Have you ever started to get ready for bed at a decent hour then decided to look at social media for a few minutes first? Then you clean the kitchen a little bit before bed. Maybe even knock out a little of that project you’re working on? Then suddenly you only have four hours to sleep before you have to get up. And with only four hours of sleep, we all know how the next day goes. So why do we do this to ourselves?
Sleep procrastination (or Bedtime procrastination by scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands) is defined as “failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.” Sound hauntingly familiar? It is frustrating when we know that there is nothing stopping us from going to bed! And it’s often not an avoidance of trouble drifting off to sleep.
So what is it that causes us to put off going to bed? Let’s take a look at Ten Factors that contribute to sleep procrastination, then delve into some solutions.
Ten Common Causes of Sleep Procrastination:
- Stress from daily procrastination
- Addiction to social media, email, and news
- Fear of thoughts and feelings leading to avoidance of emotions and thoughts that surface at night
- A habit of putting bedtime off
- A desire to take advantage of nighttime creativity and productivity
- Poor sleep hygiene; no bedtime routine
- Overstimulation close to bedtime. This includes blue light emitted by phones, tablets, and computers
- A desire to get “me time”
- A compulsion to complete tasks
- Avoidance of facing tomorrow
Causes and Solutions for Sleep/Bedtime Procrastination
First of all, let’s remember that true sleep/bedtime procrastination is not a matter of simply avoiding insomnia or difficulty sleeping, although it may be a consideration in some cases.
Stress from daily procrastination
When we put off paying the bills, working on a project or even getting that critical “me time,” we often wind up tacking it on to the end of our day. That is the very definition of sleep procrastination! And we know what happens: We get less sleep, feel groggy the next day and don’t think as clearly as we could, and therefore are less efficient and procrastinate more … leading to more sleep procrastination.
Consider using a daily/weekly calendar that has an area for action plans. Action plans have room for To-do items and target deadlines. When you plan your day to include your to-do list, you are more likely to actually do it. The trick is to remember to check the list and hold yourself accountable. If you use an electronic calendar like iCal or Google Calendar, you can set reminders for tasks. Set your phone up to display those reminders on your lock screen so you see them, and even hear an audible alert.
When you complete a task, reward yourself with something. It can be as small as a piece of chocolate, or a few minutes of just enjoying the scenery of our beautiful city! Certainly, have a bigger reward for yourself at the end of the day when you complete all of your tasks (or most of them). Rewards actually help chemically reward your brain for the successful choices, and this improves the likelihood that you’ll repeat those choices.
Addiction to social media, email, and news
It’s not just the blue light that our devices emit that stimulate our brains. It’s also the excitement we get when we see a response or a ‘like’ to our social media posts, or when we get that email notification that somebody on a dating app likes us. Of course, there’s also the fascination of watching train wrecks in the news. We get caught up in feeling excited when we see politicians embarrass themselves or each other politicians. We revel in when we can prove them wrong. This is all very exciting to the brain and is even rewarded with a dopamine burst in the pleasure center of our brains, which only encourages this habituated behavior.
Plan your social media, etc. time rather than just checking it when you feel like it. Perhaps you reserve the last 5-10 minutes of each hour for social media and news. Using these apps and websites as rewards for successful completion of To-do items is a great idea as well.
Regarding the news, while it is important to stay current on our world, consider finding some positive news sources that report on kindness and success, not just the darker sides of our world. Too much exposure to negativity can bring you down and cause cravings for the very things that slow you down.
Fear of thoughts and feelings
When the lights go out, the TV is off, and the neighborhood isn’t buzzing with children playing, all of those thoughts that are drowned out during the day can come to the forefront. If you haven’t established a mindfulness practice, this can be overwhelming, particularly if those thoughts and feelings are stressful, sad, angry or otherwise “dark.” We all want to avoid pain and suffering, and this is usually a good thing, but when we avoid sleep to avoid natural feelings and thoughts, we actually put ourselves in a position to make those things even worse by not effectively looking at them.
This is very important: While we do not want to obsess on those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings during the day, we do benefit from looking at them … let them have a voice and be heard so we know what we are dealing with and so that we can develop a plan to effectively manage them. This allows our bedtime to be more relaxing and not plagued with distress.
