I’m sure many of you are familiar with the challenges of getting a wound-up kid to go to bed—not simply to retreat to his or her bedroom, but to put down the toy, shut off the computer, stereo or TV, and “Go to sleep!” But children don’t have a monopoly on the bad habit of putting off bedtime in favor of distractions. You might not think that sacrificing sleep for a few more hours of late-night TV or computer-game entertainment…or to catch up on work or a creative project…is that big a deal, but doing so can be a dangerous health hazard for you and the people who have to put up with your lack of sleep. It’s called sleep procrastination.
THE PRICE OF PROCRASTINATION
The consequences of not getting enough sleep at night can range from having migraines to lowered immunity against disease to weight gain to heart disease. And some of these problems are potentially deadly. Your mood, concentration and reaction time are also off. This means that you’re more prone to being argumentative, making poor judgments, injuring yourself and causing accidents.
There’s a myriad of reasons why people don’t get enough sleep. Going to bed at, say, 10:30 pm and not falling asleep until 1 am is, in fact, often traced to stress or a hormonal or neurologic sleep disorder. But intending to go to bed at 10:30 and not going to bed until 1:00—perhaps because you keep streaming “just one more” episode of Downton Abbey or reading “just one more” chapter of a thrilling novel or playing a computer game—or working—and doing that night after night is another matter entirely. It’s sleep procrastination.
The problem is epidemic, according to a team of researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands who have been studying sleep procrastination and character traits of procrastinators in general. In one study, they had 177 adults fill out questionnaires to determine their degree of bedtime procrastination, procrastination in general, sleep quality and self-regulation, which is the ability to change and adapt behavior to meet goals and responsibilities. Assessment of self-regulation was included in the analysis because mental health research has shown that people prone to procrastination lack this trait. Questions posed for self-regulation measured general self-control, conscientiousness, impulsivity and control of one’s actions.
The results: More than 40% of the study participants reported fatigue or not getting enough sleep three to four nights per week, a statistic reported by several other sleep research studies. On average, a moderate level of sleep procrastination was found in the group. And the researchers found that bedtime procrastination was negatively associated with self-regulation, similar to people who procrastinate in general.
Similar results were found in a larger study of 2,430 Danish adults performed by the same researchers.
BREAK THE MOLD
We often don’t see problem behavior in ourselves. So how can you truly recognize whether the reason that you’re tired and irritable all the time is because you’re a sleep procrastinator? Sleep-behavior specialist Susan Gordon, PhD, associate professor of psychology at National University in San Diego and research director at Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut, says that you should take an honest look at yourself and notice whether you extend your presleep routines for no important reason or overload yourself with late-night activities that keep you awake or you have traits common to sleep procrastinators, such as lack of drive or impulsivity and a general habit of procrastinating.
“A person who truly wants to get a handle on the psychological aspects of his or her behavior needs to consciously examine the underlying motivation for his behavior and see how it affects daily life,” said Dr. Gordon. She offered the following program to get out of the bad habit of sleep procrastination…
Know thyself. Keep a journal to record activities, sleep patterns, thoughts, feelings, symptoms, health status, daily food intake and drugs/medications that you use. This will help you be more conscious of your routines and motivations—or lack of them—and help you establish healthier routines.
Get to the bottom of the problem. Reflect on how and why you procrastinate about going to sleep. Is it because of work, distractions or just not wanting to quit whatever you happen to be doing to sleep? Also, ask yourself what you hope to gain from sleep procrastination.
Cultivate self-discipline. Create a time schedule for work and leisure activities (day/night), and try to stick to it. If you feel like you are leaving business unfinished, ask yourself whether it can wait until the morning and whether you want to be tired or refreshed when the new day and its tasks begin.
Put it all together. Purposefully avoid delaying sleep time for a least one week, and examine how you feel. Ideally, being well-rested and having a better sense of self and self-discipline will be incentives for you to break the sleep procrastination habit for good.
If you’ve followed these steps to the best of your ability but find that you still can’t stay disciplined about getting enough sleep, and if your lack of sleep is impacting your health, mind, and mood, then it’s time to seek professional help, said Dr. Gordon. She recommends that you get treatment from both a naturopathic physician and a psychologist who, together, can address the psychological causes of not getting enough sleep.