Health: Want more sleep, but can’t stop staying up late? Sleep procrastination is not as simple as we might think

Beating yourself up after yet another late-night Netflix binge? Abi Jackson asks sleep therapists why some of us just can’t get to bed.

Know you could really do with getting to bed earlier, but can’t seem to make it happen?

Between Netflix episodes that roll on and on, and Instagram scrolls that take us down a rabbit hole of endless clicking, sometimes the reason we’re not catching enough zeds is no mystery.

It’s so easy to get stuck in this loop, but if not clocking up enough quality slumber is taking a toll, you might want to break the habit. So, why is that so much easier said than done?

Don’t beat yourself up

Sleep procrastination – basically putting off sleeping and doing other things instead – is very common. And while you might be kicking yourself for being ‘so bad’ when it comes to bedtime, it’s not as simple as lacking discipline. There might be loads of different reasons for it, but sleep therapist Tracy Hannigan (tracythesleepcoach.co.uk) believes sleep procrastinators mainly fall into two categories.

“There’s the people who are trying to exert some control over something, and it happens to be at night-time when there’s nobody else demanding anything of them,” she explains. “Then there’s the people who don’t carve any time out for themselves, so they’re doing something they enjoy at night, because it’s the only time they can do it.”

I just want some time for me

This is where the phrase ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ or ‘sleep revenge’ comes from: staying up late for some down time, because it’s literally the only opportunity you get.

“I see this in a lot of clients, especially those who work very long hours,” says The Science Of Sleep author Heather Darwall-Smith, a UKCP psychotherapist who specialises in sleep (heatherdarwallsmith.com). “People might think, ‘I don’t want to just be working and sleeping, I’m going to do something that’s nice for me’.”

It’s not just high-flying professionals. Carers might really relate to this too, and parents. Another factor is low self-esteem, notes Darwall-Smith, prioritising everyone else’s needs above our own. And we can all experience overwhelm in various guises – perhaps it’s living with a health condition, dilemmas weighing on your mind – and it makes sense that we seek out some relief and autonomy where it feels easiest.

You’re only human

“When we feel overwhelmed, we reach for the instant gratification,” says Darwall-Smith. “It’s what we can control, and we get a burst of dopamine to the brain, which is pleasurable. As humans, we’re very much programmed to take pleasure over pain.”

And if your sleep-procrastination method of choice tends to involve a screen? Well it’s no wonder if one episode turns into four, or a quick look at TikTok turns into a midnight odyssey of dog videos and skincare tutorials.

“We are up against technologies that have been designed by geniuses to make us engaged,” says Darwall-Smith. “And at night, when we’re tired, our ability to self-regulate is strongly impacted, too. So, it’s not necessarily because people are doing this through choice, or lack self-control: it’s technology, it’s tiredness, it’s overwhelm, it’s trying to get some control in my life, right here, right now.”

More awareness, less judgement

Darwall-Smith and Hannigan both believe acknowledging all this is hugely important. Scratch the surface and these patterns begin to make more sense, you could even call them self-care – but it’s counterproductive when it’s eating into our sleep time, impacting our health and happiness and everything in-between.

Hannigan believes we all have it in us to change these patterns, although progress may not happen quickly and won’t be perfect. “It takes commitment, really committing, but that doesn’t mean people will be 100% successful with it. It’s about committing with compassion,” Hannigan explains.

In other words, cut yourself some slack. And while it’s true that lack of sleep is a health concern, try not to over-focus on this. “I’m always really careful about this, because that in itself can increase anxiety – ‘Why can’t I stop doing this? I know it’s really bad for my health’ – and people can really start to beat themselves up about it,” says Darwall-Smith.

Carrots and sticks

Instead, focus on the rewards. “It’s really important for people to tap into what is the fundamental reason they want to make a change,” says Hannigan. “There’s a belief that there’s stick people and carrot people. Stick people run away from things that have negative consequences. Carrot people are those driven towards the positive. But I think, even for those who think they’re stick people, there are carrots under there.”

Psychology research tends to support the notion that, when it comes to behaviour change, carrots are far more effective than sticks. “So, it’s about finding those,” adds Hannigan. “What things do you really love to do or engage with, that are more difficult because you’re not allowing yourself the sleep you need? For some, it’s connection with spouses and kids. For others, it’s about work productivity and wanting to take the next step.

“Whatever it is, spend time nurturing those thoughts. Those are the things that are going to help you get through the wobbles, and I always think focusing on those positive things really helps with the compassion.”

A life issue, not a sleep issue

If screens at bedtime are an issue for you, Darwell-Smith suggests trying alternative ways to relax, that don’t involve the sleep-sapping traps of technology. A calm, clutter-free bedroom and wind-down routine can of course be helpful – but this really isn’t just about bedtime. Often, it’s the daytime that holds the solutions.

“This is a really important point, because if we make it about sleep, that makes it even harder to work with,” says Darwall-Smith. “Look at what’s happening throughout the day. Ask yourself, ‘What is it that my body needs? And what is it that’s making me do this?’

“One of the first things I do with clients is to look at 24 hours – what does your day and week look like? Then we’ll work backwards – so these are the things you’ve got to achieve, is there anything in here you can put down? And what are your needs, what do you need to prioritise?”

Hannigan agrees – when it comes to therapy for sleep procrastination, a lot of the work is about addressing things at root level. She says many of “these scenarios revolve around managing stress, priorities, and setting boundaries”.

Shifting the focus like this has numerous benefits. You’re creating pockets of space for self-care or ‘me time’ that’s not stealing your sleep, even if it’s just a 20-minute morning workout or reading on your commute. You’re taking steps towards reducing and managing stress more effectively, and towards a greater sense of control.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992