks up their sleeves - whether they turn to relaxing music, essential oils or prescription pills. But a new research study suggests that the real trick to falling asleep faster may require a pen and pencil. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, writing a to-do list before you go to bed may help you sleep better at night.

Research has previously shown that the act of writing down worries can help people minimize their overall stress levels in general, helping them relax and work more efficiently. Looking to examine if this practice could have a positive effect on sleep as well, psychologists at Baylor University recruited 57 healthy adults, ranging in age from 18 to 30, for a sleep study. Half of the participants were asked to spend five minutes writing down “everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days” — giving them the option of writing out bullet points or paragraphs. The other half of the group was asked to write out a list of tasks they had already accomplished in recent days.

Because the study took place in a lab, the researchers were then able to use polysomnography to track the participants sleep via brain-wave activity, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, breath and eye and leg movements. On average, the people who wrote a to-do list fell asleep nine minutes faster than those who wrote down things they had already accomplished. The people who opted to write their to-do lists in more extensive detail fell asleep 15 minutes faster than everyone else.

From this data, the researchers have theorized that the act of writing down future tasks makes it easier to fall asleep because it lets your brain off the hook. When you’re worried about all of the things you have to do the next day, you tend to cycle through a mental to-do list - which makes it hard to relax enough to fall asleep. By writing out a to-do list, you are reassuring your brain that you won’t forget about any of the tasks - alleviating the stress that keeps people awake at night.

“We think that when people offload everything in their mind that might be hard to remember otherwise, it gives them some relief from that rumination,” says lead author Michael Scullin, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University.

While nine or even 15 minutes of extra shut-eye may not seem life-changing - it does add up over time. And for people looking to make the most of their sleeping hours, the to-do list trick may have other benefits as well. While not backed by scientific research, anecdotal reports have theorized that you can actually train your brain to continue problem solving on a specific task while you sleep. Known as “structured unconscious generative ideation” or more colloquially as “sleep-storming,” the idea is to think about a problem you’re stuck on before you go to sleep—writing down the details along with an “intention” to make the solution clearer. When you wake up in the morning, your brain just might have come up with a few new ideas during the night. So even if you’re just looking to fall asleep faster, the habit of keeping a nighttime to-do list may even help you become a more creative problem-solver as well.

The beauty of this “sleep hack” is that it is both easy and free - which means anyone can try it out. For retailers looking to offer more sleep education tips to their customers, this is a great place to start. A branded “nighttime to-do list notebook” could be a clever way to not only help your customers improve their sleep and get the most out of their new mattress — but it might just keep your store fresh in their mind long beyond the sale as well.

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