Research has pinpointed a 5-minute low-tech fix for stress and a better night's sleep

Rachel Grumman Bender
Yahoo Lifestyle
Writing down your to-do list before bed can help you fall asleep faster. (Photo: Getty Images)
Writing down your to-do list before bed can help you fall asleep faster. (Photo: Getty Images)

There’s something about bedtime, when your head hits that pillow, that cues your mind to start scrolling through all of the things you need to do, leaving you stressing out over the growing list of tasks. And that can, understandably, keep you from drifting off into a blissful slumber.

“Think about it. All day long, people are speaking to you, asking you to do things, etc. — when you get in bed it is literally the only time when you have no new stimuli,” Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s the perfect time for all the new thoughts or a review of your day to come flooding in.”

But as it turns out, there’s a quick and easy remedy for this: Spend a mere five minutes jotting down a to-do list before you hit the sack. A new study conducted by researchers at Baylor University and published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that people who pulled together a task list at bedtime had an easier time falling asleep.

In the study, participants were put into two randomly selected groups and given five-minute writing assignments before bed. One group was told to write down the tasks they needed to remember to do the next day or over the next several days, while the second group was asked to write down tasks they had already completed in the past few days. The researchers found that those who focused on their upcoming to-do’s fell asleep significantly faster.

And the more detailed your task list is, the better. According to the researchers: “The more specifically participants wrote their to-do list, the faster they subsequently fell asleep, whereas the opposite trend was observed when participants wrote about completed activities.”

“It’s a matter of getting things out of your head,” Michael K. Scullin, PhD, lead author of the study and director of Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It turns out that writing things down that you’re worried about helps to ‘offload’ them … almost like you’re mentally checking those items off your to-do list. If you just cycle through your list in your head, then that rumination impairs your ability to fall asleep.”

Scullin says that while more research is needed, you likely don’t have to do this every night to reap the benefits of better zzz’s. “My best guess — without any data — is that it will be most effective when people are feeling stressed out,” he says. “But, then again, some of us work in jobs in which we always have a long to-do list, so in that situation maybe it is helpful on a nightly basis.”

Breus notes that the practice echoes a well-documented technique of keeping a “worry journal.” “When writing down your thoughts, if you include solutions, it will begin to lower stress,” he says. “As a solution it may be, ‘I need to call someone to learn more about X,’ or make a quick appointment, etc. These small actions will set in motion potential solutions, which will reduce stress. Also it allows you to get a jump on your to-do list!”

Just try not to reach for your smartphone when it comes to jotting down your list. “I’d recommend writing on paper rather than using your phone,” says Scullin. “The light emitted from our phone decreases melatonin production, makes us feel more alert, and makes it harder to fall asleep.”

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