4 Ways to Clear Your Head of Unfinished Business Before Bed

By Steve Calechman
March 19, 2021

Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.

Not every project, decision, or conversation can be wrapped up before the end of the day. And often we’ll say we’re going to “sleep on it,” with the hope that time spent not thinking about the issue will give us some much-needed perspective and the ability to come back with a fresh eye. While this is not a hard concept to try, it can sometimes be difficult to execute. The body is willing to call it a night, but the brain keeps working, getting most active when we’re lying in bed, trying—and failing—to go to sleep.

Usually, we take one of two approaches: Wrestle with the thoughts; or, ignore them and hope they go away. Neither is a good plan. Why? “You won’t win,” says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and author of Real Happiness. The mind naturally likes to wander, which means we spend a lot of our time ruminating about the past and contemplating the future. Research has shown that the brain does this about 47 percent of the time, and that it usually leads to unhappiness. Part of the wandering is due to evolution. Worrying and anticipating danger kept our ancestors alive, but that translates to continually turning things over in our minds. “We’re good at mental rehearsals and mental reruns,” says Beth Kurland, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes. That constant churn, researchers say, takes an emotional toll.

Since you’re not going to make thoughts stop, the achievable goal is to treat them like clouds, says Salzberg. Some are fluffy, some are ominous. You notice them, but you let them roll on through. Here are four ways to give temporary closure to unfinished business and become better at calming your head so you can fall asleep.

Allow for Daytime Attention

Your thoughts are like children. The less attention they get, the more they want. The solution is to focus on them well before you want to sleep. That way, “you’re not kicking the worry can down the road until bedtime,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., clinical associate in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. Try writing a to-do list. Anxiety-inducing thoughts tend to be vague and ripe for catastrophizing, but jotting down just one sentence per item downloads your thoughts, giving them form so “you can tell your mind, ‘I won’t forget you,’” Wu says.

Another suggestion is meditation. Take five to 10 minutes during the day to settle into your breath. The goal is not to wipe out thinking, notes Salzberg, but to redirect your mind (since troubling, nagging thoughts will always keep popping in). “Rather than being a sign that the technique is failing, the arrival of new thoughts signals that you’re exercising the letting-go muscle,” she says.

Wind Down Before Turning In

Establishing a nighttime ritual that alerts your brain to begin powering down can be key. There’s no set formula for how much time you need. It just needs to be done, even though it may feel like your brain is resisting the wind-down steps at first. Michael Grandner, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at The University of Arizona, likens it to highway driving. If you keep missing your exit because you’re going too fast, it’s not the car’s fault. You have to adjust; and just like with the car, this requires a tap, not a slam, on the brakes. It could mean reading, listening to music, not watching the news, whatever you deem to be restful. Add dimming the lights 30 to 60 minutes before you want to be in bed into the mix. This helps facilitate melatonin production, encouraging sleep.

Settle into Sack Time

No one expects you to hit the bed with zero stress and fall asleep within seconds. If your unfinished business is still kicking around, concentrate on sensations: the weight and texture of the blanket, your breath rising and falling, how each part of your body feels. This focus brings you out of the past/future loop and into the moment. “Sensations in the body are concrete. It gives us a place to land,” Salzberg says.

Also, keep this in mind: If you can’t go to sleep within 30 minutes, get up and leave the room. By staying and tossing and turning, you’re conditioning an arousal response that the bed and sleep aren’t compatible. “You want to stop feeding it,” Grandner says. Instead, you’re trying to build a new, more comforting association. Stay out of the bedroom for however long you want (about 30 minutes is a standard recommendation), then go back in and see if you can fall asleep.

Take on a Nontaxing Assignment

There’s another option for settling down while in bed. Recite a favorite poem or song lyrics, anything that involves easy recall, minimal thinking, and—most importantly—no analysis. If this helps you drift off in 15 to 20 minutes, it can become part of your regular routine to burn off excess energy. “Let the mind run around in circles, so it can calm down,” Grandner says.

He adds that while the pull can be strong to ruminate in the name of tying up loose ends, remind yourself of a reality of late-night work: It’s often of poor quality, requiring extra time the next day to undo or repair the efforts. This is another place to write yourself a quick note—keep a pad by your bed—to lock in your thoughts and provide reassurance. “It’s handled, and you can say, ‘I’ve done the only useful thing I can do,” says Grandner. “Now, the most useful thing I can do is get some sleep.’”

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