At any given moment, I have three or four to-do lists going. Do I need this many? Probably not. Do I add things to the lists that I’ve either already completed or are very close to finishing just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing something off? Absolutely, I do. Well, it turns out this doesn’t just help me keep my scattered thoughts organized. It may also be helping me sleep.
According to new research out of Baylor University, making a to-do list — specifically, before bed — can help contribute to a better night’s sleep. In the study, the researchers looked at the sleep patterns of people who set aside five minutes before they went to bed to write down their upcoming tasks and duties and compared them against other participants, who chronicled the activities they have already completed.
“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,” lead author Dr. Michael K. Scullin, director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, 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.”
The study, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology, took place in a sleep lab, which controlled for elements like technology and light. It had 57 student participants.
So, why is thinking about what you still have to accomplish better than focusing on what you’ve already achieved better for sleep?
“There are two schools of thought about this,” Scullin said in the statement. “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 added. At the conclusion of the study, they found it was the latter.
But can a group of 57 college students really tell us something about our sleep habits? Scullin said that while the sample size was typical for this type of research, a larger-scale study would be helpful.
“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 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.”
So, what do you have to lose? You might as well take five minutes to write out what you need to accomplish tomorrow before going to bed tonight. Even if it doesn’t help your sleep, it’ll still be a useful thing to have in the morning.