Sleep procrastination is a phenomenon where people unnecessarily delay going to sleep, especially when they know that doing so is bad for them. For example, someone who wants to go to sleep but instead lays in bed and browses social media on their phone for hours is engaging in sleep procrastination.
Sleep procrastination is a widespread phenomenon, with serious negative consequences for the people who engage in it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about sleep procrastination, understand why people do it, and see what you can do to avoid it yourself.
This summary contains the key practical points from the article. The article itself contains additional details, explanations, and examples that can help you understand and overcome sleep procrastination.
People procrastinate on going to sleep because issues such as available entertainment and a misaligned biological clock outweigh their self-control and motivation. Many common causes of general procrastination, such as negative emotions, resentment, and lack of motivation, can also lead to sleep procrastination. However, sleep procrastination is unique in some ways in terms of its causes, especially when it comes to the large degree to which people’s biology influences their tendency to procrastinate on going to sleep.
To stop procrastinating on going to sleep, you can do various things, such as:
- Improve your sleep habits, by finishing your obligations as early as reasonably possible before bedtime, developing a consistent and calming bedtime routine, and adding a time delay before you procrastinate (e.g. counting to 30 before indulging your impulse to procrastinate).
- Improve your sleep hygiene, by minimizing light exposure before bedtime (and especially exposure to bright or blue light), and avoiding stimulating activities, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, and problematic foods (e.g. heavy meals) in the hours before bedtime.
- Improve your sleep environment, by removing distractions and temptations (such as digital devices), and making your bedroom and bed feel comfortable.
- Change your sleep habits, by setting a consistent sleep schedule, waking up earlier, and minimizing napping or avoiding it entirely.
- Change your general habits, by exercising, getting exposure to light throughout the day, and minimizing the use of your bed and bedroom for things other than sleeping.
- Improve your planning, by setting concrete goals, having a clear plan for achieving your goals, and figuring how you will handle obstacles that you might encounter.
- Increase your motivation, by clearly identifying why you want to go to sleep on time, visualizing your future self, reminding yourself that sleep is a top priority for you, and acknowledging and rewarding your progress.
- Change your mindset, by giving yourself permission to make mistakes, developing self-compassion (by being kind to yourself, recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner), and developing self-efficacy (by identifying the techniques that you can use to go to bed on time and thinking about your ability to execute them successfully).
You can start with just a few techniques that you feel comfortable with, and then add further techniques later if you feel that they can help. The techniques that you use should preferably help address the specific causes of your procrastination, so before choosing techniques, try to figure out what’s causing you to procrastinate on going to sleep in the first place.
Finally, to help someone else overcome their sleep procrastination, you can:
- Raise their awareness of the issue, for example by showing them that they often go to sleep later than intended and that this causes them to be exhausted during the day.
- Help them figure out how to overcome their procrastination, by helping them identify its causes and decide which anti-procrastination techniques to use.
- Help them implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques, for example by reminding them to log off their digital devices an hour before their intended bedtime.
- Implement anti-procrastination techniques on their behalf, for example by giving them positive encouragement when they manage to go to sleep on time.
The prevalence of sleep procrastination
Sleep procrastination is a common phenomenon, that has been observed in a wide range of populations, including adolescents, college students, and adults. For example, in one study on an adult sample, 74% of people who were surveyed indicated that they go to bed later than they planned to at least once a week, with no external reason for doing so.
This is important to keep in mind if you engage in sleep procrastination yourself or if you know someone who does it, because it shows that even though this phenomenon can be highly problematic, it’s something that many other people struggle with too.
The dangers of sleep procrastination
Sleep procrastination is associated with a wide range of issues, including lack of sleep, increased fatigue, lower wellbeing, and worse physical and mental health.
Furthermore, sleep procrastination can lead to many negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, shame, and guilt, especially when the sleep procrastinator repeatedly engages in it even though they know it’s bad for them and even though they want to stop.
