A To-Do List May Help You Fall Asleep

Last updated: November 2018

As cancer survivors, many of us have experienced fatigue. I have also experienced insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep. A good night’s sleep is important to promote rest and help allow us to get through the activities of daily living and cope with our side effects. I have talked before about how sometimes I find that my mind is like a video camera, replaying events and worries that interfere with my ability to sleep. It can often be hard to shut off this video camera in my mind and get some rest.

Studying worry and the science of journaling

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology identified worry as a significant factor that contributes to trouble falling asleep.1 Prior research showed that writing one’s worries can help promote sleep. This study investigated whether writing a to-do list at bedtime versus journaling about completed activities would affect sleep and the ability to fall asleep.

The participants included 57 healthy, young adults who were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Each group participated in a writing assignment for five minutes before going to sleep while being recorded overnight in a sleep lab. This type of test is called a polysomnography study, or sleep study. One group wrote about tasks they had finished in the days before the study. The other group wrote about things that they needed to do over the next few days. The study found that the group who wrote the to-do list fell asleep significantly faster than those who journaled about activities that they have completed in the past.1

This study made perfect sense to me. By writing the tasks or activities that are on your mind, I think a person can feel relief and then begin to relax and sleep. I have used journaling of the day’s activities as a strategy to unwind and try to relax. It has helped me reduce my worries as a cancer survivor and to share my story with others, which I hope helps them to cope with their worries and fears while dealing with blood cancer.

Testing out writing a to-do list before bed

Although the study didn't specifically look at cancer patients, it made me wonder if writing a to-do list right before bed might help me to get to sleep faster and spend less time analyzing the worry associated with my blood cancer. After reading this study, I tried the suggested intervention. While I try to fall asleep, I often think about what must be done the next day and really struggle with relaxing. I have even found myself mentally writing emails that need to be sent the next day. So, prior to retiring to bed one night, I thought about tasks that needed to be done in the next few days and completed a comprehensive to-do list, writing all of the things that needed to get done in the coming days. It worked! I fell asleep more quickly and felt more relaxed since I had committed things to paper, seemingly removing them from the forefront of my mind. The next morning, I could address the written to-do list that had interfered less with my ability to sleep.

Getting a good night's sleep is incredibly important throughout cancer treatment and beyond. To facilitate falling asleep and coping with worry, writing a very specific to-do list before bedtime might help to get you to sleep faster. Have any of my fellow cancer survivors tried this strategy or experienced insomnia due to worrying?

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