Remember that any kind of discomfort is simply creating a signal that is asking you to change something. Once you make the change, the discomfort lifts. Depending on what the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are, you will be able to decide what kind of changes need to be made in order to relieve them. A counselor can help you identify these solutions if you have any difficulties.
So, acknowledge the source of those stressful thoughts that you may want to avoid at night. Then develop a plan to deal with them.
A habit of putting bedtime off
We are creatures of habit, and habits are by definition familiar … and familiarity implies comfort. So, we get comfortable with the repetition of not going to bed when we are tired. We get comfortable with waiting to get things done until just before bedtime. It becomes an accepted reality. But it shouldn’t be. We need to face the reality of an unhealthy habit, then erase that habit by replacing it with a healthier alternative (like a great sleep hygiene practice!).
Well, seeing as this is basically bedtime procrastination itself, but solely focused on the habituated behavior piece, this entire article is full of solutions! Plan. Cultivate discipline. Cultivate patience for delayed gratification. Practice mindfulness of what works and what doesn’t work. Follow through on plans. Reward successes.
A desire to take advantage of nighttime creativity and productivity
I am at my most creative at night. My musical skills are more on-point. My ability to troubleshoot and think through website issues is more on-point at night. Is it just that I’m a night owl, or is it that there is pressure because things weren’t done earlier in the day? Both. But I can better control what didn’t get done during the day by planning for it.
When we take care of business during the day, we can enjoy those creative juices at night (just not to the point of putting off sleep!).
Enjoy your creativity! Just give be sure you stop when it is time to begin your bedtime routine. This may involve setting a bedtime alarm that signals you that it’s time to turn off your amp, put away your paints, etc. Discipline is the solution here. It’s one thing to set the alarm but something else to actually stop and go to bed.
The same technique holds true for work productivity, but generally speaking, you may need more time to de-stress after doing this kind of work, whereas creativity for many is relaxing in and of itself. So, plan your evening. Consider working backward from your bedtime and look at when your bedtime routine needs to start, when you need to stop the creative activity, when to stop professional projects, etc.
Poor sleep hygiene; no bedtime routine
Now this one is big. When we don’t have a bedtime ritual or routine, our bodies are not harnessing the power of healthy habits. This bedtime routine is part of proper sleep hygiene. When you establish consistency in what you do in preparation for bed, your body is able to notice that you have begun your “unwinding process” before you get into bed. This means that by the time you are in bed, your mind has already wound down and is ready to drift off easier. For me, the first thing I do in my bedtime routine is to brush my teeth, so when I hold my toothbrush, my brain immediately says, “Oh, ok, we must be getting ready for sleep … time to go through the power down process” and lo and behold, by the time I’m in bed, those thoughts that could keep me up are in the background.
Not taking advantage of that routine sets the stage for bedtime procrastination. Further, when you don’t practice other healthy bedtime habits, your mind is likely to stay awake. For example, if at bedtime you are checking Facebook while watching an exciting psycho-horror movie while guzzling down a cup of espresso, you probably aren’t going to have much luck sleeping.
Write down what you need to do in order to prepare for bed. Take note of how long each task takes when you do it in a relaxed way. Common items are brushing your teeth, washing your face, putting on pajamas, folding down sheets, maybe taking a bath or shower, and meditating. But create your own list. Maybe you like to journal for a few minutes, or maybe you like to play a game of solitaire, just put it in the routine, time it, and follow it consistently and in the same order each night.
Overstimulation close to bedtime
This is directly related to addiction to social media, checking email and news. But it also includes watching exciting TV shows, drinking caffeine, and for some, trying to exercise just before bed (although some people find exercise helpful before bed–usually something like yoga or Tai Chi is a safer bet).
When you fire your brain up with bright lights, loud sounds, caffeine, etc. you are sending it a signal that you want to be awake. Clearly, this is going to cause you to go to bed later.
Make a plan to put your electronics down before you begin your bedtime routine. Most people find it helpful to charge their devices in another room rather than in the bedroom where it is too easy to pick up and check social media, the time, etc. If you have a TV in your bedroom, it is a good idea to take it out if you tend to watch TV while in bed. Also, consider having a dimmer switch on lighting in your room; a soft, warm glow that is dimmed down will help you unwind. Clearly, avoid caffeine for several hours before bedtime.