In addition, the lack of sleep that sleep procrastination often leads to can itself lead to reduced capacity for self-regulation, and consequently to increased procrastination in various domains, such as the workplace. This also means that sleep procrastination can lead to a vicious self-perpetuating cycle, where sleep procrastination leads to lack of sleep, which in turn leads to more sleep procrastination, and so on.
Finally, sleep procrastination is also associated with various disorders, such as depression, and general procrastination is associated with various sleep disorders, such as insomnia. However, it’s unclear whether these associations are correlational or causational, and if they are causational, then in what direction, meaning that it’s unclear whether sleep procrastination leads to these issues directly. Nevertheless, given the other issues that sleep procrastination can lead to, it’s safe to assume that this type of behavior can be highly problematic, something that many sleep procrastinators intuitively know.
How people procrastinate on going to sleep
There are two main forms of sleep procrastination:
- Bedtime procrastination, which involves unnecessarily postponing going to bed. For example, this can involve organizing the house needlessly or wasting time snacking late at night, when you should be going to bed.
- While-in-bed procrastination, which involves unnecessarily postponing going to sleep, after already getting into bed. For example, this can involve laying in bed watching videos on your phone, when you should be going to sleep.
While these two forms of sleep procrastination are associated, they can have different causes and lead to different outcomes, and a person might engage in only one of them and not the other. Accordingly, they sometimes require different solutions, though many anti-procrastination techniques can help with both forms of sleep procrastination.
Note that most research on sleep procrastination has focused on bedtime procrastination. Accordingly, the term “bedtime procrastination” is sometimes used interchangeably with “sleep procrastination”, and “bedtime procrastination” is sometimes also used to refer to delaying getting into bed after having fully prepared to go to sleep (e.g., by powering off all of one’s electronic devices).
However, from a practical perspective, the academic distinctions between bedtime procrastination and sleep procrastination generally aren’t important. Rather, what is important is to understand that sleep procrastination can take the form of both bedtime procrastination and while-in-bed procrastination, and to take into account when identifying the causes of your sleep procrastination and figuring out the best solution for overcoming them.
Why people procrastinate on going to sleep
People procrastinate on going to sleep because issues such as available entertainment and a misaligned biological clock outweigh their self-control and motivation.
Specifically, in order to go to sleep on time, people generally rely on their self-control, which is supported by their motivation. A person’s motivation to go to sleep can be based on various things, such as wanting to stop feeling tired now or wanting to feel well-rested the next day.
However, various issues, such as negative emotions and readily available digital entertainment, can interfere with people’s self-control and motivation. When those issues exert a more powerful influence than a person’s self-control and motivation, that person procrastinates on going to sleep, until the balance between these factors shifts in the person’s favor, for example because they become so tired that going to sleep becomes more appealing than the available entertainment.
This explains not only why people procrastinate on going to sleep, but also why people procrastinate in general. But, there are some specific aspects of sleep procrastination that make it unique compared to most other types of procrastination, when it comes to its causes.
First, many common causes of procrastination, such as perfectionism or fear of negative feedback, don’t generally apply when it comes to sleep procrastination.
In line with this, one of the main causes of sleep procrastination, which can play a bigger role in it than in many other types of procrastination, is the desire to keep engaging with available entertainment. Such entertainment often involves cyber leisure, for example in the form of watching TV or browsing social media, primarily because this kind of entertainment tends to be readily available 24/7 in almost any location, including people’s sleep environment (i.e., their bedroom and even their bed). As such, it’s not surprising that sleep procrastinators tend to spend more time on digital devices in the hours before sleep than non-procrastinators, and that issues such as smartphone addiction are associated with sleep procrastination. Furthermore, digital entertainment has also been found to be associated with mindless sleep procrastination in particular, which occurs when people lose track of time because they’re immersed in evening and night activities.
