Why Some People Find It Harder To Drag Themselves To Bed At Night

By Emily Reynolds

You’re exhausted. You’ve had a long day at work before coming home to make dinner, do some chores and relax, and now it’s time for bed. But for some reason — despite the fact you’ve been struggling to stay awake all day — you can’t quite bring yourself to stop what you’re doing and go to sleep.

If this sounds familiar, you’ll be pleased to hear that you’re not the only one who lacks willpower when it’s time to go to bed. It’s so widespread, in fact, that Katharina Bernecker from the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien and Veronika Job at the Technical University of Dresden have investigated what could be driving the phenomenon in a new paper published in the British Journal of Psychology.

Bernecker and Job believed that our failure to drag ourselves to bed at night is a failure of self-control: for some reason, we can’t muster the willpower needed to do what we need to do. Furthermore, they posited that our beliefs about our own willpower may predict how long we spend procrastinating before bed.

The team issued questionnaires to 173 college-age participants. First, participants were asked to agree or disagree with a number of statements, each reflecting one of two theories of willpower. Those who believe in the “limited” theory see willpower as a finite resource: once you’ve used it up, it’s gone until it is replenished by relaxation or sleep. Proponents of the “non-limited” theory, on the other hand, believe willpower can be tapped into at any time using self-control.

Participants also rated their own levels of self-control, and indicated whether they thought of themselves or a morning or evening person. They were also asked what their ideal bedtime would be.

After this initial questionnaire, participants completed daily diaries for ten days. Surveys were sent out each morning, measuring what time participants had gone to sleep the previous night (as opposed to when they went to bed), when they had woken up and how high quality their sleep was. Levels of stress were also measured. The last questionnaire of the ten measured bedtime procrastination, asking participants to select on a five point scale whether they are more likely to go to bed later than intended or to go to bed early.

The results suggested that theories of willpower do, in fact, influence how much people procrastinate before bed. Those with a non-limited theory of willpower were far less likely to procrastinate on highly stressful days, while those with a limited theory of willpower procrastinated for around 40-50 mins regardless of how stressful their day was.

A second study looked at the effect in adolescents. A total of 137 seventh, eighth and ninth grade students were given pen and paper surveys each morning in class for four days. Information was also gathered on self-control and willpower theories.

Teens may have parents telling them to go to bed, but the results suggest that sleep procrastination is still a significant problem: on average, students taking part in the study missed their ideal bedtime by an hour and a half.

And, as the first study had found, stress and willpower theories had a combined impact on when students were going to bed. Those who believed in the limited theory procrastinated more on stressful days — thus impacting how long they slept, and often the quality of their sleep — while those with the non-limited theory didn’t show any difference between high and low stress days.

What we don’t know — and what this research doesn’t quite touch on — is exactly why people who believe that we have a limited reserve of mental energy get the urge to procrastinate before bed when stressed. Logically, if they’ve had a bad or stressful day, they should be happy to get into bed. But, according to these results, they are more likely to prolong their day instead.

The team has a few suggestions as to why this is. Firstly, those who subscribe to the limited theory may feel they need more time to recover from a stressful day, thus spending more time on relaxing or mindless activities like watching TV. These activities also have the added benefit of providing instant gratification: yes, we might feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep, but we have to wait eight hours for that. If we sit on the internet for a bit longer, we get that hit immediately.

Gaining a better understanding of what people are doing to procrastinate may also be useful: some may be relaxing, whilst others may be catching up on a work overflow from a stressful day. Working out what exactly it is we get from these activities may be a good first step on the road to a better night’s sleep.

Too exhausted to go to bed: Implicit theories about willpower and stress predict bedtime procrastination

Emily Reynolds (@rey_z) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

6 thoughts on “Why Some People Find It Harder To Drag Themselves To Bed At Night”

  1. Is it possible that some people have large reserves of willpower, and never hit the end of them, thus feeling like they have unlimited willpower? And others have smaller reserves, which they run out of sooner, and so believe in limited willpower?

    In which case, it would make perfect sense that the former group manage to go to bed much earlier…

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  2. I disagree that a stressed person should logically gravitate towards early sleep. Sleep is a time machine that skips forward to the start of the next working day. If you hesitate to welcome another day at a crappy workplace, it’s easier to choose “more freetime now” over “better rested tomorrow”. The reward of going to sleep is that you get a well-rested buff tomorrow. In other words, the reward is hypothetical and future-oriented. The value of the well-rested buff is muddled by the fact that sufficient sleep doesn’t guarantee tomorrow will be a “good day”. Procrastinating sleep at least means you’ll get immediately rewarded but at a (hypothetical future-oriented) cost. I find it sensible, reasonable and logical that someone experiencing bad days and excessive demands want to delay getting into the tomorrow-timemachine.

    The authors makes the assumption that going to sleep is soothing. On the contrary, I believe that going to bed can be a big source of distress. Many struggle to contend with rampant thoughts around sleeptime. The lack of distractors literally makes the inner voice overflow. Exerting control over the inner voice and achieving on-demand peace is a hard-earned skill for many. Your thoughts are endlessly fueled by emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, or frustration. For some this may only become an issue before exams or after a big loss, whereas for others it can be an everyday experience. Nevertheless, I think we’re all too familiar with how thoughts can generate enormous difficulties falling asleep, and produce vicious cycles where the negative feelings are perpetuated by the knowledge that you’ll be even more tired tomorrow, you may oversleep, and your demands will become even more excessive if you don’t get enough sleep. It’s not unheard of that this can make people churn through thoughts like this throughout the entire night. Going to bed late and exhausted, with a distraction at hand, may lead to poor rest, but it can prevent a lot of distress. I find it more logical that a miserable person who are overwhelmed by unmet demands would experience such distress at bedtime.

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    1. I postpone going to bed after a stressful day because i know that my brain needs the downtime and without that, i won’t be able to sleep anyway. I think for most people it’s something they don’t have to think about consciously, but the people with overly strong willpower who just go to sleep at the right time without wasting any time end up being more stressed in the long run. Unless they can easily sleep early because they are just not that busy 😀 Wasting some time is an important part of the daily cycle and people don’t reserve enough time for it.

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  3. Strangely narrow focus on beliefs and willpower. Beliefs are logical, and at the very core, non-logical behaviors or a combination of thinking, feeling, and THEN behaving under the influence of FEELINGS!
    Another basic criticism is that this article mixes adolescent and adult research when we know that executive functioning (the part that delays gratification, thinks about choices in the present in terms of consequences for the future, etc.) and adolescent/early adulthood brains are not even finished developing until 24/26 years of age. (Young women, on average, about a year-2 earlier than young men)
    Finally, and I know this is hard to wrap our heads around, but the amount of adverse childhood experiences that are experienced in the childhood development of most people in our culture, and its connections with basic secure or insecure relationships as adults, as well as physical and emotional health must be taken into account.
    In short, focus on rational willpower as a choice is way too superficial to explain what’s really going on with Americans, and many other industrialized cultures. (And I haven’t even talked about how economic models and policies by cultures reflect the kind of lack of empathy that one would expect from people with these kinds of insecure backgrounds, leading to policies that sacrifice the middle and lower class, in an increasing spiral of insecurity, powerlessness, and hopelessness)
    Lest I sound like the prophet of doom and gloom, I’m not saying we can’t do anything about all of us living healthier lifestyles, I’m just saying that this narrow focus does not lead to a road towards effective solutions.

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