Writing Yourself to Sleep

It may not change the world, may not get you published or make you famous, but writing in a journal every night may be just the trick to get you to sleep at night.

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology shed an interesting light on how the act of writing in a journal for five minutes each night before bed may have a significant impact on how you sleep.

Unclog your brain.

In the study, 57 young adults were divided up into groups to study how their behavior affected how quickly they fell asleep. One group was tasked with writing out a to-do list of things they needed to accomplish over the next day or two. The other group was asked to write a list of tasks they had accomplished that day.

At first, it seems counterintuitive: the group that wrote out a to-do list fell asleep on average 9 minutes faster. But the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. You see, we carry around a constant to-do list in our minds. It swirls all day, and doesn’t really stop just because it’s bedtime. The accomplishment group — the ones who wrote about their completed tasks — they may have temporarily felt some pride in what they did that day, but that didn’t stop their minds from swirling about what needed to happen next.

The to-do list group, on the other hand, was able to let it all go. By writing out those tasks, we’re able to sort of get it off our chests, and out of our heads. It decreases our instinct to ruminate — to think about things over and over — and at the same time decreases our anxiety about those tasks.


Beyond to-do lists.

Journaling is a healthy activity for lots of reasons beyond sleep. If you find writing out to-do lists isn’t quite working for you, don’t give up. This is just one study, and there’s lots more to learn about the subject. There’s clearly a cognitive benefit to writing a journal and allowing your mind to unwind before bed. So here are a few other ideas for journaling to try out:

  • Meditative Journaling
    Write a sentence or short paragraph, then write it 3-5 more times. Then write another sentence and repeat it. Do this for 5 minutes. By focusing your mind, you prevent it from bouncing from one anxious thought to another.
  • Write Out Your Worries
    Don’t let yourself stew. Write out your worries — the things you’re anxious about or distracted by. It won’t solve any of the problems, but, much like the to-do lists, at least you’ll have the chance to get it off your chest.
  • Write Your Goals for Tomorrow
    Beyond the specific to-dos, write out how you’ll accomplish those goals, and how you’ll feel once you do. It’s another step in the process of setting your mind free of the task list and unwinding for the night.

A big deal.

It may seem like a simple thing, but it’s those simple things in life that add up to a big deal. AsPsychologyToday points out, getting to sleep 9 minutes faster is one of those big deals: “That’s an effect size comparable to recent pharmaceutical clinical trials in which people taking sleep aids have fallen asleep nine to 10 minutes faster than usual.”


There is no “try.”

Will any of these things work? It’s up to you, really. But if you’re having trouble sleeping — especially due to anxious and repetitive thoughts — it’s important to explore these types of activities to find what works for you. Because once you find natural and healthful ways to help your body and brain relax and get the sleep it needs, all of you will definitely feel more rested.