Researchers say this 5-minute technique could help you fall asleep more quickly

By Christian Jarrett

You’ve had all day to worry, but your brain decides that the moment you rest your weary head upon your pillow is the precise instant it wants to start fretting. The result of course is that you feel wide awake and cannot sleep. Two possible solutions: (1) spend five minutes before lights out writing about everything you have done. This might give you a soothing sense of achievement. Or (2) spend five minutes writing a comprehensive to-do list. This could serve to off-load your worries, or perhaps it will only make them more salient? To find out which is the better strategy, a team led by Michael Scullin at Baylor University invited 57 volunteers to their sleep lab and had half of them try technique 1 and half try technique 2. Their findings are published in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The participants, aged 18 to 30, attended the sleep lab at about 9pm on a weekday night. They filled out questionnaires about their usual sleep habits and underwent basic medical tests. Once in their sound-proofed room and wired up to equipment that uses brain waves to measure sleep objectively, they were told that lights out would be 10.30pm. Before they tried to sleep, half of the participants spent five minutes “writing about everything you have to remember to do tomorrow and over the next few days”. The others spent the same time writing about any activities they’d completed that day and over the previous few days.

The key finding is that the participants in the to-do list condition fell asleep more quickly. They took about 15 minutes to fall asleep, on average, compared with 25 minutes for those in the “jobs already done” condition. Moreover, among those in the to-do list group, the more thorough and specific their list, the more quickly they fell asleep, which would seem to support a kind of off-loading explanation. Another interpretation is that busier people, who had more to write about, tended to fall asleep more quickly. But this is undermined by the fact that among the jobs-done group, those who wrote in more detail tended to take longer to fall asleep.

“Rather than journal about the day’s completed tasks or process tomorrow’s to-do list in one’s mind, the current experiment suggests that individuals spend five minutes near bedtime thoroughly writing a to-do list,” the researchers said.

Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t have a baseline no-intervention control group, so it’s possible that the shorter time-to-sleep of the to-do list writing intervention was actually a reflection of journaling about completed jobs making it harder to fall asleep. Also, note the current sample didn’t have any sleep problems. Scullin and his team say the next step is to conduct a longer-running randomised control trial of the to-do list intervention outside of the sleep lab, with people who do and don’t have sleep-onset insomnia.

The Effects of Bedtime Writing on Difficulty Falling Asleep:
A Polysomnographic Study Comparing To-Do Lists and Completed Activity Lists

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

27 thoughts on “Researchers say this 5-minute technique could help you fall asleep more quickly”

      1. @Wilton Sturges – You need to learn about basic research methods, which were not followed in this study. It’s sham science, pure and simple.

  1. so tired (hah!) of reading about techniques for sleeping: what about some techniques for those of us who fall asleep all too easily anywhere, any time?

  2. I have successfully used a method which is complementary to those described here. I found that I did a lot of thinking during the day about my difficulties in getting to sleep. It included such obvious thoughts as being aware that my fear of not sleeping contributed as an extra worry. or that it was foolish to think about future action when I was impotently in bed. So I sat down during the day and wrote out very speedily several (about a dozen) thoughts that were running around my mind. It was like magic! The moment I felt a possible anxiety coming on I immediately checked it even before I had mentally articulated it. Even just writing this comment wil fortify my resolution. So don’t just think about it, write it down!

  3. I use a similar, but somewhat more complex, technique with my patients with much apparent success. One important addition I’d recommend trying is, for each item, to spell out the details of how and when you plan to accomplish what you need to do, perhaps emphasizing the very next step you’re able and willing to take to move toward resolution of the problem. And working with each item in descending order of how anxiety provoking our stressful it is before listing the next item seems to add benefit, as well.

  4. Re need for non-treatment control group possibly addressed by the previous research and justified by the purpose as comparing 2 techniques ? –
    The abstract indicates that “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”

Comments are closed.