Finally, if you have a clock next to your bed, move it or cover it up. Just get it to where you cannot see it. The bright digital lights can catch your eyes’ attention when you go through a “micro-awakening” where you’re just rolling over or pulling the sheets up … once your eyes focus on the clock, there’s a “wake up” signal that gets processed when you might otherwise go right back to sleep. Double-check that your alarm is set, then get the clock away from where you can see it or easily grab it.
A desire to get “me time”
We all want and need time to just enjoy our hobbies and interests, or enjoy a little time to binge-watch a TV show. When you have kids, run a business of your own, or are otherwise occupied for most of your day, you might feel forced into those “me time” activities before bedtime. And some of these can be just fine. For me, playing the guitar is not an exhilarating thing that fires me up–it is more of a calming meditation, so it’s perfect for part of my bedtime routine. Rebuilding/re-wiring that guitar does fire me up though, so I cannot do it before bed.
I am frequently asked about Late Night talk shows. Here’s the thing, if a little laughter helps you unwind and it doesn’t keep you awake, then it’s fine. But if you find that the TV stimulates your brain (blue light and refresh rate) or that the laughter gets you all fired up, then you should consider recording it and watching it earlier. Most folks say, “that’s just not the same,” in reality though, you will get used to it; in the beginning, it’s just unfamiliar. Getting a full night of sleep is more important than watching a show when “everybody else” is watching it.
A compulsion to complete tasks
You’ve been tasked with a project by your Senior Vice President and you want to get it just right. Your deadline is next Friday at noon. A solid work ethic is admirable! But when it motivates you to push off your bedtime so you can do a grammar check that could wait until tomorrow, it backfires. Once you complete the grammar check you start to see some structural changes that would help, then you think of a great chart to add. Next thing you know, it’s 3:00 a.m. and you have a 7:00 a.m. meeting with that SVP to go over your progress. You have fallen into sleep procrastination due to a compulsive urge to do anything that enters your mind.
Plan your approach to your to-do list, including breaking down your projects into smaller pieces that you can get done before bedtime. Use your discipline to follow through on those micro-projects. Take breaks throughout the day in order to help your brain recover from stress. This will improve efficiency and help you feel less compelled to pull those all-nighters.
Avoidance of facing tomorrow
Going with that same example with your SVP, let’s say that you didn’t do the grammar check, but you know that the SVP is known for being extremely critical and a bit of a loudmouth. And you know that your first line boss is going to pressure you as soon as you walk in the office. And you’re supposed to get some medical test results from the dr. in the morning.
Sometimes when we are anxious about what the next day holds, we attempt to put tomorrow off by avoiding bedtime. It doesn’t work unless you have invented the time machine … in which case, you can quit your job! But our fantasy of avoiding tomorrow isn’t much of a time machine, is it?
So, rather than putting tomorrow off, consider spending some time planning your approach to your meetings and projects. Maybe ask somebody you trust to help you think through your approach. Remember, if you’ve planned your to-do list, you are less likely to be anxious about what tomorrow holds because you followed your list today, and know what to do tomorrow. And even have an action plan for it!
More about healthy “Sleep Hygiene”
It’s a good idea to be aware of what you are doing when you put off going to bed, so take notes. Write down the kinds of things you do when you avoid your restful slumber. Consider jotting down a few notes about any feelings that may accompany or lead to those behaviors. What you will see is a recipe for sleep procrastination. Once you see the problem, identify a better time to do those things, including what time to stop doing them before bedtime. Here’s a recipe for healthy sleep hygiene:
- Consistent “bedtime window” (say, between 9:00 and 10:00 . . . whenever you feel sleepy in that window, begin your bedtime routine)
- Consistent “bedtime routine.” This means do the same routine, in the same order, starting in your “bedtime window” each night (ex. At 9:00: Brush your teeth, wash your face, comb your hair, set your alarm, plugin in your phone, meditate, go to bed . . . in the same order)
- Be sure your room is dark, quiet and comfortable for sleeping
- Don’t lie in bed awake for longer than about 20 minutes. Get up and do something relaxing instead
- Turn off electronics at least thirty minutes before bedtime
- Avoid meals 2-3 hours before bedtime (a light snack is fine). Don’t drink caffeine and alcohol 4 hours before bedtime
- Incorporate meditation practice (3-5 minutes)
- Use bed for sleeping and intimacy only
- Exercise during the day. Maintain a healthy weight
- If you suffer from sleep apnea use your C-pap machine
Learn more about Stress Management Counseling in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.