By Marissa Laliberte
As soon as you lie down at night, it’s like your mind goes straight to anything you could possibly stress about. How can you ever get to sleep when all you can think about is how you still need to tell your friend you can’t make it to brunch or how your library book is due tomorrow? It’s natural to jump to stressors when your mind finally has some quiet time to wander, but a racing mind can leave you tossing and turning—the last thing you need when you’re trying to recharge for the next day. Thankfully, scientists just found a possible cure to help you shut down those anxious thoughts and finally get some shut-eye.
Baylor University researchers investigated whether different types of journaling could ease people into sleep. To find out, they had 57 young adults spend five minutes before bed writing either a to-do list for the days ahead or a list of tasks they’d finished over the past few days. The volunteers slept at the lab, where researchers could measure their eye movement and brainwave activity, and weren’t allowed to use their phones or do work after lights-out time.
The results in the Journal of Experimental Psychology confirm that not all pre-sleep writing is created equal. Those who’d made to-do lists before bed were able to fall asleep nine minutes faster than the ones who’d written about past events. The quality of the lists mattered, too; the more tasks and the more specific the to-do lists were, the faster the writers fell asleep. On the flip side, those who wrote long lists of accomplishments took longer to fall asleep than those who’d thought of fewer past activities. (Check out these other 12 habits that ruin your sleep quality.)
The study authors figure writing down future tasks “offloads” the thoughts so you can stop turning them over in your mind. For example, writing down a reminder to send a certain email in the morning means you can stop stressing about whether you’ll remember and what it should say. You’re telling your brain that the task will get done—just not right now. (Here are 13 more tips for when you have insomnia.)
Nine minutes of extra sleep might not sound earth-shattering, but the study authors beg to differ. In fact, the results are actually on par with the extra snooze time you’d get from some prescription sleep meds, says lead author Michael Scullin. “Getting nine extra minutes of sleep every night can actually make a real difference,” Scullin, director of the Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory at Baylor, tells Time.
Taking five minutes to jot down a to-do list is easier and cheaper than other sleep aids, so might as well give it a try. Your calm mind will thank you.
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader’s Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian/Healthy.com.