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This 5-Minute Trick Can Help You Fall Asleep at Night

Try this simple task before bed to make going to sleep (and staying asleep) less challenging.

a sleep mask on a comforter
Sleep is important, but If your brain keeps you up it can be difficult to get a good night's rest. 
James Martin/CNET

This story is part of Try This, CNET's collection of simple tips to improve your life, fast.

When I was in high school, insomnia made it a struggle to fall asleep at night. It could've been the hormones flooding my body, the all-too-common teenage anxiety or just that I was operating on Pacific Time well before I moved to the West Coast. Whatever the reason, bedtime usually consisted of me lying awake for hours, desperately trying to fall asleep but rarely getting more than four or hours of sleep per night. I could sleep through an earthquake once I finally slept, but when it came to the process of going to sleep, insomnia tormented me. 

It was a torturous, vicious cycle. And because I knew I had trouble falling asleep, I'd grow anxious before it was time for bed. I wasn't alone: Insomnia is estimated to affect almost half the population.

Fortunately, over time, I managed to regain control of my sleep schedule, and on most nights I now fall asleep within 15 minutes. A lot of things in my life have changed since then, but one change in particular had a surprisingly positive effect on my ability to fall asleep: I started writing to-do lists every night before bed. Here's what I do to fall asleep -- and stay asleep each night. I also spoke with a sleep expert for more ideas on how to get a good night's sleep (see below).

And for more tips to make your life easier in general, here's how to pit an avocado so you don't get "avocado hand" and how to stop junk mail.

Try creating a to-do list to fall asleep and stay asleep

When I started making nightly to-do lists, I didn't have any idea it was going to help me sleep -- I just wanted a way to better track my priorities and productivity from day to day. So every night before bed, I would write down three things I wanted to do the next day. I would also note one good thing that happened during the day, no matter how small. The whole process takes me 5 minutes at most.

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I later learned there may be a connection between clearing our minds and falling asleep. According to a study by researchers from Baylor and Emory universities, making a list of upcoming tasks can help you fall asleep faster. 

The Baylor and Emory study looked at people who journaled before bed about completed tasks and activities and compared them with a second group who made a to-do list of things they needed to do over the next day or two before bed. The study showed that writing to-do lists helped people fall asleep significantly faster than writing about completed activities. 

The researchers speculate that writing out to-do lists eases the stress and anxiety about upcoming events that tend to keep people up at night. In short, writing things down can help offload worries from your brain onto the page. 

More ways to get better sleep at night

If you're curious about other ways to get a good night's sleep, I spoke with Dr. Saroja Sripathi, sleep medicine chair for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, for other ideas. She said good sleep is a matter of three factors: the quality of sleep you get, how long you sleep and the timing of your sleep. The best way to maximize all three is to focus on what sleep experts call "sleep hygiene," the behaviors that help you sleep better.

The decisions we make throughout the day -- such as what and when we drink, how much we eat and when we go to bed -- affect our ability to sleep at night. 

If you have trouble falling asleep at night, Sripathi has research-backed recommendations for improving your sleep quality:

  • Stay away from electronic screens for at least half an hour before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed (alcohol might help you fall asleep, but it's likely to decrease the quality of your sleep).
  • Create a consistent routine that helps signal to your body that it's time for sleep.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time each morning.
  • Save your bed for sleep and sex -- keep your reading, snacking and watching to other parts of your home.
  • If you need to wind down at the end of the night, listen to podcasts or guided meditation instead of scrolling through social media or other sites.

If you've tried these techniques and are still having issues sleeping, it might be time to seek professional help. Your doctor can work with you to diagnose and treat any potential issues.

What are the benefits of better sleep?

Getting good and sufficient sleep can be a challenge. For most of us, there's usually more to do than we can fit in a day, and it's tempting to cut time out of the 7-plus hours experts recommend adults sleep every night. But how important is sleep, really?

Sripathi told me that sleep affects more than just how rested you feel the next day. "Our overall physical and emotional well-being is affected by sleep," she said, so it's important to prioritize sleep.

Hearing about the benefits of good sleep made me appreciate just how much influence sleep has on our lives. Here are a few things Sripathi said sleep affects:

  • Our mood: Good sleep improves mood, and people experiencing issues like depression and anxiety typically complain about sleep problems. 
  • Our judgment: Getting better-quality sleep charges our minds and can help us think more clearly so we can make better decisions. We have better judgment and can work faster.
  • Our memory: Calling all college students -- pulling all-nighters while studying is ultimately counterproductive because our brains need to sleep to consolidate what we've learned during the day.
  • Our immune system: Better sleep can help us stay healthy because our bodies scan for illness while we're sleeping. Sleep can even help with heart health, an important factor in avoiding heart disease.
  • Our bodies: For kids, sleep helps with body development. That's why children need more sleep than adults -- as much as 18 hours per day for newborns.

By creating a good sleep environment and building healthy sleep habits, you have a good chance of helping to program your body to sleep better at night. For me, making a to-do list for the next day was a helpful part of that programming, and I've been snoozing much more easily ever since.

For more about sleeping, check out our investigation of the best sleep positions, how to eat for a better night's sleep and tips for fixing a messed-up sleep schedule.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.