The problem with sleep is that everybody loves it, but many procrastinate on it.
Procrastination is about something we do not want to do.
Do that homework? Start that article? Commute to the gym? Or just take a walk? These can all be troublesome. It’s only natural to procrastinate on these until perhaps a couple of days before the deadline—if there is one.
But sleep…why not sleep? It’s an interesting phenomenon.
What Is Sleep Procrastination?
I was surprised to find out that sleep procrastination is actually different from bedtime procrastination. Thanks to all the awesome electronic devices we can bring to bed.
Let me explain.
Bedtime is the time we go to bed. Sleep time is, well, for sleep.
You may not commit bedtime procrastination (you go to bed at the time you plan), but you may commit sleep procrastination (you’re on your phone for an hour—while lying in bed—until you finally decide to sleep).
In fact, a study (direct download link here) shows that bedtime may not anymore imply the intention to fall asleep, but the intention to use electronic media, in bed.
Respondents spent a weekly amount of more than 15 hours of media use before bedtime, and more than two hours before going to sleep. The two hours were spent mostly on mobile phones, and the average gap between bedtime and shuteye time was 43 minutes.
We should generally fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes.
The study suggests that those two kinds of procrastination are two distinct behaviors.
Well, I prefer to call it sleep procrastination. It’s just quite sad to learn how all these distractions are affecting our lives, including that hazy part between bedtime and shuteye time. Besides, bedtime is about sleep, and I’m an advocate for going to bed only to sleep.
For the definition, however, let’s adopt these two of bedtime procrastination:
Bedtime procrastination is defined as failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so. (Source)
Bedtime procrastination has been defined as “needlessly and voluntarily delaying going to bed, despite foreseeably being worse off as a result.” (Source, direct download link here)
Some of our everyday tasks can be considered aversive. However, sleep isn’t one of them. In fact, sleep is one of our favorite things to do. Even if we’re not going to bed on time, waking up late the next day is somewhat worth it—we’ll have gotten enough sleep, anyway.
On Lack of Sleep
I don’t want to discuss much on sleep deficiency. You probably know its negative effects already. However, here are some of the latest stats:
- A study by the National Sleep Foundation estimates 48% of American adults use gadgets like tablets or laptops in bed. Studies in other countries show that this is even more prevalent among younger adults.
- More research has shown that nighttime use of technology can have a detrimental effect on abilities to cope with stress, self-esteem and general mental health.
- Without sufficient sleep, we’re less productive at work and our long-term health can suffer.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US says 35% of American adults are not sleeping enough, an increase from 29% ten years ago. This is equivalent to saying 70 million adults are sleeping less than six hours a night.
- This is all leading to an epidemic of people struggling to concentrate or remember things at work.
- Insufficient sleep is implicated in an increased risk of car crashes and industrial accidents.
- Sleep deficiency is linked to a wide range of health problems, from heart disease and obesity to diabetes and depression.
- Sleep deficiency is perhaps the biggest unaddressed public health issue of our time.
Self-regulation and Self-control
Before we go further, I want to talk about procrastination as an issue of self-regulation.
But you might confuse self-regulation with self-control. How do they differ, anyway?
Let’s put it simply this way first: Self-regulation is a trait that’s more on the proactive side, while self-control on the reactive.
Self-regulation is about managing our impulses by managing stress-load and recovery. This means that by self-regulating, we can directly address the things that trigger our impulses and look for ways to transform those impulses into something rather helpful or productive.
Self-control, on the other hand, is about inhibiting strong impulses, usually only when they arise. That means we must have a reserve of self-control enough to keep us calm when shit hits the fan.
Research says self-regulation makes self-control possible, but not the other way around.
“Why are you saying all of this, Ethan?” I’m glad you asked.
Because procrastination is an issue of self-regulation—the proactive trait we can develop. You can say you can’t really depend on your self-control. Self-control is like an end-state such that when nothing’s left of it, there’s no other choice but to succumb to your impulses.