Third, unlike many other tasks that people are likely to procrastinate on, sleep procrastination is generally highly constrained to a specific time of the day. Furthermore, it’s generally constrained to the end of people’s days in particular, which is when they’re likely to have relatively little mental energy and self-control, which makes it harder for them to regulate their behavior and act in a timely manner, especially if they’ve had to exert self-control throughout the day.
Accordingly, though being tired or exhausted generally increases people’s motivation to go to sleep, it can also make them more likely to procrastinate on doing so, by making it more difficult for them to exert self-control. This means, for example, that someone might sit late at night in front of the computer or the TV, and be too tired to overcome inertia and go to sleep, until some change in the circumstances enables them to do so.
Fourth, sleep procrastination is also relatively unique when it comes to how strongly it’s influenced by people’s biology, and especially their biological clock (known as their circadian rhythm). For example, when it comes to chronotype (people’s biological and psychological preference for a certain time of the day), research suggests that evening types (referred to as night owls) are more likely to engage in sleep procrastination than morning types (referred to as early birds). Similarly, other aspects of people’s biology may also lead to sleep procrastination, such as the consumption of caffeinated drinks.
The influence of people’s biological clock, together with the difficulty of exerting self-control when tired, can lead to a vicious cycle, where procrastinating on going to sleep makes people more tired and gets them used to falling asleep at a later time than they should (i.e., increases their circadian misalignment), which makes them more likely to procrastinate on going to sleep again later.
Finally, another way in which sleep procrastination is unique is that it involves an activity that people must engage in eventually, and one that people generally engage in every day of their life. This has many implications for why and how people engage in sleep procrastination. For example, this means that unlike many other tasks, people can’t postpone sleep indefinitely, and accordingly, they tend to procrastinate on going to sleep for relatively short periods of time (minutes to hours), unlike tasks where they can procrastinate for much longer periods of times (days to years).
However, despite all these unique aspects of sleep procrastination, the general mechanism behind it is the same as for other types of procrastination, and this type of procrastination can occur due to causes that also lead to other types of procrastination. For example, lack of motivation is a common cause of procrastination in general, and it can also lead to sleep procrastination.
In addition, this similarity to other types of procrastination appears in the case of revenge sleep procrastination, which occurs when people engage in sleep procrastination because doing so gives them a feeling of control. Though no formal research has been conducted on this phenomenon directly yet, it aligns with related research, which shows that resentment and rebellion can lead to procrastination in general, and that people often try to act in ways that give them a sense of autonomy and control. This is also associated with the concept of deliberate procrastination, which in this context occurs when people intentionally delay going to sleep, because they feel that they deserve some time for themselves.
Overall, people procrastinate on going to sleep because issues such as available entertainment and a misaligned biological clock outweigh their self-control and motivation. Many common causes of general procrastination, such as negative emotions, resentment, and lack of motivation, can also lead to sleep procrastination. However, sleep procrastination is unique in some ways in terms of its causes, especially when it comes to the large degree to which people’s biology influences their tendency to procrastinate on going to sleep.
Note: if you want to learn more about why people procrastinate in general, read the dedicated article on the topic.
How to stop procrastinating on going to sleep
To stop procrastinating on going to sleep, you should figure out what causes you to procrastinate in the first place, and then use appropriate techniques in order to solve those issues. For example, if you procrastinate on going to sleep because you get distracted while browsing the internet, you can use a browser extension to block your internet access past a certain hour, to help you go to sleep on time.
Below, you will find a list of relevant anti-procrastination techniques that you can use. When choosing from them, try to find the ones that will help you deal with the specific causes of your sleep procrastination. If you’re not sure what those causes are, consult the information in the previous section, and if you’re still unsure after that, then simply pick a few techniques that you think might help.
Note that you will likely need to use more than one technique in order to avoid sleep procrastination entirely, but that even just a few techniques will likely help you reduce your sleep procrastination substantially. As such, don’t feel obligated to try all the techniques at once. Rather, focus on using a few key techniques and making gradual progress, until you feel comfortable enough to add new techniques if you need them.
