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Bedtime Psychology: Why We Procrastinate About Going to Bed

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Picture this: It’s getting late, you’ve got a pile of working sitting on your desk, and you have to go in early the next day. You know you get cranky when you don’t get enough sleep and honestly, you should’ve went to bed an hour ago, and yet here you are binge-watching Netflix.


We’ve all been there. We keep reading, scrolling through memes, and checking our email. We’d rather do anything except go to sleep. Why is it easier to hit “play next episode” than get up and go to bed? We need our rest. If we don’t get adequate REM, we wind up cranky and underproductive. So why do we procrastinate about hitting the pillow?


The problem is so common that bedtime procrastination has become an area of study.


The term “bedtime procrastination” was coined only a few years ago, as psychologists began to study this phenomenon. As humans, we need sleep. When we wake up in the morning, usually our first thought is: “I want to go back to bed.” But we still procrastinate about going to sleep at night.


Psychologists still don’t understand why we do this, but they’ve begun research into two specific areas. Our body clock and self-control both play a role in bedtime procrastination.


Looking at Self-Control


Bedtime procrastination was first (seriously) studied in 2014, when Floor Kroese, PhD, began research with her colleagues at Utrecht University. Dr. Kroese, who is an assistant professor of psychology, writes, “We knew that a lack of sleep was bad for people, but it was mostly studied in the context of sleeping problems.”


Some people suffer from serious sleeping disorders, such as sleep apnea, that keeps them from getting enough rest. Bedtime procrastinators fail to get enough sleep, as well… but not because they’re unable to sleep. They simply didn’t go to bed on time.


It’s not a serious health concern, just a puzzling problem. Dr. Kroese and her colleagues ran a study in the Netherlands, surveying more than 2,400 people. The survey showed that 53 percent of their survey participants went to bed late at least twice a week, even when they wanted to go to bed earlier. The survey also revealed that bedtime procrastinators tend to procrastinate in other areas of life. They end up tired and exhibit a lack of self-control.


Bedtime procrastination is defined as “needlessly and voluntarily delaying going to bed, despite foreseeably being worse off as a result.” The team of researchers at Utrecht University had proof that this was happening regularly to most survey respondents. They then began to look for explanations.

One possible cause of bedtime procrastination is a lack of relaxation. When we overwork, our bodies know we need to slow down. If we work long hours and push our relaxation into the evening, we may stay up later to get more of that relaxation clocked in.


Studies show that vacations reduce stress and improve productivity later on. If a weekend at Mackinac island resorts can help you go to bed earlier during the workweek, it’s probably worth it. The catch in the vacation-health correlation, though, is that the trip has to be stress-free. You’re better off finding places to see on Florida’s Gulf Coast than exploring the wilds of Africa. And if you’re financially strained, spending a lot of money on a trip probably won’t lower your cortisol levels. RV Parks in North Bend, OR, a camping trip, or a brief B&B stay would be better for a stress-free venture. It may not work in every case, but leaving work to surf Hawaii could improve your bedtime self-control.


Another potential cause of bedtime procrastination is the chores we do before bed. The average person’s bedtime routine can get pretty lengthy, from removing makeup, to flossing, to showering, to tucking their contacts lenses into bed for the night. Even 10 minutes of before-bed chores can make us less enthusiastic about going to sleep. Watching Netflix is more fun than brushing your teeth.


Researchers also found that we’re more susceptible to bedtime procrastination after we’ve resisted temptation during the day. In other words, we have a set amount of self-control. If we use it up during the workday, resisting chocolate cupcakes at the meeting, ignoring the allure of Facebook or YouTube — then we might end up with zero self control by bedtime. Our resources are depleted, and we no longer have the energy to resist.


Looking at Our Body Clock

Self-control seems to play a key role in our bedtime procrastination. Some researchers believe our body clock also plays a role in sleep-delay.


Most of us have to get up sooner than we’d like. Our bodies prefer a certain sleep cycle; “early bird” and “night owl” aren’t just slang terms for “productive” and “lazy.” Certain people are on a later clock. They prefer the evening hours, and getting up early is a miserable experience. When our bodies want to sleep at a certain time, persuading them to do otherwise can be difficult.


German psychologist Jana Kühnel, PhD,l of Ulm University knows that bedtime procrastination is a problem, but she believes it’s more than self-control issues. She argues that for night owls, the procrastination may be a biological force keeping them from going to sleep. Their body clock refuses to settle down in time. It’s not just a problem of self-control; it’s a struggle against biology.


Research shows that body clocks are real. Dr. Kühnel is convinced they’re the enemy of an 8-to-5 schedule. She says: “The intention to go to bed earlier is not enough. Biological processes need to support this intention.”


Dr. Kühnel continues to research the body clock side of bedtime procrastination, and her research might provide more evidence in the near future.




While the research is coming from two different directions, chances are they’re both right. Even if our body clocks are keeping us from getting to bed, better self-control might be enough to silence them.


As Dr. Kroese says of early birds: “You have no problem going to bed on time, so then your self-control doesn’t play a role because you don’t need it. But if you are an evening person, then you need your self-control to go to bed on time.”


It’s harder for someone with a sugar craving to resist a doughnut, but that doesn’t mean they can’t avoid eating one. When night owls feel an urge to stay up, a powerful dose of self-control should be enough to defeat bedtime procrastination.


Nearly 30 percent of Americans don’t get more than six hours of sleep, and that’s not enough for the average adult. Sleep and health are powerfully linked, so that extra Netflix episode isn’t a trivial matter.


At the end of the day, the research seems to indicate we have power over our bedtime procrastination. Our need for self-control may vary based on our biological clock, but we can resist sleep-delay in the same way we resist doughnuts or being rude to the boss.


Research so far seems to suggest what we already knew: Bedtime is just as boring as our five-year-old selves suspected.


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