Self-regulation and self-control have quite similar definitions, to be honest, but let’s focus on the former:
Self-regulation is the exerting of control over our “self” to change our responses in an attempt to pursue goals and standards. These responses can be anything from altering our emotional state, regulating thought processes, persisting at a task despite a strong desire to quit, and overriding impulses. The goals and standards can be ideals, morals, norms, performance targets, or expectations of other people. (Source)
The depletion of self-regulatory resources, which I’ll talk about later, has been linked to behavioral problems like overeating, prejudicial responding, inappropriate self-presentation, intellectual underachievement, and impulsive overspending. On the other hand, self-regulation is used for other activities of the executive function like decision making.
Of Owls and Larks
Chronotype is a term used that’s generally defined as a set of preferences for daytime and nighttime activities. It varies from one person to another.
It has two types:
- Later chronotypes or the evening type or “owls”
- Earlier chronotypes or the morning type or “larks”
Interestingly, these two types are different when it comes to bedtime procrastination (and procrastination in general).
For example, a study showed that later chronotype students reported more general procrastination compared to the earlier chronotypes. Another study showed that general behavioral procrastination was significantly related to shorter sleep duration, longer time needed to fall asleep and more extensive use of medication to fall asleep, all of which can be interpreted as signs of circadian misalignment that more likely affects later chronotypes.
There’s also a relationship between sleep preferences and personality. For instance, research shows that morning people tend to be more conscientious, emotionally stable and socially desirable, while evening people tend to be more neurotic and more likely to seek novelty.
But here’s the study that stood out to me. It says sleep procrastination is predominantly due to the biological nature of chronotypes. This means if you’re a late chronotype, the researchers said you pretty much can not solve your sleep procrastination problems because accept it, that’s what you are—you are biologically wired to develop worse sleep habits.
In their defense, another team of researchers commented on the said huge-claims study. Sleep procrastination can not be reduced to a biological issue, they said. Sleep procrastination is a complex thing. The need for self-regulation even shines more in the argument.
So How Do You Deal with Sleep Procrastination?
1. Find the Right Sleep Time For You
I know, not mind-blowing.
But it’s quite a simple formula:
Not procrastinating on sleep = Going to sleep at a healthy time you want
Simple, isn’t it?
You can start with that. You have to have a consistent bedtime for all of this to work. There’s nothing much to be said about that.
2. Your Sleep Window Is Sacred
Sleep window can be defined as the time of the night we start to feel we should finally hit the hay.
It’s different from a person to another, but let’s take this definition, for example: Sleep window, for most of us, starts three hours after sunset, or somewhere in the range of 9:00 P.M. to 11:30 P.M., in local time zones.
I used to violate this in my (young) adult life. (The youth should be given some slack, in my opinion.)
Anyway, take note: We are connected to nature through this sleep window. It’s a comfortable connection we can take advantage of.
When we’re tired but ignore the sleep window and let it pass, a “second wind of energy” comes: our cortisol levels (the stress hormone) shoot up, which causes us to consequently feel “overtired.” The stress drive is now in control that falling asleep becomes harder. The brain becomes more active.
This is the reason why many people complain that they couldn’t sleep even though they’re super-tired. It’s only probably because they let the window pass.
When you feel it has come in the stillness of the night, just follow your biological urge and go to bed. If you need to do something important, do it early in the morning of the next day. You will feel a lot better and be even more productive.
If you take afternoon naps after the 2 P.M. slump, then you know the feeling of simply surrendering to slumber.
Make no excuses. Create some sort of a lulling bedtime routine.
Experts say we need 30 minutes to one hour of pre-sleep preparation to give our minds the chance to unwind from all that has happened in the day. My favorite is reading a book. I tell myself that if I need to sleep for seven and a half (long) hours, I might as well be “passively productive” during “downtimes” like this.
Which brings us to the next point…
3. Anything that Super-stimulates Your Brain Is a Distraction
Paperwork? Take-home assignment? Net surfing? Interesting information overload you don’t need?
They’re all great but, yes, I classify them as distractions—which keep you from the quality sleep you deserve.
In fact, sleep procrastination isn’t about not wanting to sleep. It’s about not wanting to quit other activities.
With the rise of the digital, the bed, which from time immemorial has been of no use but for sleep, is now a place for consuming all of the possibly worthless trivia, and in turn a place for disconnecting with nature (i.e., ignoring the sleep window).
The bed has probably even become the best spot for distractions.
Worrying can also be a form of distraction.
