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Health and wellness

How to fall asleep faster: writing a to-do list will help you doze off quicker, new research shows

Jotting down tasks can speed up your trip to dreamland, while people who don’t write down all that they have to do before they go to bed, worry more about unfinished tasks and have difficulty going to sleep at night

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 7:46pm

Can writing to-do lists help you fall asleep at night?

The short answer: yes

What keeps you awake until the early hours? If you answered, “Trying to remember what I need to do tomorrow” or, “Worrying about things that need to be done”, read on.

New research from Baylor University in Texas, in the United States, found that people who don’t write to-do lists worry more about unfinished tasks and have difficulty falling asleep at night.

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“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,” says Dr Michael Scullin, director of the university’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory. “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 night-time difficulties with falling asleep.”

The study, which was published in January in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology, was conducted on 57 healthy university students, aged 18 to 30. The subjects were split into two groups, with one group instructed to write a to-do list for the next few days, and the other group, a list of tasks they had completed over the previous few days.

Both groups were given five minutes to make their lists and were instructed to sleep at 10.30pm. As the subjects slept overnight in the controlled sleep laboratory, researchers monitored their electrical brain activity using electrodes. The results revealed that the students who wrote to-do lists fell asleep significantly faster than those who wrote about their completed activities. Interestingly, the more detailed the to-do list, the faster the subjects fell asleep.

“The take-home message from the study is that writing works,” says Scullin, who is also an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience. “Writing might reduce worry because, once they have a list on paper, people don’t feel that they have to rely on their brains to remember what needs to be done.

Another idea is that people are worried about these tasks, but as they begin to write them down, they realise that they will be able to get everything done and will therefore stop worrying about it.”

He says there is another theory, that any task that is unfinished will rest at a heightened level of cognitive activation in your brain. “Perhaps writing down the task is akin to mentally checking off items, thereby reducing cognitive activation.”

Hongkonger Carrie Chan relies on detailed to-do lists to stay on top of her work and personal tasks. She says that her lists are a means for her to clear her mind and “offload” her worries.

“I divide a Post-it note into four quadrants, each one dedicated to specific tasks related to my job, my professional networking, my volunteer work, and my personal aspirations,” says the 42-year-old. “I always aim to accomplish these tasks within 24 to 48 hours. If I don’t manage to complete a task within 48 hours, I’ll move it to the next Post-it note.

“The same goes for tasks I need to follow up on. If something’s a priority, I’ll underline it or draw a star next to it. And, when I complete a task, I’ll cross it off immediately.”

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Chan, who works in property development project management, says that if she didn’t have a to-do list, her mind wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about, or trying to recall, specific, urgent or last-minute tasks. As a result, she would find it impossible to focus on anything else during the day or relax enough to be able to fall asleep at night.

“Before leaving the office at the end of a work day, I’ll write down the tasks that need to be done the next day, and I don’t think about them until I’m back at work the next morning,” she explains. “Just that simple act of writing a list alleviates my anxiety, which in turn makes for a better night’s sleep.”

If your to-do list is made up of big, seemingly insurmountable tasks that make you feel overwhelmed just thinking about them, it might help to break each one up into smaller, more specific goals or tasks that you can easily tackle every day.

Instead of having “clean the flat” as one massive task to complete in one day, you may want to try cleaning just one room every day until your entire flat is clean. This idea is based on what Gestalt psychology calls the Zeigarnik Effect, that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

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Every time you complete a mini-goal, you’ll feel a rush of pleasure and satisfaction, which will motivate you to repeat the process all over again the next day. With less daunting to-dos on your list and a greater desire to see them through, you’ll have less anxiety on the brain and feel more relaxed – just what you need to help you drift off to dreamland.