If you want to hack your way to better sleep, there’s a simple way you can do it: Write down your to-do list.
No, really: A 2018 study found that people who took five minutes before bed to list the tasks they needed to complete over the next few days fell asleep 37% faster than those who wrote down tasks they completed earlier in the day.
Why? Being able to look ahead confidently at what you’ll accomplish in the coming days appears to eliminate worry.
“The future is one of the things that weighs on our mind more than anything else,” says Michael Scullin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory at Baylor University. “There is this hundred-year-old idea that when a task isn't completed yet, it just rests at this heightened level of activation in your brain. It is hard to shut it off and hard to keep it from popping back into your mind and that disrupts sleep.”
How to Journal for Better Sleep
If you want to put this sleep strategy into practice, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Use a Pen and Paper
“If you can get people to keep a pad of paper by their bed, that is going to force them to put away their devices for a few minutes,” says Scullin.
If you’ve splurged on a pair of blue-light blocking glasses and think you can get away with journaling on your device, know that there is little evidence that suggests they actually have a positive effect on sleep.
Instead, Scullin recommends using a simple notepad or a journal from your favorite stationery company; the key is to get something that you’ll want to use.
Be Thorough and Specific
In Scullin’s study, the participants who wrote longer, more specific to-do lists fell asleep faster than those who were more curt.
It’s possible, say researchers, that this journaling technique helps people unburden their anxieties and concerns — similar to keeping a "worry list,” a practice some cognitive-behavioral therapists recommend for insomnia.
Create a Schedule That Works Best for You
How often you write down your to-do list before bed is up to you.
“I don’t actually do this every single night; I do this on nights I can tell that I need it,” says Scullin. “There is some calibration involved in that — figuring out when you need it and when you don’t — so my recommendation to people is to try it for a few nights and see if it seems to help and if so, keep that pad of paper by your bed.”
Maintain Other Journaling Practices
If you currently keep a different type of journal, you don’t have to abandon it. Just make sure you’re doing it at the right time.
For instance, if you find it helpful to get your anxieties down on paper, that’s great, just consider doing it earlier in the day.
"In my experience, a 'worry journal' is best done after dinner since it can involve bringing up emotional topics, which you do not really want to think about [right] before bed,” says sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D., diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
For bedtime journaling, stick to neutral or happier topics — like what you’re grateful for: Research shows that people who are optimistic also tend to be better sleepers.
Similarly, writing down your to-do list shouldn’t replace a sleep diary — also referred to as a sleep journal — if you’re using the latter to track your nightly routine and sleep quality in order to find a root cause of a sleep problem, like insomnia.
The Bottom Line on Journaling Before Bed
Journaling before bed should help relieve your stress — not contribute to it — so try not to overthink the practice.
“The basics of it are simple,” says Breus. “[It’s about] getting thoughts out of your head so that you can really think through them and process the emotions. Find something that works for you and then stick with it”.
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