Tossing and turning all night is the epitome of crappiness. If you've already tried the usual recommendations for heading into Dreamland--for example, turning off electronics, meditating or wearing a sleep mask--it might be time to try one more fix. According to neuroscience, writing out a to-do list before you head to bed might be just what you need to finally drift off.

Why the method works

The ability to get to sleep depends to a large degree on your body's ability to switch from your sympathetic nervous system, which tells you to be alert and physically at the ready, and your parasympathetic nervous system, which tells you to rest and recuperate. Techniques like meditation and deep breathing are often very helpful in facilitating this transition, with physical cues from the body telling your brain you're safe and can take a break.

But stress is a sneaky and dastardly little bugger. As David Spiegel, M.D., director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford School of Medicine, explains, stress activates your body's fight-or-flight response and keeps the sympathetic nervous system engaged. Subsequently, your brain doesn't want to shut down.

For many people, not having a game plan for the next day is part of the stress they experience. "When will I time find for that report?" "What if Joe comes in and gabs at me for half an hour again?" "How can I make my presentation better?" But when you make a to-do list, you force yourself to think about and prioritize everything that is on your plate. Sometimes just having that basic direction can be a relief. But take it one step further. Once you know what the priorities need to be, break them down into the steps you need to take to make them happen or reach your goal. Making your priorities actionable takes some of the uncertainty we all hate out of the future, which helps you feel more confident, capable and secure. With those feelings solid, stress levels stay under control, your sympathetic nervous system backs off and you can relax into sleep.

Based on the above neuroscience and psychology, using a to-do list is not all that different from using a worry journal to vent your frustrations and concerns, a technique that's been proven to reduce stress. But it's distinct because, as Joe Ojile, M.D., founder and CEO of the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis, MO and a board member of the National Sleep Foundation, notes, worry journals don't give you an actionable plan for how to solve whatever problem you're having the way that a to-do list does

How making the to-do list can boost creativity

Writing a to-do list and coming up with action points forces you to make decisions rather quickly. Although it might seem counterintuitive, research indicates that there's good reason to go with your gut in decision-making. Not only is your instinct trustworthy, based on subconscious emotional memory and concepts, but fast decision-making has been shown to lead to more ethical outcomes and better confidence. To-do lists thus are a tool you can use to get past the bottleneck lots of choices sometimes bring to the creative process and overall productivity.

Secondly, when you go from awake to sleeping, your brain wave frequencies slow down. But this doesn't mean your brain isn't working--it merely means that it's in a different mode. Slower brain waves are associated with creative thinking and imagination, so if you finally get more sleep thanks to your to-do lists, you might conjure up innovative concepts and solutions from in your subconscious. Finally getting a good night's rest can improve health and mood, too, leaving you more ready to collaborate, go out on a limb and tackle work issues.

As you give to-do list writing a try, keep in mind, insomnia isn't always related to stress alone. It's always good to talk to your doctor if your sleeplessness has become an ongoing problem, as it can connect to underlying health conditions. Similarly, stress from trauma or similar issues might require help from a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist. When in doubt, always talk it out.

Published on: May 2, 2017
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