Improve your bedtime habits:
- Finish your obligations as early as reasonably possible before you intend to sleep. For example, if you need to shower before going to sleep, try to do this relatively early, rather than waiting until right before you should be going to sleep, so that it won’t be a reason for delaying. This is especially important if the obligations that you have before sleeping are aversive (e.g., because you find them boring or unpleasant), since this can make it more likely that you’ll postpone them, and that you’ll consequently procrastinate on going to sleep. Essentially, your goal in finishing your obligations early is to make it as easy and as painless as possible for you to go to sleep once it’s time to do so.
- Develop a consistent and calming bedtime routine. Having a consistent bedtime routine can help you signal to your body that it’s time to go to sleep, and can help you get in the right mindset for sleeping. This routine should be as simple, calming, and enjoyable as possible, to make sure that you stick to it consistently.
- Add a time delay before procrastinating. If, when you should be sleeping or getting ready to sleep, you find yourself about to procrastinate, try adding a time delay before you indulge your impulse to do so. For example, if you should be going to sleep but are about to start a new episode of your favorite TV show instead, count until 30 before you allow yourself do so, to try and overcome your initial impulse to procrastinate.
Improve your sleep hygiene:
- Minimize exposure to light before bedtime. The closer you are to your intended bedtime, the more you should minimize your exposure to light, and especially to bright light and blue light. If you use digital devices before bedtime, one way to achieve this is to use relevant apps or built-in settings, which reduce the screen brightness and the amount of blue light that the screen emits.
- Avoid stimulating activities before bedtime. The closer you get to your bedtime, the more you should avoid stimulating activities that wake you up, since they can make you more likely to postpone going to sleep.
- Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol in the hours before bedtime. The closer you are to your bedtime, the more you should avoid these substances, which can make you feel more awake and consequently make you more likely to postpone going to sleep.
- Avoid eating problematic food before bedtime. This can involve, for example, big or spicy meals, which can make it more difficult for you to fall asleep, and consequently more likely to procrastinate on going to sleep.
Improve your sleep environment:
- Make your bed comfortable. For example, make sure that your mattress, blanket, and pillows feel comfortable to you.
- Make your bedroom comfortable. For example, make sure that your bedroom isn’t too bright or loud, isn’t stuffy, and is the right temperature for you (while noting that it’s generally better to keep the temperature relatively cool).
- Eliminate distractions and temptations. For example, use a dedicated app to block access to social media sites that you tend to procrastinate on before sleep, or leave your laptop and phone in a different room than your bedroom.
Change your sleep habits:
- Set a consistent sleep schedule. Going to sleep and getting up at a consistent time each day makes it easier for your body to adjust to your desired sleep schedule. This means that you should try to keep your sleep and wake times as consistent as possible over time.
- Wake up earlier. Waking up earlier can prompt you to go to sleep earlier too, since it will generally make you tired and ready for sleep earlier.
- Minimize napping as much as possible. Napping can make it harder for you to go to sleep at your desired time, so you should generally avoid napping, or minimize the amount of napping that you do and restrict it to short periods of time and that are substantially earlier than your intended bedtime.
Change your general habits:
- Minimize the use of your bed and bedroom for things other than sleeping. Try to avoid using your bedroom and especially your bed for things other than sleeping as much as reasonably possible, in order to help your body associate them primarily with sleep.
- Get exposure to light during the day. Exposure to light (and especially sunlight) throughout the day can help calibrate your body’s biological clock, which can make it easier for you to go to sleep on time.
- Exercise. Exercising during the day can help you go to sleep on time, through a number of physical mechanisms that benefit your body’s biological clock. However, since exercise is generally a stimulating activity, you should avoid engaging in it too close to your intended bedtime.
Improve your planning:
- Set concrete goals. You should be as clear as possible about how much sleep you want to get and when you intend to go to sleep, since doing so increases the likelihood that you’ll go to sleep on time. For example, instead of saying “I want to get enough sleep, so I should go to sleep around ten or eleven” it’s better to say “I want to get 8 hours of sleep, so I’ll go to sleep at ten”.
