It sounds counterintuitive, but researchers report that writing a to-do list just before you hit the pillow might send you off to sleep more quickly.
The lab study included 57 university students who took five minutes before going to bed to either write down what they needed to do over the next few days, or to list the tasks they had completed during the previous few days.
Those who made a to-do list fell asleep faster than those who listed tasks they had already completed, according to the Baylor University scientists.
"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 study author Michael Scullin. He is director of Baylor's Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory.
"There are two schools of thought about this. One is that writing about the future would lead to increased worry about unfinished tasks and delay sleep. The alternative hypothesis is that writing a to-do list will 'off-load' those thoughts and reduce worry," Scullin explained in a university news 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," he added.
The researchers had the students stay in the sleep lab on a weeknight, to avoid weekend effects on bedtime. The likelihood of having unfinished tasks was also probably higher on a weeknight, Scullin noted.
One group was asked to write down everything they needed to remember to do, while the other group was asked to write about tasks completed during the previous few days.
All of the students were told they could go to bed at 10:30 p.m. "We absolutely restricted any technology, homework, etc.," Scullin said. "It was simply lights out after they got into bed."
Despite the promising findings, a larger study is still needed to confirm the results, he added.
"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," Scullin said.
Also, "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," he pointed out.
About 40 percent of American adults have trouble falling asleep at least a couple of times a month, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
The study was published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on sleep.
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