If you’ve got insomnia, you’ve probably heard of “worry lists.” Sleep doctors for years have been urging insomniacs to write our worries down before going to bed, claiming this will relieve anxiety and sleep will come more easily.
Really? Write about looming deadlines and all the upcoming functions I have to prepare for before I go to bed? That’s sure to send my anxiety through the roof! (not to mention keeping me up for hours).
But the idea may not be as counterproductive as it sounds, a new study suggests.
Nighttime Challenges for Insomniacs
No one likes arguments or bad days at work, but experiences like these can be doubly disruptive for people with insomnia. At night these upsetting events cycle over and over in your head, making it hard—sometimes impossible—to sleep.
Likewise, it can be hard to sleep when you’re looking at challenges ahead. Tests to study for, deadlines to meet, presentations to deliver, events to organize, flights to catch—any unfinished business, especially lots of it, can keep you wakeful long into the night.
Could making a to-do list before going to bed relieve anxiety about tasks ahead and enable sleep to come more quickly? The jury is still out concerning insomnia sufferers per se. But a new study of healthy, normal sleepers conducted at Baylor University and Emory University Medical School suggests it might be helpful.
Polysomnography and a Pencil-and-Paper Task
This study—the first part of a larger study—was simple in design. Participants were recruited on campus and screened for various disorders, including sleep disorders. Sixty participants aged 18–30 were chosen (three were later disqualified). They were randomly divided into two groups.
The evening of the study, participants in both groups went to a sleep lab, where technicians prepared them to undergo an overnight sleep study, wiring them up for polysomnography.
After that, participants in one group were given a sheet of paper and told to spend the next five minutes writing down everything they had to do the next day and in the next few days. Participants in the other group were given a sheet of paper and told to spend five minutes writing down everything they’d accomplished that day and in the past few days.
The sheets were then collected. Lights went out at 10:30 p.m., and participants’ cerebral activity was monitored through the night.
To-Do List More Helpful Than List of Accomplishments
The results were all significant:
- Participants who made a to-do list at bedtime fell asleep faster than those who wrote about completed tasks. (On average, the to-do list makers fell asleep in about 16 minutes while the others who listed accomplishments fell asleep in about 25 minutes.)
- Among participants who made the to-do list, the greater the number of items on their list, the faster they fell asleep.
So making a detailed to-do list might actually be a good activity to add to your wind-down routine at night.
Results in Perspective
Other studies suggest these findings aren’t as unusual as they may seem. Researchers studying adults in highly stressful situations, such as having a son or daughter diagnosed with cancer, found that the more specifically parents could map out concrete steps they were going to take to contend with the child’s problem, the less stressed out they felt. Another study showed that first-time pregnant women who could simulate in detail how their labor would go were less worried than women that were less successful in simulating labor.
But back to doctors’ advice about worry lists: It seems to me there’s a difference between a worry list and a to-do list. The one sounds problem focused while the other is focused on solutions—which may make a difference in their effects.
At any rate, if you have insomnia and at night your mind is constantly drifting toward tomorrow and all the things you have to do, try writing down the steps you’re going to take to make things happen before you get in bed. It might relieve your anxiety and slow your busy brain just enough to hasten sleep.