Study suggests jotting down tasks can
January 11, 2018
a ‘to-do’ list at bedtime may aid in falling asleep, according to a new study.
Research compared sleep patterns of participants who took five minutes to write
down upcoming duties versus participants who chronicled completed activities.
“to-do” list at bedtime may aid in falling asleep, according to a
Baylor University study. Research compared sleep patterns of participants who
took five minutes to write down upcoming duties versus participants who
chronicled completed activities.
“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,” said lead author Michael K.
Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition
Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience. “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.”
Some 40 percent of
American adults report difficulty falling asleep at least a few times each
month, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
The study of 57
university students, conducted in Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition
Laboratory, was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal
of Experimental Psychology.
“There are two
schools of thought about this,” Scullin said. “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.
hypothesis is that writing a to-do list will ‘offload’ those thoughts and
reduce worry,” he said.
While anecdotal evidence
exists that writing a bedtime list can help one fall asleep, the Baylor study
used overnight polysomnography, the “gold standard” of sleep
measurement, Scullin said. With that method, researchers monitor electrical
brain activity using electrodes.
Participants stayed in
the lab on a week night to avoid weekend effects on bedtime and because on a
weekday night, they probably had unfinished tasks to do the next day, Scullin
said. They were divided into two randomly selected groups and given five-minute
writing assignments before retiring. One group was asked to write down
everything they needed to remember to do the next day or over the next few
days; the other to write about tasks completed during the previous few days.
Students were instructed
they could go to bed at 10:30 p.m., and “we had them in a controlled
environment,” Scullin said. “We absolutely restricted any technology,
homework, etc. It was simply lights out after they got into bed.”
Scullin noted that while
the sample size was appropriate for an experimental, laboratory-based
polysomnography study, a larger future study would be of value.
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
The research was
partially funded by a National Institutes of Health grant and the Sleep
Research Society Foundation.
1. Michael K. Scullin,
Madison L. Krueger, Hannah K. Ballard, Natalya Pruett, Donald L. Bliwise. The
effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic
study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists.. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: General, 2018; 147 (1): 139 DOI: 10.1037/xge0000374