Sleeplessness Can Both Cause Anxiety and Be Caused by Anxiety

If you have recurrent difficulty with falling asleep or staying asleep, making a to-do list may help.

The authors of a Baylor University study suggest that not only can anxiety about unfinished tasks affect your sleep, but improving your sleep problem can also help symptoms of anxiety.

The authors’ experiment asked 57 students to spend a night in a sleep lab with no gadgets or distractions. Five minutes prior to an enforced sleep time, one half of the volunteers created a list of things they wanted to do over the upcoming days and the other half recorded tasks that they had completed during the previous few days. The researchers examined the participants’ brain activity during the night and established that those who wrote their to-do lists fell asleep nine minutes sooner on average.

How Ruminating about Unfinished Tasks Can Keep You Awake

The beneficial effects of a humble to-do list on your sleeplessness can be explained by the Zeigarnik Effect, the tendency for interrupted tasks and thoughts to be evoked better than completed tasks.

As I’ve written previously, Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who studied this phenomenon, theorized that incomplete tasks can incite “psychic tension” and can inundate you with a constant stream of reminders. Just the modest act of capturing how you’re going to deal with the unresolved tasks in a to-do list can achieve a sense of completion and respite.

According to Michael Scullin, the lead researcher of the aforementioned Baylor study, “there’s something about the act of writing, physically writing something on paper, that helps us hit the Pause button.”

When you have a task that’s unfinished, it’s on your mind more than any task you have completed. If you test people’s memory for things that were unfinished versus things that were completed, people remember the things that were unfinished a lot better. It seems that unfinished tasks rest at what we call a heightened level of cognitive activation. We think that’s the key ingredient. With our day-to-day lives and work schedule, unfinished tasks pile on one another and create this cognitive activation that’s difficult to set aside—unless, of course, you write about it.

Idea for Impact: Write a to-do List Before Hitting the Sack Every Night

Some folks I know create a ‘brain dump’ just before bedtime—they not only jot down any worries or unfinished tasks from the day, but also create a plan for resolving their worries and stressors.



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