This Is Why You Can’t Get To Bed On Time

And how to change, if you want to

I have an acquaintance. She’s a parent of elementary aged kids. She has a full time job. She has many friends that she enjoys spending time with when she can, and she enjoys working out in the morning.

And she’s exhausted all the time. Beyond exhausted.

And yet, as she explained to me before the start of my 2nd grader’s class play, she cannot get to bed at a reasonable hour every night. She truly wants to. She knows that a reasonable bedtime will make her entire life better, more manageable. But she can’t do it.

She starts each day with the best of intentions. Tonight I am going to get into bed by 10:30pm. This time, I mean it. But then evening rolls around. She managed her small team all day, she dealt with her demanding boss. She got home in time to make dinner for her family. She helped her older son with his homework. And then the kids went to bed. And once again she decided that evening is her time. Or, that she has too much stuff to catch up on after a busy day — bills, reading, life. Or, she deserves time to sit on the couch and watch Netflix after all the stuff that she has to deal with all day.

And then she regrets that time, every single morning.

I hear from adults who struggle with the conflict of getting to bed “at a reasonable hour” often. From friends, clients, even some family members. People who desperately want to go to bed and get more sleep. People who want to create a morning routine for themselves, if they could find more time in the morning. But they can’t, because they go to bed hours later than they would like. Night after night.

Given how many people have mentioned this issue to me, I wanted to understand it better. I wondered if there was a scientific explanation or recommendation. So, I did what I often do — I went into research mode. And I found out that it is a newly described scientific phenomenon.

Scientists Call It Bedtime Procrastination

In 2014, scientists first described this phenomenon as Bedtime Procrastination. Kroese et al. wrote that procrastination is traditionally when people put off academic or work related tasks. But that procrastination now happens with health related activities as well.

Bedtime Procrastination is interesting and different from other kinds of procrastination because:

…while procrastination typically involves voluntarily delaying aversive tasks (Steel, 2007), going to bed is generally not considered aversive. Instead, we speculate that it is not so much a matter of not wanting to sleep, but rather of not wanting to quit other activities.

They had a theory behind this behavior. We try to resist temptations all day. Things like smoking, eating food that isn’t good for us, that extra coffee in the afternoon, or yelling at our kids. But by bedtime, we’ve used up all our self control for the day. So, we are at our weakest point right before bed. And the temptation to watch Netflix and sit on the couch is too great. The well of self control has run dry. And then the next morning, when our stores are full again, we regret it.

Three Different Reasons You Don’t Go To Bed Earlier

A more recent study came out in 2018 from Nauts et al.on this topic. They broke down with more detail the different reasons that people put off going to bed. Even if they realize that they will suffer as a result.

Deliberate procrastination is the most common. Either you are doing chores and catching up on life. Or, you believe you deserve the time to yourself. 94% of people in this (small) study mentioned that this was a factor for them.

Mindless procrastination can often overlap with deliberate procrastination. You want to play one more video game, or check the news online. And you completely lose track of time. So, you still intend to go to bed at a reasonable hour, but the time slips away.

A strategic delay happens because you are concerned that you’ll go to bed and then not be able to go to sleep. Scientists don’t qualify this as procrastination. This is more related to what they call your chronotype (if you’re an early riser or a night owl.) And that is a whole other area of study.

So, the problem has a name. Scientists love to dig deep to understand the problem. But from a more practical perspective, what is the solution?

Three Tools To Use To Try To Get To Bed At An Earlier Hour

These are some tools to use, depending upon the kind of bedtime procrastination that you experience. Ways to inch closer to an earlier bedtime and feel more rested each day.

If-then plans

The first underlying reason is that your self control is completely used up by the end of the day. If that resonates with you, if-then plans are a great option. These have been studied extensively (particularly by Peter Gollwitzer at NYU) and are proven to work.

The idea is to create a specific plan ahead of time about bedtime. When you still have some cognitive resources left. And the plan isn’t to “go to bed at a reasonable hour.” It’s specific for your trigger. I will pay three bills and then go to bed. Or, I will watch one episode of Game Of Thrones and when it is over, I will go to bed. You think, in advance, about what keeps you up longer than you would like. And you plan, in advance, for what you will do about it. And then you don’t have to make that decision when you are feeling too tired to make good decisions.

Using A Timer Or Specific Cue

This is great for mindless procrastination. When you want to take one more peek at Instagram before bed and then suddenly an hour has passed.

Much like you set an alarm in the morning, you can set an alarm in the evening. As a reminder that it’s 10pm and time to put the screens away. Or simply to give you a sense of time when you are focused on an enjoyable task.

Create More Space For Downtime During Your Day

This is the most powerful tool to combat deliberate procrastination. And I know, it sounds great in theory and is difficult in practice. But, if you enjoy your “me” time in the evening and your bedtime suffers as a result, consider intentionally creating that space during the day.

I know a lot of people feel that they have to be productive all day and then pay the price in the evenings. Try creating some time for fun, or quiet, or relaxation earlier in your day. Allow yourself to consider the possibility. Because if you can shift that time to earlier in the day, it could have a major benefit on how you feel every day.

Believe In Your Ability To Go To Bed Earlier

Finally, one powerful way I uncovered is to believe in yourself and your ability to get to bed on time. I found an article published last month by Bernecker et al. The authors found that people who believed that they had enough willpower to go to bed on time, especially after a stressful day, experienced less bedtime procrastination than people who believed that they had used up all their willpower.

A good night’s sleep can be life changing. I don’t need to quote research for you to know that it’s true. So, if you truly want to shift that time earlier. If it is a priority for you to get more rest. Understand why you are procrastinating your bedtime. And keep trying different tools and tricks until you find something that sticks. Believe in your ability to make this change. And see how much better you feel, every single day.

Find out how your mindset is holding you back from reaching your goals. Take the quiz:

Neuroscience. Wall Street. C-Suite. Parent. Recovering Nervous Nelly.

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