At the end of the day, when my kids are fast asleep and the house is quiet, I start to wind down with my own bedtime routine. When I crawl into bed, the clock usually says 10 p.m.—maybe 11 p.m. Even though my eyes are bleary, I don’t fall asleep. Instead, the fuzzy green numbers on my clock keep ticking forward.
It turns out, I’m a bedtime procrastinator. My nights are ruled by two bedtimes: the time I claim to go to sleep and the time I actually drift off. And it can be hours spanning the two. I may read one last article, watch another “Carpool Karaoke,” text my sister, scroll through Instagram or, more likely, play Two Dots. (Just one more game, I swear!) I love sleeping and I know the importance of a good night’s rest. So, why the urge to delay sleep?
Procrastination doesn’t just pertain to that pesky presentation for work or filing your taxes, it can apply to our time in the sack too. In a study published in “Frontiers of Psychology,” researchers from the Netherlands defined the phenomenon as “failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.” In other words, participants didn’t have a sleeping disorder or work a night shift: they voluntarily put off sleep. In the study of 177 people, they found that bedtime procrastination was associated with insufficient sleep and lack of self-regulation.
“It’s one of the biggest sleep stealers we deal with,” says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., board-certified sleep medicine doctor, neurologist and author of the upcoming book “The Sleep Solution.” Thanks to our 24/7, always-on society and addictive electronic devices, it’s easy to get caught up in just one last thing and push back your bedtime. “When you track [your sleep] over a period of time, the time you think you go to bed really is not the time you actually turn out the lights,” he says.
While lack of sleep has become a badge of honor (I’m busy! I’m important! I don’t need sleep!), the cumulative effect of inadequate shut-eye can be problematic. According to Winter, chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to major health issues such as heart disease, weight gain, stroke, stress, diabetes, and higher mortality rates. “Unfortunately, we’re taught hard work pays off. We don’t talk about rest,” he says. And sleep is one of the best ways to revitalize our bodies and minds.
But with more than one-third of Americans not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has declared it a public health problem. And an economic one too: a recent report from RAND corporation found that the U.S. loses up to $411 billion a year and loses 1.23 million working days due to insufficient sleep.
When schedules get busy, sleep is often the first thing to go. Winter describes two groups of people who may be prone to bedtime procrastination.
“There’s one group of individuals who really doesn’t feel like they ever have time for themselves,” he says. Think full-time working parents whose evenings are spent driving kids to after-school activities or sports practice, cooking, and cleaning. Before they know it, it’s 11:30 p.m. but they don’t want to go to sleep.
“The other group of procrastinators are high achievers,” Winter says. “We can easily take our work out of the office and with us. They’re looking to use that time to get a little more done before the next day.” Like hammering out just a few emails or reading one last report.
Personally, I’m guilty of both. As a writer and mother of two elementary school-aged boys, the evenings often feel like my time. No one is nagging me about a lost book or peppering me with a million questions about football. I don’t have to help with math homework. I am lulled by the calm and quiet of my apartment. Plus, it’s often the only time that I have a solid chunk of time to write or answer the emails I’ve neglected all day.
There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go to sleep because I know when I wake up, it starts all over again—like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”—work, after-school, cooking, cleaning, repeat. While it feels easier to disappear into my smartphone, I’m groggy and foggy the next day and have less patience with my kids and husband.
If you’re ready to put your bedtime procrastination to rest, the first step is admitting that your habit is something worth changing. (Raises hand!)
A regular bedtime routine helps too—this will help train your brain to know when it’s time for rest. Create a good sleeping environment. Keep it dark and the temperature cool. Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed. And skip the phones, tablets, and laptops in the bedroom too. The blue light emitted from these devices can make you feel more alert, messing with your body’s internal clock and sleep cycle. Plus, a recent study found that blue light can affect your metabolism and increase insulin resistance.
“You have the power to go to bed earlier,” says Winter. Look at your schedule and figure out what’s feasible and realistic. For Winter, he set a goal to be in bed by 11:30 p.m. “As soon as I stopped staying up at night, my blood pressure improved and I felt better,” he says.