- Have a clear plan for achieving your goals. Specifically, figure out what you need to do in order to ensure that you’ll go to sleep on time, and how you’re going to do it. For example, if you need to shower and brush your teeth before going to sleep, figure out exactly when you’re going to do these things, so that you won’t delay them and consequently also delay going to sleep.
- Use mental contrasting and implementation intentions. To do this, you should first name your goal of going to sleep on time, and then elaborate on the best outcome of doing so (e.g. feeling happy and well-rested), before identifying and visualizing a central inner obstacle to achieving this outcome (e.g. the urge to keep browsing the internet). Then, you should create if-then plans, which explain how you’ll deal with obstacles that you might encounter while trying to achieve your goals.
Increase your motivation:
- Clearly identify why you want to go to sleep on time. In general, the more reasons you have for going to sleep on time, and the more powerful they are, the more motivated you will be. Reasons can include, for example, wanting to feel well-rested or wanting to feel in control of your schedule, but intrinsic and autonomous reasons (i.e. internal reasons that align with your values, interests, and needs) will generally lead to the best outcomes, in terms of avoiding procrastination.
- Visualize your future self. For example, you can try to visualize how tired and disappointed you’ll feel the next day if you keep procrastinating on going to sleep, or how well-rested and satisfied you’ll feel if you manage to go to sleep on time.
- Remind yourself that sleep is a top priority for you. For example, if you feel that you’re about to procrastinate on going to sleep by browsing social media, remind yourself that sleep is more important to you.
- Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can decide that if you go to sleep on time for a week in a row, you will celebrate this achievement in a way that’s meaningful to you.
Change your mindset:
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, don’t be too hard on yourself if you take a while to overcome your sleep procrastination, or if you make mistakes along the way, and especially don’t let these things cause you to give up entirely. Furthermore, if you realize that you’re currently procrastinating on going to sleep, accept that it’s better to go to sleep now rather than later, even if you could have gone to sleep earlier had you not procrastinated at all.
- Develop self-compassion. Developing self-compassion can reduce the likelihood that you’ll engage in sleep procrastination. Specifically, this consists of three components that you should develop: self-kindness, which involves being kind to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
- Develop self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to carry out the actions that will allow you to achieve your goals, and it can help reduce your procrastination. To develop self-efficacy, you should identify the various techniques that you can use to go to sleep on time, and then think about your ability to execute those techniques successfully.
Keep in mind that the effectiveness and practicality of different anti-procrastination techniques depend on various personal and situational factors. This means that you shouldn’t worry if a certain technique works well for others but not for you, and that you should focus on finding the techniques that will work best in your particular case.
Note: if you want to learn more about how to stop procrastinating in general, read the dedicated guide on the topic.
How to help someone else stop procrastinating on going to sleep
There are several things that you can do to help someone stop procrastinating on going to sleep:
- Raise their awareness of the issue. For example, you can go over their sleep schedule with them to show them that they tend to postpone going to sleep unnecessarily, and help them clearly see why it’s a problem (e.g. because it makes them tired and stressed out).
- Help them figure out how to overcome their procrastination. For example, you can help them identify the specific causes of their sleep procrastination, and help them choose which anti-procrastination techniques to use (from the list of such techniques in the previous section).
- Help them implement relevant anti-procrastination-techniques. For example, if they decide to limit their available distractions in bed, you can help them by reminding them to log off their digital devices an hour before their intended bedtime.
- Implement anti-procrastination techniques on their behalf. For example, to increase their motivation, you can give them positive encouragement when they consistently make progress on going to sleep on time.
In general, and especially when implementing anti-procrastination techniques for someone, keep in mind that this should generally be done in a way that they accept, since pressuring someone to go to sleep when they don’t want to can lead to issues such as resentment, which can exacerbate sleep procrastination. As such, it’s generally best to help the sleep procrastinator develop intrinsic and autonomous motivation for going to sleep on time, and to make the process of avoiding sleep procrastination sometimes that they participate in gladly, rather than something that you force on them.
