Sleep Procrastination Might Be Stealing Precious Hours of Rest From You—Here’s How to Stop It
It’s not just tasks from your to-do list—you can procrastinate going to bed, too.
Sleep procrastination might sound like a weird term—after all, who would want to procrastinate something as lovely as sleep? But the truth is, many of us do procrastinate sleep. We push back our bedtimes to catch one more episode of that show we're binge-watching, or to scroll through Instagram one more time. And while these moments may seem small and unimportant, over time, they can really add up.
"Sleep is like a bank account, and it takes time to build up and time to deplete," says Alex Dimitriu, MD, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine. "Chronic sleep deprivation builds up to moodiness, depression, irritability, more anxiety, less impulse control … and worse, memory."
Hearing that, it's pretty clear sleep procrastination is a bad thing. So why do we keep doing it—and how can we stop? We talked to the experts to find out.
What is sleep procrastination?
Sleep procrastination—also known as bedtime procrastination—is exactly what it sounds like: the decision to put off going to bed when there's no external reason to. (When we say external reason, we mean injuries, illnesses, and emergencies that might keep you up later than intended.)
Sleep procrastination can take the form of a few minutes or several hours. And while these isolated incidents may leave you feeling tired the next day, over time, they can contribute to sleep deprivation.
"Sleep loss has many short- and long-term negative effects on your health and well-being," says Chelsie Rohrscheib, PhD, sleep specialist at Tatch, an at-home sleep analysis tool, including an increased risk for some health conditions (like diabetes, depression, and heart attacks).
We know sleep procrastination is bad—so why do we keep doing it?
Most of us understand the value of a good night's sleep. Sleep supports everything from physical health to proper brain function. And it can help us boost our immune systems, reduce our risk of certain chronic health problems, and otherwise keep ourselves in tip-top shape.
Many of us want to get the CDC's recommended seven hours of sleep each night. But temptations like Instagram and Netflix keep us from pulling it off. Why?
"Life can be busy and very stressful," says Nicole Avena, PhD, a neuroscientist and author. "If you are not finding time to yourself during the day, you may not feel fulfilled and will want to reclaim that time during the night, after all of your obligations are complete." Rohrscheib agrees, noting that sleep procrastinators tend to fall into one of two categories: busy people who need a little more free time, and so-called overachievers who sacrifice sleep to keep working.
Plus, saying no to Instagram requires discipline—and after a long day, that effort may be hard to summon. "Sleep procrastination is like any other procrastination or binging behavior—[it's] easier to watch one more video or eat one more cookie than to go to bed (the responsible thing to do)," Dr. Dimitriu says. "Some people are so responsible by day [that] they just run out of being responsible at night." (Experts call this ego depletion—and it's a hotly debated topic in the psychology space.)
There are a few different reasons you might keep pushing back bedtime. Thankfully, there are plenty of steps you can take to curb your sleep procrastination habit—and get that restful seven hours you've been dreaming of.
How to stop procrastinating and (finally) go to sleep
Develop a routine—and stick with it
The easiest way to ensure you get enough sleep each night? Have a set bedtime and a set wake-up time that you stick to. If specific times feel too rigid, you could always give yourself a bedtime and wake-up window. “It is very important to keep a consistent sleep schedule,” Avena says. “Of course, it is nearly impossible to go to sleep at the same exact time each night. But keeping within a one- to two-hour window for both going to sleep and waking up is the most effective.” Just be sure not to use the flexibility as an excuse to indulge in some sleep procrastination.
Figure out what’s keeping you up
If you already have a set sleep routine, figure out what’s keeping you from it. What is it that’s keeping you up at night? Is it work, TV, conversations with friends—or something else entirely? Once you understand what the problem-causers are, you can build boundaries around them.
End screen time 30 to 60 minutes before you go to bed
Many of us know that the blue light emitted from our devices can disrupt our Circadian rhythms, affecting our ability to fall and stay asleep. But screen time may be affecting your sleep schedule in other ways, too. The activity you’re procrastinating sleep for could be an app on your phone, a show on your TV, or even work on your computer, so consider setting boundaries around screen time. Rohrscheib recommends ending screen time at least one hour before bedtime, and Avena recommends keeping electronics out of the bedroom entirely.
Build a bedtime ritual
OK, now that you’ve removed screens and other electronics from the bedroom, what are you supposed to do until it’s time to go to sleep? “Make up a bedtime routine you can follow every night,” Rohrscheib says. You can read, meditate, journal, stretch, listen to some relaxing music, or engage in some other low-energy activity you love. According to Rohrscheib, you’ll want to start this ritual about 30 minutes before bedtime. And while it may take a little getting used to, don’t be surprised if you come to love it.
Carve out breaks earlier in the day
One of the reasons you might keep pushing back bedtime? You want to feel like there’s more time in your day. (This is called revenge bedtime procrastination.) But taking breaks earlier in the day can give you that same feeling of control and free time—without disrupting your sleep schedule—so try to carve out pockets of free time where you can.
“Set aside quality time for yourself early enough in the day that you don't have to cut into your sleep hours,” Rohrscheib says. And if you have a really busy schedule, look for places where you can save time. “[This] might include meal prepping on weekends ... scheduling out your days with set time limits for tasks and activities, and getting help from friends and family when needed,” she adds.
Dos and don'ts of sleep hygiene for less sleep procrastination
Do keep work out of the bedroom
One good rule of thumb? Keep your bedroom reserved for sleep and sex only. “Working in bed can decrease your quality of sleep, because it will become more and more difficult for your brain to distinguish between workspace and rest space,” Avena says. So keep work out of the bedroom whenever possible. “Worrying, working, and even not sleeping in bed is best avoided,” Dr. Dimitriu says. “Keep the bed for sleep and sex only!”
Don’t let tomorrow’s stressors keep you up tonight
If stress is keeping you up at night, take steps to minimize your worries before climbing in bed at night. “Make a to-do list of the things you'd like to achieve the next day so you don’t stress about them at night,” Rohrscheib says. “The brain quickly makes associations between your actions and your environment.” So keeping stress out of the bedroom can be just as important as keeping work out of the bedroom.
Do pay attention to what feeling well-rested feels like
Remembering how great it feels to get enough sleep can make it easier to curb your procrastination habit. “It helps to track this, so you can see the outcome of getting more rest,” Dr. Dimitriu says. He recommends tracking your mood and energy levels throughout the day—about every two to three hours. And be sure to pay attention to how you feel in the afternoon. “[This is] when most of us tend to get sleepy (less so, when more rested!),” he says.
Don’t change your routine on the weekends
Consistency is key. So try to keep a consistent bedtime and wake-up time—even on the weekends. “Sleep specialists recommend that you keep a consistent sleep schedule even on weekends and holidays,” Rohrscheib says. “This is because our brains thrive on routine.” If you do need to change up your schedule, Dr. Dimitriu recommends staying within one hour of your usual bedtime and wake-up time whenever possible.
Do talk to a professional
If you’re having consistent trouble with sleep procrastination and it’s affecting your quality of life, consider talking to a professional. “Sleep procrastination can be a difficult habit to break,” Avena says. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re having trouble changing your routine. But if you feel like you could use some extra help or guidance, remember that professionals are happy to provide it.