“Sweet dreams are made of this / who am I to disagree? / I travel the world and the seven seas / everybody’s looking for something.”
Sleep means energy, and energy is precious.
Just ask any new parent, shift worker, or long-haul pilot. In our era of blue-light screens, always-on markets, and time-zone-transcending global demands, the ability to rest deeply and well can seem like a privilege. Yet the effects of sleep deprivation are profound.
Cognitive function degrades rapidly, and one scientific study indicates that after just 24 hours of sleep deprivation, otherwise healthy individuals can begin to exhibit signs of schizophrenia. So if you think your brain will be at its healthy best for tomorrow’s board meeting after lying awake fretting the night before, think again.
Fortunately, sleep medicine has come a long way in understanding what helps and hinders our sleep. As a long-time practitioner and coach of the Getting Things Done® (GTD®) methodology, I was particularly struck by a recent study about the effectiveness of writing a to-do list at night. Because bedtime writing such as journaling had previously been shown to help sleep, the study compared writing about what one had already done during the day with writing about things one still has to do.
The result? Not only was emptying one’s head of actionable future tasks more effective, but the level of specificity with which participants wrote about what remained to be done determined how quickly they were then able to drop off to the land of nod.
To GTD practitioners, this phenomenon should feel familiar. After a similar exercise called the ‘mind sweep’, participants in our GTD seminars often feel a sense of psychological relief. “Isn’t that strange?” GTD creator David Allen sometimes quips, “You haven’t actually done anything.”
Many people make the mistake of believing that productivity is about doing more, faster. Yet with limited hours in each day, the only real way to do this is to work more and sleep less. So, while it’s true that emptying your head isn’t the same thing as doing what’s on that list, the simple act of writing it down can send your brain a “stand down” order from constantly trying to remember what you said you would do.
Getting more specific about what you need to do – how, in what context, by when, with whom – helps convince your brain even more that you’re serious about keeping your commitments. In the GTD methodology, we recognise three distinct stages for getting specific about what needs to be done: capture, clarify, and organise. After that, reviewing this external system as needed to engage in the right activities throughout your day is the ultimate goal, relieving your mind completely of its role as task-keeper and nag.
Freed up from a job it was never good at to begin with, your mind can now do what it does best – including engaging in strategic and creative thinking during the day, and sending you pleasant dreams at night.
Rest well. Be well.