Research: A “To-Do List” Can Help You Sleep Better

Readers of the SomniSkills Workbook know that pre-sleep “rituals” can have a significant impact on how we sleep.  The chapter on “Sleep Hygiene” describes a variety of recommendations about how to manage the hour or two before going to bed.  One consistent message: winding down before trying to sleep increases your chances of sleeping well.

Being “wound up” mentally is a common cause of troubled sleep.  In Chapter 14, we focus specifically on the role of worry.  Worrying about life’s ongoing demands, especially upcoming tasks, and other troubling events often interferes with a good night’s sleep.  These worries often make falling asleep more difficult.  But sometimes we are so tired that we can fall asleep pretty quickly, only to wake in the middle of the night thinking and worrying.  When that happens, it is much more difficult to fall back to sleep.  Therefore, developing a way to deal with these worries before going to bed should help us sleep better throughout the night.  One SomniSkill technique that can help is Constructive Worry.

The rationale for Constructive Worry is that life’s inevitable problems and demands float around in our mind, just below the surface as we continue with daily activities.  These activities distract us, allowing us to ignore these matters.  For example, you might be concerned about something that happened at work that day.  But if you are busy doing chores after work and then immediately start watching TV, those concerns are going to stay “buried.”  However, once the TV is off and you put your head on the pillow, there are no other distractions.  Those “hidden” concerns are then more likely to pop into your awareness.

To avoid this problem, we recommend putting aside some time before bedtime to simply sit still, without any distractions, with a pen and paper nearby.  Allow any concerns that are below the surface to come to your conscious mind.  Using the Constructive Worry Worksheet, list these concerns and how you plan to deal with them.  See Chapter 14 of the SomniSkills Workbook for more detailed instructions.

Some people might think that this kind of mental activity will be too arousing.  It might seem like just the opposite of winding down.  But if you are already “wound up” mentally, even if it is beneath the surface, then you are better off spending 5 – 10 minutes thinking and planning in a constructive manner BEFORE you start trying to fall sleep.  And as noted in the SomniSkills Workbook, research shows that Constructive Worry benefits sleep.

Another interesting sleep study provides additional support for the same general strategy.  This study examined the effect of completing a “To-Do” list before bedtime.  In many ways, Constructive Worry is like a To-Do list.  Take a look at the sample Constructive Worry Worksheet on page 184 of the SomniSkills Workbook.  It looks a lot like a To-Do list!

This study compared two different pre-sleep strategies: One group of participants spent five minutes writing about the tasks they needed to complete the next few days (To-Do list).  The other group wrote about tasks they had completed the previous few days (Completed list).  The “To-Do list group” fell asleep significantly faster than the “Completed list group.”  This study took place in a sleep lab with physiological measures of sleep, which makes these results even more impressive.

Another especially important finding was that participants who wrote the most items on their To-Do list fell asleep faster than participants who listed fewer items.  This finding suggests that for people with many demands in their lives, a to-do list could be especially beneficial.  It should also encourage you to make sure your To-Do list is as complete as possible.  It is best to include all upcoming tasks, not just the major items.  The more thorough your to-do list is, the more it will help you fall asleep faster.

One final comment.  It is interesting that writing a “To-Do list” helped participants fall asleep better than writing about completed tasks.  Research suggests that writing about completed tasks will have a positive impact on mood and well-being.  The fact that a to-do list had an even greater positive effect on sleep makes the To-Do list even more impressive.

So, don’t put it off any longer!  Get in the habit of making a To-Do list or a Constructive Worry list every night as part of your bedtime ritual!


Scullin MK, Krueger ML, Ballard HK, Pruett N, Bliwise DL. The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2018 Jan;147(1):139-146. doi: 10.1037/xge0000374. Epub 2017 Oct 23. PMID: 29058942; PMCID: PMC5758411.

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