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For Sleep That Eludes Millions, This To-Do List Offers Hope

New research says making a 5-minute to-do list before bedtime improves sleep.

George Goodwin Kilburne, Wikimedia Commons
Source: George Goodwin Kilburne, Wikimedia Commons

A good night’s sleep eludes many people. In the United States alone, approximately 60 million people require medication for a restful sleep. Researchers tell us that sleep is so important that even losing an hour or two a night can interfere with a person’s judgment and attitude. For people who long for a refreshing sleep, the news from Baylor's Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory offers hope in the simple act of creating a to-do list. "The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists" was reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, (January 2018). Researchers found:

“Bedtime worry, including worrying about incomplete future tasks, is a significant contributor to difficulty falling asleep. Previous research showed that writing about one’s worries can help individuals fall asleep. We investigated whether the temporal focus of bedtime writing—writing a to-do list versus journaling about completed activities—affected sleep onset latency.”

The study participants included 57 “healthy young adults (18–30) [who] completed a writing assignment for 5 minutes prior to overnight polysomnography recording in a controlled sleep laboratory.”

They were assigned to write about what it was they needed to remember to complete a task in the next few days or — since these were randomly assigned — to write about completed tasks of the previous few days. It was found that “Participants in the to-do list condition fell asleep significantly faster than those in the completed-list condition.”

The researchers also suggested that the to-do list should be as specific as possible.

Who needs sleep?

To put the sleep dilemma in perspective consider who it is that needs sleep. Michael Scullin and Donald Bliwise, reporting in Perspectives on Psychological Science in January 2015 conducted an analysis and determined from previously published research that sleep is most important to young people. As people age they may need less sleep.

However, for people in relationships, a small study at the University of California, Berkeley, presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans in January 2013, found that tired couples forget to be grateful. Psychologists Amie Gordon and Serena Chen explored the relationship between lack of sleep and how it affects people’s feelings of gratitude.

Finding a method for a restful night's sleep is important. From a piece that I wrote earlier, here are 7 practical tips:

1. Try our Grandmother’s Rule: Never let the sun set on your anger. It will do wonders to free you from anxiety and, for couples, forgiveness boosts intimacy.

2. When your head hits the pillow, express gratitude for the day and your comfortable bed.

3. Banish all distractions: gadgets, laundry, ironing boards, computers, and especially the TV. Even if you live in a studio, buy a folding screen that protects you from the plugged in world.

4. Take a careful look at your bed. Consider investing in a new mattress pad of feathers or foam.

5. Buy cotton sheets and a good spread or comforter and new pillows.

6. Follow your mother’s advice — make your bed each morning so that it looks inviting.

7. Begin to unwind at least 15 minutes before you are ready for bed from showering to brushing your teeth and putting on comfy pajamas — or even something silky. This might be a good time to start your to-do list.

Here are more tips and an interview with Professor of Neurology, Carl Bazil, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Columbia University Sleep Disorders Center.

Consider adding this exercise to your list. It takes just three minutes a day for 45 days to build a pathway in your brain that helps you see goodness. If you do so, you will find that a certain peace of mind will envelop you.

Copyright 2018 Rita Watson/All Rights Reserved


Scullin, M. K., Krueger, M. L., Ballard, H. K., Pruett, N., & Bliwise, D. L. (2018). 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, 147(1), 139-146.

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