How to tell if you engage in sleep procrastination
Most people are intuitively able to determine whether they procrastinate on going to sleep. However, if you’re unsure about this, or if you want a formal tool for assessing sleep procrastination, there are several that you can use.
First, to assess bedtime procrastination, you can use the Bedtime Procrastination Scale (developed by Kroese, et al., 2014):
For each of the following statements, decide whether it applies to you using a scale from 1 (almost) never to 5 (almost) always. A higher score indicates a greater tendency to engage in bedtime procrastination, except in questions followed by (R), where the reverse is true.
- I go to bed later than I had intended.
- I go to bed early if I have to get up early in the morning (R).
- If it is time to turn off the lights at night I do it immediately (R).
- Often I am still doing other things when it is time to go to bed.
- I easily get distracted by things when I actually would like to go to bed.
- I do not go to bed on time.
- I have a regular sleep which I keep to (R).
- I want to go to bed on time but I just don’t.
- I can easily stop with my activities when it is time to go to bed (R).
Alternatively, rather than scoring these questions directly, you can view them as general signs of sleep procrastination or the lack of it.
In addition, note that alternative criteria are sometimes used to determine whether someone engages in bedtime procrastination. For example, one paper suggests that there are three main criteria that you should consider when it comes to determining whether someone is engaging in sleep procrastination:
- Delay, in terms of going to bed later than intended or than was possible.
- Lack of valid reason to delay.
- Foreseeably being worse off as a result of the delay.
When it comes to while-in-bed procrastination, you can use the While-in-Bed Procrastination Scale (developed by Magalhães, et al., 2020):
For each of the following statements, decide whether it applies to you using a scale from 1 (almost) never to 5 (almost) always. A higher score indicates a greater tendency to engage in while-in-bed procrastination.
While in bed, before I fall asleep I…
- Watch videos on YouTube.
- Watch TV.
- Watch movies and series.
- Listen to music.
- Send texts, make video calls/calls.
- Play games (tablet, computer, mobile phone).
- Eat snacks (cookies, cereals, milk, chips, chocolate).
To assess while-in-bed procrastination, you can also use the same criteria as for bedtime procrastination, and namely delay, lack of valid reason to delay, and foreseeably being worse off as a result of the delay.
Finally, note that engaging in either type of sleep procrastination is enough to count as engaging in sleep procrastination. This means that even if someone engages just in bedtime procrastination or just in while-in-bed procrastination, that still constitutes as engaging in sleep procrastination overall.
The key points of this article are as follows:
- Sleep procrastination is a phenomenon where people unnecessarily delay going to sleep, especially when they know that doing so is bad for them.
- Sleep procrastination is a prevalent phenomenon, that’s associated with a wide range of issues, such as lack of sleep, increased fatigue, and worse physical and mental health.
- People procrastinate on going to sleep because issues such as available entertainment and a misaligned biological clock outweigh their self-control and motivation.
- To stop procrastinating on going to sleep, you can use various techniques, such as setting a consistent sleep schedule, developing a calming bedtime routine, making your bed and bedroom as comfortable as possible, eliminating distractions from your sleep environment, and having a clear plan regarding when you’re going to go to sleep.
- To help someone else overcome their sleep procrastination, you can raise their awareness of this issue, help them figure out how to overcome their procrastination, help them implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques, or implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques on their behalf.
If your main goal for learning about sleep procrastination is to overcome your own procrastination or to help someone else overcome theirs, you should now move forward, and start taking action. Specifically, you should first assess the nature of the procrastination problem that you’re facing, and then pick your preferred approach for solving it.
When doing this, don’t be overwhelmed by the number of available options, and do keep in mind that it’s fine to try out different solutions and make some mistakes along the way. As such, if you feel stuck, just pick a few techniques that seem like they will be useful, and try to make some progress with them, while being open to making adjustments as you go along.