Do you ever hit the pillow after a long day, ready to bask in the glory of a good night’s sleep, only to have your to-do list rear its ugly head and remind you of everything you have to do the next day? Arrange the carpool schedule, sort through this month’s finances, proofread that presentation for work — all of it winding you up when you should be winding down.
The bad news? That neverending list is likely preventing you from falling asleep as quickly as you can. The good news? You aren’t alone.
“We as a society are very addicted to productivity,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D, DBSM, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist and researcher at Duke University School of Medicine, and a Sleep Advisor to Sleep.com. “We have very little practice with just resting and activities that aren’t goal oriented.”
That time to let our brains rest, wander, or daydream is necessary for them to function properly. The area of the brain that governs that necessary wandering is referred to as the Default Mode Network (DMN). Many neurologists believe this to be the area of the brain that surfaces memories and gets our creative juices flowing. With the ubiquity of technology and the need to always multi-task, many of us don’t let this process happen often.
“Our days are so busy and crammed we don’t have a chance to let our brain perform that function,” says Dr. Meredith Broderick, a neurologist specializing in sleep medicine and behavioral sleep medicine.
This can be especially challenging for moms. Women are already more likely to suffer from sleep disruptions and insomnia, but moms often carry the mental load not just for themselves, but for the whole family, giving them additional reasons to stay awake. There’s even a nickname for it: Momsomnia.
That could be why, as tired as we may be, when our head hits our pillows at night, thoughts come pouring in. It’s often the only time we’ve let ourselves think all day. And the more we practice this pattern of reviewing our to-dos at night, the more it becomes a habit.
“This is called conditioned arousal,” says Wu.
But we can be unconditioned as well. Once you identify the problem and take steps to fix it, you can usually get back on track relatively quickly.
“It can be extinguished in a week or two,” says Broderick.
How to keep your to-do list from keeping you up at night
There is no one size fits all strategy to stopping that running to-do list, but there are ways we can work towards a less anxious session once we hit the pillow.
1. Practice non-productive being during the day
Sometimes our ability to fall asleep at night has a lot to do with what we do during the day. Mindfulness — the practice of detaching from your thoughts and bringing awareness to the present moment — has been touted as something that will help with better sleep. But if you try to “just be mindful” when you hit the pillow, chances are you’ll be unsuccessful.
“We are often uncomfortable with being alone with our thoughts,” says Broderick, noting that we often fill down-time by tapping away on our gadgets instead of allowing our minds to tend to whatever other thoughts it may want to work through. “For a lot of us, it’s our phone that we are attending to constantly.”
Change this by finding a few minutes throughout the day to be present for yourself. Broderick suggests something as little as having lunch without multitasking. You can also make yourself aware of your present surroundings, including listening to music without multi-tasking, smelling a patch of wildflowers that popped up outside your door, or simply focusing on the way your clothes feel against your fingers as you fold them.
“Let’s not treat this as a project — goal oriented — like a diet or regimen,” Wu reminds us. “Start gradual and small: Even 30 seconds are better than no seconds. This is not something to feel bad about if you can’t do it.”
2. Get out of bed and try again
If you find yourself slipping into mind-race-mode when it should be slowing down, get up and do something else. Wu admits that people often hate this suggestion, but if you can’t fall asleep, it may be best to get out of bed.
“The point isn’t to punish you,” says Wu. “You can go to a comfy chair or watch a show but the whole point is to switch away from the trying-really-hard-to-sleep mode.”
Broderick agrees on using this method as a means of creating a better sleep pattern. “People need to know when they experience this: Get out of bed, notice when they feel drowsy, and go back to bed.”
This will help break the pattern. If you are consistent, you should start seeing results in only a few weeks.
3. Write a to-do list
A 2018 study showed that writing out a very specific to-do list for the next day before bed helped participants fall asleep faster than just journaling about completed activities. Writing down a concrete list can eliminate some of that future worry and rumination that can interrupt the falling-asleep process.
Wu also recommends spending time toward the end of your workday identifying tasks to take care of tonight and listing out those that would be fine to tackle the next day.
“Set time aside to process your thoughts,” she says. “Deliberately allow yourself to take care of what you can and set aside what you can’t.”
Broderick agrees, but emphasizes trying to do this long before bedtime. She suggests putting that to-do list together at lunch, first thing in the morning, or even while you’re showering. Once the to-do list has been created for the day, even when those racing thoughts pop up at night, you’ll be able to reassure yourself that you’re on top of what needs to be done.
4. Check your sleep environment
Everyone is impacted differently by their sleep environment, but general advice calls for a cool, dark, clean, clutter-free space that you use just for sleep.
“When all of those other aspects intrude on that space, your body doesn’t get that signal to switch gears,” says Wu. “Instead, your body gets the signal that all of the hub bub continues.”
All hope is not lost. Those who have difficulty falling asleep can banish those ruminations for good with a few lifestyle changes. The more you incorporate these behaviors into your daily life (in a non-goal-oriented way, of course), the easier it will be to drift off to dreamland.