A Psychologist's Simple Trick To Help You Fall Asleep Faster
Just because your body is in bed doesn't mean your mind is. Come bedtime, lingering thoughts, plans, and worries can add up to an annoying chorus of "Did I remember to lock the door?" "I need to send that email first thing in the morning," and "What am I eating for breakfast tomorrow?"
These repetitive thoughts can make it difficult for people to fall asleep within the 20-minute window that many specialists recommend aiming for. Their suggestion? The next time that stressful thoughts and to-do's are keeping you up, go ahead and write them down.
Why you should make a to-do list before bed.
By writing down your to-do list at night, naturopathic sleep doctor Catherine Darley, N.D., previously told mbg that you're essentially putting your stress to bed. She recommends taking a few minutes to do so about an hour before you'd like to fall asleep.
When we reached out to licensed clinical psychologist Elena Welsh, Ph.D., for her take, she confirmed the mental health benefits of a good-ol' nighttime list. "There is research that jotting [to-do's] down, thus relieving your brain of having to keep track of it them, is associated with longer sleep and better quality of sleep," Welsh says.
The best evidence of this comes from a 2018 study out of Baylor University's Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory. For that research, 57 healthy university students completed a 5-minute writing assignment before having their sleep monitored. They either journaled on tasks they had already completed or wrote about tasks they needed to remember to complete in the next few days.
The students who wrote down future tasks fell asleep significantly faster than those who wrote about previous tasks. And interestingly enough, the more detailed their to-do list, the faster they fell asleep. This caused the study's authors to conclude that "to facilitate falling asleep, individuals may derive benefit from writing a very specific to-do list for 5 min at bedtime rather than journaling about completed activities."
Welsh says this research tracks with what we know about human psychology. "If we have something we want to remember to do, it feels like an open tab in our brain. It's there taking up resources," she explains. By getting it out on paper, we're rinsing out some mental space so the brain can more easily slip into sleep mode.
Once you do, Darley suggests following it up with another calming activity to continue to get your mind off things before bed. You can read a book, do a relaxing meditation, or take a sleep-promoting supplement. (Here are our all-time favorites for improving your zzz's.)*
The bottom line.
If you've never journaled on your to-do list before bed, it might be worth a shot—if not to help keep your schedule on track, then to trick yourself into slipping into sleep a little faster. And if this nightly writing ritual doesn't work for you, there are always morning pages.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.