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.