In fact, research says there’s a relationship between insomnia and procrastination. Worrying about things we want to get done before bedtime, according to the researchers, might explain this link. Sleep problems may be an important and overlooked outcome of procrastination, although the researchers clarified that it’s only an issue of association, not of causation.
Be mindful of your thoughts during that muzzy part between bedtime and shuteye time. Leave that worry for tomorrow!
4. Your Self-resources
Studies have shown that bedtime procrastination and self-regulation form a vicious cycle: People low on self-regulation are more likely to delay sleep time and as a consequence, when they are sleep-deprived on the next day, they are more likely to perform worse on self-regulation tasks that involve working memory or decision making.
What’s more, our self-control is generally low at night.
It is speculated, in general, that our self-regulation and self-control resources are depleted at night because we use much of them during the day.
Imagine your self-regulation and self-control resources, which we’ll henceforth call self-resources, as ten pennies in your pocket. Every time you exert an effort of self-regulation or self-control, you throw away a penny (because why not). After you handle ten instances of self-regulation and self-control, your self-resources run out.
And this is the hard and tricky bit: We still need to regulate and control ourselves up until bedtime.
So how do we deal with this?
First, there are self-regulation techniques. A bedtime ritual, for example, or anything else as long as it doesn’t stimulate your senses. If you need to take all of those distractions out of your bedroom, then so be it.
However, I think there’s a better way to guard your self-resources. It’s to kill that urge lying deep inside your brain. It’s bringing all those physical distractions back in your bedroom after realizing that now, they’re not distractions anymore—because you have better, and healthier, things you can do.
You are distracted if and only if you want to be distracted.
Because if you’ve already found what it is you truly want to do with your life, you become too preoccupied with it that distractions become out of the question.
My phone rests on a chair by my bed every night, for the sole purpose of serving as an alarm. The last time I swiftly use that phone is when I set the alarm just a few seconds before going to bed. I continuously develop the habit of reminding myself of the things, and people, that really matter to me. The rest become mere distractions.
There’s a paradox that says the more you stop an urge, the stronger it grows. Removing distractions in your immediate surroundings may only work for a while and urges may come back with greater magnitude.
But what I’m talking about requires some deep reflection and contemplation. Life is too short to keep giving in to unhealthy urges.
And when you have the power to manage those urges, you won’t run out of pennies in your pocket anymore. You will use your self-resources only when you need them, and not for some petty distractions.
5. There’s Still Tomorrow
You perform better—on anything, really—if you take care of yourself.
We try our best just so we can have food on the table, especially if there are people depending on us. Similarly, why not try our best in taking care of ourselves as well? It’s easy to forget that we need a healthy and functioning body so that we can excel on and enjoy even the smallest things in life.
So an assignment is going to be two days late? Is it really worth it when you know you’re literally only a few hours to getting sick?
My priorities used to be shit. I knew what I should do, but my actions didn’t show it. My thoughts were on something else. As a result, I usually felt an emptiness whenever the sun started to set. Days ended and I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment that should have helped me look forward to the following day.
Then I would delay going to bed. I would watch a movie, or even call friends for another night of heavy drinking—just to have a “highlight” of the day that was supposed to be remembered. I would feel horrible the next day, until the weekend came when I would catch up on sleep. A new week would start over.
Perhaps I digress, but you don’t have to finish it all now. If you do, you most probably gave something else a higher priority such that it affected the rest of your better plans. Maybe you should reexamine your priorities. Maybe you simply haven’t defined what you really want yet.
6. Don’t Get Tricked: Sleep Procrastination Is a Mood-regulating Behavior
There are days in which their earlier events cumulatively leave us with a negative energy, which thus gives us unpleasant feelings that last until bedtime.
This is when bedtime procrastination becomes handy—it can give us the temporary comfort and freedom to be in charge, to offset whatever negativity.
And it’s what we must watch out for—that negative affect—or the negative emotions that so crave a mood-regulating counteraction, like sleep procrastination.
Cognitive reappraisal is a technique in which we see stressful and upsetting events as not really that stressful and upsetting. It’s a change in perspective, in other words. And one way we can develop this skill is through self-compassion.
