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The Effects of Bedtime Writing

June 1, 2018

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Michael K. Scullin, PhD and Donald L. Bliwise, PhD

Bedtime worry, including worrying about incomplete future tasks, is a significant contributor to difficulty falling asleep. 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.

Our Study

Our study was comprised of 57 individuals, ages 18-30, who were recruited for a multi-night sleep study. Each participant was randomly assigned to write a to-do list or completed-activities list prior to sleep.

Participants were prescreened for self-reported history of sleep disorders (e.g., insomnia, narcolepsy), psychiatric conditions, neurological disorders, and use of any medications that might alter their sleep architecture. To screen for sleep apnea, we used a nasal pressure transducer, respiratory effort belts, and pulse oximetry.

Overnight polysomnography took place in a sound-attenuated sleep research laboratory. Polysomnography is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a method which “monitors your sleep stages and cycles to identify if or when your sleep patterns are disrupted and why.” All participants were monitored throughout the night via a low-illumination, infrared video system.

Findings

Participants who wrote a to-do list at bedtime fell asleep faster than those who journaled about completed tasks. This find is surprising in light of the evidence that unfinished tasks are a significant source of cognitive activation and worry. However, the key here seems to be that participants wrote their to-do list rather than mentally ruminating about their unfinished tasks. Expressive writing has been demonstrated to reduce anxiety and depression, though its impact on sleep onset latency has been a matter of debate.

In addition to content, quantity of writing was important. There were diverging associations between sleep onset latency and how specific or detailed the individual wrote their to-do list versus completed-activities list. There is some precedent to the idea that to-do list specificity might be beneficial. By contrast, the more specifically participants journaled about completed tasks/activities, the longer it took them to fall asleep.

To the best of our knowledge, the present work constitutes the only sleep and writing study to employ polysomnography, which is considered the gold standard for measuring sleep onset latency. Thus, we can conclude with reasonable confidence that bedtime writing can help some individuals fall asleep, but also that the temporal focus of their writing may be important (i.e., future tasks rather than journaling about completed tasks).

Application

To get the most out of your day, the Sleep Foundation recommends a sleep range of seven to nine hours per night. This number may vary depending upon the person, but this range should be used as a guide to ensure your mind has enough time to recuperate from the daily cognitive load. However, jumping into bed at the end of a long day often isn’t enough—how do we shut down to rest well?

The real estate industry is a fast-paced and highly competitive market, demanding excess amounts of time and attention to make the sale. Everyday stressors can make falling asleep difficult. It becomes easy to let the mind take control and keep from getting adequate rest. To combat this, our study suggests that focusing on future tasks and compiling a to-do list prior to bed can help ease a person into sleep more quickly.

To get started, pick a medium for your to-do list. Don’t overthink it—the medium is about what suits you and makes you most comfortable in your writing. Start easy and keep it simple. For more in-depth tasks, break down the whole into more manageable parts. Stay specific in your writing and include everything that is on your mind. A focused approach to writing your to-do list before bed may help reduce the sleep onset latency. The quicker you get to sleep, the quicker you get the rest needed for the day ahead.

Conclusion

The present experiment highlights bedtime to-do list writing as a potentially beneficial, easily administered, behavioral sleep aid for adults who may not present in a clinical setting. Of course, consideration must be given to whether bedtime writing will be ineffective in some individuals due to health, contextual/environmental, or personality characteristics. Nevertheless, in today’s 24/7 society that emphasizes work productivity, many individuals’ to-do lists are extensive and incur substantial negative affect, anxiety, and rumination. 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.

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Recommended Reading

Scullin, Michael K., Madison L. Krueger, Hannah K. Ballard, Natalya Pruett, Donald L. Bliwise (2018), “The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(1), 139-146.

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Reference

Mayo Clinic Staff (2014), “Polysomnography (Sleep Study),” https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/polysomnography/about/pac-20394877

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About the Authors

Michael K. Scullin, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Director, Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, Baylor University

Dr. Scullin (PhD – Washington University in St. Louis) completed his doctorate in the Behavior, Brain, and Cognition program at Washington University in St. Louis and then a post-doctoral fellowship in the Neurology and Sleep Medicine program at Emory University School of Medicine. He is involved in service committees for the Sleep Research Society and the American Psychological Association and he co-founded the APA journal Translational Issues in Psychological Science. His research has been supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and private foundations.

Donald L. Bliwise, PhD
Professor, Emory University School of Medicine

Dr. Bliwise’s (PhD – University of Chicago) primary areas of research are the description, elucidation of the pathophysiology, of sleep disorders in aged humans, with a special focus on disturbed sleep in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. He has used a wide variety of research approaches, including observational, population-based studies, descriptive, laboratory-based research, and randomized clinical trials involving both ambulatory and institutionalized aged populations. His interests also extend to sleep and sleep disorders as they relate to major geriatric syndromes, including nocturia, falls, frailty, incontinence, renal disease and agitation. Dr. Bliwise’s most recent funding from the National Institute of Neurologic Disease and Stroke (1R01 NS-050595) has focused on the non-motor symptoms of Parkinsonism, with particular emphasis on alterations in the sleep/wake cycle.

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