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How to Stop Procrastinating at Bedtime and Actually Go to Sleep

7 minute read

Once I finally tuck my kids into bed, clean the kitchen, and shoot off my last work email of the night, it’s “me” time. It’s also, cruelly, bedtime. I know I should sleep, but instead I stay up way too late binge-watching Love Is Blind or mindlessly scrolling on Reddit. I need rest, but I push it off. This is my only uninterrupted time, and I want to maximize it.

This phenomenon is so universal that there’s a scientific name for it: “bedtime procrastination.” According to the researchers who coined it in a 2014 study, bedtime procrastination is “failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.”

People with stressful days and little control over their time are the ones most likely to procrastinate going to sleep, says Lynelle Schneeberg, a sleep psychologist at Yale University. Parents with young children, students, or people with extra-demanding jobs fall into this category. Schneeberg says it’s also common—not surprisingly—in people with insomnia, people who already procrastinate in other areas of their lives, “night owls,” and people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So—a lot of us.  

We often delay sleep because we want to regain the control—and time—we lost during the day. “When you don’t have the sense that you can manage your own time, it’s really frustrating,” Schneeberg says.

But here’s the paradox: Instead of getting more control over our days, bedtime procrastinators end up sabotaging them. When I stay up too late, I’m exhausted and groggy the next day. I feel like I’m on autopilot, and I have less energy to do the things I love, like going for a run or playing outside with my kids. The effects are physical, too: my face is puffy, my appetite is poor, and I’m more likely to catch one of my kids’ colds.

What’s so bad about pushing off sleep? 

Dr. Safia Khan, a sleep medicine specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, says when you stay up past your natural bedtime, your body produces more wake-promoting hormones.

These hormones are supposed to be high during the day and low at night. When your body has to produce more of them to keep you awake, that puts pressure on the adrenal glands (which produce hormones), the cardiovascular system, and the respiratory system, “because now you’re doing something your body was not intended to do,” says Khan, who recently co-wrote a book on sleep disorders in women. “This, in turn, leads to high blood pressure, high blood sugar, mood disorders, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, muscle fatigue, joint aches and pains—I could go on and on.”

Read More: 5 Steps to Take to Become a Morning Person

Getting too little sleep can delay our healing if we’re sick, Khan says. Sleep deprivation can also impact our memory and cognition; studies have shown that driving on little sleep can be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. 

So why do we do it?

Experts believe our addictive electronics have made this problem infinitely worse. “Scrolling, online shopping, social media, TV shows you love—they give you a little hit of pleasure,” Schneeberg says. Repeat this nightly for weeks or months, and “then you're looking for [it], instead of the boredom that comes with signing off and going to bed.” 

Not that it’s your fault for wanting to scroll instead of sleep, says Dr. Rachel Salas, a sleep neurologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t have everything on demand,” she says. “Now, we’re so much more tempted. I can order anything from Amazon at 2 a.m. I can binge-watch all of my Netflix shows. I can research a trip. Everything is at our fingertips now.”

Another reason we stay up late? We’re dreading the next day. In one study published in 2023 in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers interviewed young people in the workforce about their bedtime habits. One sentiment stood out: they tended to feel a sense of apprehension at starting the next day, which researchers called “tomorrow aversion.”

Read More: Why Waking Up Earlier Isn’t Necessarily Better

Using something that gives us a little hit of dopamine, like our phones, makes us (falsely) feel like we’re delaying the stress of the following day, says Sheehan Fisher, a perinatal clinical psychologist at Northwestern Medicine who works primarily with new parents. “One thing about sleep is that once you’re unconscious, you wake up to the next day,” he says. 

When we delay our bedtime, we think we’re prioritizing some much-needed “me” time. But sleeping, Salas says, should be thought of as the ultimate form of “me” time. “Sleep is a basic human need,” she says. “It’s important for your memory, your mood, and your health.”

If you’re a bedtime procrastinator, here’s how to regain control of your sleep. 

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Move up your “me” time

Although this might not be possible for everyone, consider shifting your self-care tasks to earlier in the day, Fisher says. Have a family member watch your kids after work so you can get in a quick exercise session. Or meal prep on Sunday so you can get the hours back that you would have spent cooking each weeknight. 

Don’t hang out in bed

When you scroll on your phone or watch TV in bed, you’re training your brain to think that’s what you’re supposed to do in bed, Salas says. A good rule of thumb is to reserve your bed for sleep, especially if you struggle to doze off at night. 

Avoid sleeping in on the weekends

Although everyone’s circadian rhythms vary, Salas says most people feel best going to bed around 11 p.m. and waking up at 7 a.m. If you need to be on an earlier or later schedule, that’s OK, as long as you’re consistent. “If you can at least be consistent with your bedtime and waking time, you’re already doing wonders for your quality of sleep,” she says.

Read More: How to Treat Your Weekend Like a Vacation

Schneeberg adds that it’s a myth that you can “catch up” on sleep on the weekends. By pushing back your wake time by several hours, you’re confusing your body, she says. It won’t know when to trigger the production of cortisol, a hormone that helps with waking, or melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. A good rule of thumb is to keep your daily waking time within the same two-hour window.

Trust your body

Around bedtime, “the first time you get drowsy, you have about 20 minutes to fall asleep,” Schneeberg says. “If you miss that window for any reason, then you’re not usually sleeping for a couple more hours.” What happens then? “You’ll get a second wind”—which, unfortunately, is perfect for staying up and staring at your screen. 

If your body tells you it’s time to sleep, trust it. Put off any tasks until the next morning, and get some good shut-eye. 

Create a relaxing bedtime routine

“I think people have lost the opportunity to have a good bedtime routine,” Salas says. Create one that you look forward to. Practice yoga, take a warm shower, drink a cup of herbal tea, listen to an audiobook—the key is to do whatever you find most calming and enjoyable. 

Schneeberg also recommends doing any nighttime care tasks, like washing your face and brushing your teeth, right after dinner. “Then, when you feel drowsy, it won’t be such an effort to get to bed,” she says. 

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