Studies show that cognitive reappraisal and self-compassion work hand in hand. Self-compassionate people assess potential stressors as something they can actually manage, thus the negative emotions that result can also be managed. They do this because they want to help themselves be able to achieve the more important goals—without being too hard on themselves—like a good night’s sleep.
Therefore it’s okay. Most of the time, our worries and fears are just exaggerated in our head.
You know the best methods that may work for you. Don’t mind how others deal with a problem similar to yours. Be kind to yourself. Work on what you know you can do, and let the next steps reveal themselves naturally.
Mindfulness can be a great partner of self-regulation. A study of undergraduate students showed that mindfulness was associated with a range of healthy sleep-regulating behaviors and indicators, including less pre-sleep arousal.
You are in the battle arena with sleep procrastination (self-regulation), while the other you is watching by the benches (mindfulness).
You are fully conscious of the present moment, thus you also gain real-time insights while at work. Through mindfulness you can trace other earlier activities that might be affecting your sleep habits.
8. Speaking of Habits…
Habits are a powerful thing. We automatically do them as a response to a cue and a prerequisite for a reward. Forty percent of what we do are habits. Even amnesiacs can form them.
What does this imply? Knowing that our self-resources tend to run out at night, we can form habits that can overrule whatever impulses that are keeping us up.
Habits are especially helpful if we’re after some huge and long-term goal, or even when life is relatively tough in general. Habits build self-discipline. Habits can save us.
9. Sleep Procrastination Stems from Something Else Bigger
I know this post is about sleep procrastination, but I believe it comes from a bigger problem.
Because if you procrastinate on the more difficult but more important activities like exercise or some project or some parenting technique you should be applying with your growing toddler already, then you most likely will procrastinate on things you think should not even be an issue—like sleep.
A day is a whole period of schedules. It’s the 24 hours of making the best out of it. You schedule your activities—including rests and breaks—so that the next ones aren’t stymied and then later forced on the last hours.
You get to know yourself more because first, you’re either an early or late chronotype; you have a personality that would look for its own means to handle everyday life.
You won’t immediately get what you want—you might need to burn the midnight oil at times—but you won’t procrastinate on sleep if you won’t procrastinate on all the other stuff.
I’ll still say the same thing—make time for every little thing you do, and manage your time well.
For every commitment or activity, there’s always a cost. You can’t do two things at once, unless you don’t want to enjoy them. Within that 24 hours, seven days, months, years, you can make time for anything, but you must be in good health, because what would be the point otherwise?
Review the activities that fill up your day—all of it. Don’t confuse those that take too much time as the more important ones.
Think about It
Sleep procrastination is a great indicator that something must be wrong with our routine. It bugs the brain by injecting it with all sorts of worry or fear of missing out.
While sleep plays a huge part in our wellbeing, it gets neglected for some things we don’t really need.
If you’re having a hard time with some impulses due to the impulse-driven culture created by the advertising gods, then you can start with your sleep habits. Not only will you feel and think better, but other healthy habits, even if unrelated, will also likely follow.
I’m not a fan of the idea that we’re strictly of a chronotype. If you were raised by late chronotypes, their decisions, habits, and idiosyncrasies most probably have conditioned you to believe that, at the core, you’re also a late chronotype. The opposite can also be said for early chronotypes.
Nevertheless, you have the power to change. Or at least temporarily adapt to your perhaps unfavorable circumstances, so that later your preferences can become a reality, which gives you the chance to reach your full potential.
- Kroese, F. M., De Ridder, D. T. D., Evers, C., & Adriaanse, M. A. (2014). Bedtime procrastination: introducing a new area of procrastination. Front. Psychol. 5:611.
- Kühnel, J., Syrek, C. J., & Dreher, A. (2018). Why Don’t You Go to Bed on Time? A Daily Diary Study on the Relationships between Chronotype, Self-Control Resources and the Phenomenon of Bedtime Procrastination. Front. Psychol. 9:77.
- Nauts, S., Kamphorst, B. A., Sutu, A. E., Poortvliet, R., & Anderson, J. H. (2016). Aversive bedtime routines as a precursor to bedtime procrastination (Direct download link here). The European Health Psychologist, 18(2), 80–85.
- Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Twenge, J. M., Schmeichel, B. J., & Tice, D. M. (2006). Decision Fatigue Exhausts Self-Regulatory Resources.