For a long time, we’ve known about the insomniacs: The people who go bed and then toss and turn all night, unable to fall asleep. But there’s another group of sleepless sufferers: Those who can’t bring themselves to go to bed in the first place.
If you’re exhausted and you know you need to sleep, but can’t bring yourself to close your laptop, get up off your couch, or stop organising your kitchen cupboards, you may be a bedtime procrastinator.
“Bedtime procrastination is defined as failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so,” a team of researchers from Utrecht University write in a recent issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The study was recently highlighted in an article by Betsy Morais in the New Yorker online.
“It’s a longstanding puzzle in philosophy, since Aristotle: why it is that people fail to do what they know is good for them to do,” Joel Anderson, a researcher in Practical Philosophy who coined the term “bedtime procrastination,” told Morais. He says people want to go to bed on time, and yet many don’t.
The Utrecht researchers wanted to explore how procrastination behaviour might affect health, and whether procrastinators were also less likely to do things like exercise and each vegetables (as previous research has shown) because both behaviours are associated with poor self-control.
The research team, led by Floor Kroese, surveyed 177 people on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to assess what bedtime procrastination is and who is likely to do it. They asked participants to rate, on a scale of 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always) how much the following statements applied to them (“R” items are those that are not typical of bedtime procrastinators):
1. I go to bed later than I had intended.
2. I go to bed early if I have to get up early in the morning. (R)
3. If it is time to turn off the lights at night I do it immediately. (R)
4. Often I am still doing other things when it is time to go to bed.
5. I easily get distracted by things when I actually would like to go to bed.
6. I do not go to bed on time.
7. I have a regular bedtime which I keep to. (R)
8. I want to go to bed on time but I just don’t.
9. I can easily stop with my activities when it is time to go to bed.
Researchers collected information on participants’ demographics, general habits (“I generally delay before starting on work I have to do”), sleep schedule, and (self-reported) fatigue. Participants were also rated for self-control, conscientiousness, impulsivity, and action control.
They found that bedtime procrastination was a very real problem, and one that was associated with regular old procrastination as well trouble with self-regulation, defined by the psychologist Steve Stosny as “the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values.”
Bedtime procrastination is unique, the researchers write, because while people often procrastinate to put off undesirable tasks, sleep is not generally considered undesirable.
“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 write. In other words, for some, Twitter can seem far more alluring than sleep — even if the reverse is true in the morning.
The results are not surprising anecdotally, but the researchers write that it’s the first study “to present bedtime procrastination as a possible cause for insufficient sleep.”
Because willpower is especially low when people are already sleepy, the study highlights the need for new solutions. Unfortunately, it does not provide any suggestions.
In fact, the researchers conclude, “strategies that do not require effort are expected to be most successful in reducing bedtime procrastination.”
Fortunately, such no-effort interventions actually exist. Sometimes, all you really need is a kick in the pants like a loud noise, your computer dying, or something to jolt you into action.
“This might be a timer that switches off your television, or an alarm on your phone,” suggests Morais, in the New Yorker. “Anything to switch off the illicit zombie impulse that makes you keep scrolling through Twitter under the bedcovers.”
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