Why We Don’t Get Enough Sleep

Too regularly engage in "bedtime procrastination," creating a vicious cycle.


Too many Americans regularly engage in “bedtime procrastination,” putting off going to bed so long that they’re sleep deprived the next day. Betsy Morais explores the phenomenon for The New Yorker:

The name was coined by Dr. Joel Anderson, of the school’s Practical Philosophy department. “When I started using this term, everybody immediately knew what I was talking about,” he told me. The team’s initial research, published recently in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, defines the problem as “failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.” Dr. Floor Kroese, who led the study, said, “Funny enough, I do not at all experience bedtime procrastination myself.” Her husband, on the other hand, will often tell her that he’s coming to bed in fifteen minutes, only to show up an hour and a half later.


“Bedtime procrastination is just a specific area in which people fail to keep to their good intentions,” Kroese explained. “We find that people who are generally more likely to procrastinate on things are also more likely to procrastinate on going to bed.” Kroese contends that avoiding bedtime involves the same mental process as failing to resist a cookie while you’re trying to diet.

“It’s a longstanding puzzle in philosophy, since Aristotle: why it is that people fail to do what they know is good for them to do,” Anderson said. “People want to improve their health; people want to go to bed on time.” Yet sleeplessness has become a public-health concern, according to the Centers for Disease Control: around fifty to seventy million American adults have some kind of sleep disorder; a third of adults are not sleeping enough hours; and only a third of high-school students are coming close to a good night’s rest. Insufficient sleep has been linked to memory problems, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and car accidents.

In another study—whose results will soon be published in Journal of Health Psychology—Kroese looked at a representative sample of twenty-four hundred and thirty-one Dutch adults, who responded to an online survey and kept a sleep diary every day for a week. The participants reported what time they wanted to go to bed, what time they actually went to bed, and, if there was a discrepancy between the two, whether that reason was outside of their control (crying baby, sick husband, waiting up for a tardy daughter) or within it (good TV). Again, her team found that a large number of people got insufficient sleep and that, as the report states, “people who have low self-regulation skills are more likely to keep watching the late night movie, or play yet another computer game despite knowing they might regret it the next morning when waking up tired.”

The solution?

“When you’re in these situations, it’s sort of a foggy state, a foggy inertial state,” Anderson said. “You need to get going, you need something to get you out of that. You need a greased skid to help you.” This might be a timer that switches off your television, or an alarm on your phone—anything to switch off the illicit zombie impulse that makes you keep scrolling through Twitter under the bedcovers. “It’s not magic, but the effect is robust,” he went on. “If there’s a clear cue, and a clear plan of action lined up, then there are ways of managing yourself.”

Of course, the sort of person who is diligent about setting up these triggers likely is more disciplined about getting to bed at a regular time to begin with. As commenters at the site note, however, there are good reasons other than sheer sloth that people stay up later than they know they ought. sshoys observes,

The time between getting home from a job and going to bed is crammed with SO much stuff – make dinner, clean up, work out, catch up on some tv or reading, and, for many, more work.  And if one has kids, that list grows to include homework, playtime, bedtime and other things that take much more time than for an adult.  If you don’t get home until 5:30 or 6 and strive to go to bed by 10:30, then that’s 5 hours or less to do all of those things.  This is not procrastination, it’s the reality of our society where work/life balance barely exists.

Similarly, elfpix argues,

Because oughts don’t work very well for human beings.  Because staying up late at night is often the only private time people have.  Because human bodies need to run down from the adrenalated high of the day or of TV.  Because there’s no point to going to bed when you’re not sleepy.  Because you’re a night person struggling in a stupid system which assumes everyone is a morning person.

Now, I happen to be both a morning person and one who’s unusually disciplined about sleep. I’m seldom up past 11 and usually awake by 6, even on weekends and vacations. Regardless, I’m often sufficiently sleep deprived that I fall asleep on the couch watching television before going up to bed. Given that this has coincided with having two small children who not infrequently wake me during the night, I chalk it up to fatherhood, although it’s also possibly related to getting older.

Still, I’m sympathetic to the explanations put forth by the commentators above. After spending mornings scrambling to get myself ready for work and the kids ready for school, then working during the day, then scrambling to get the kids fed, bathed, and down for the night there’s precious little time left to unwind before a 1030 bedtime.

And, yes, the “system” is not helpful. I’m luckier than most in that regard, in that my work schedule is somewhat flexible. But that comes with the downside of work—at least loosely defined—is never really done.  Even on vacation, as I happen to be at the moment, there’s much to read, digest, and write about. Many professionals and senior manager types have it much worse, in that the ever-present work demands are externally rather than internally generated, and therefore more stressful.

It can be very difficult to shut all that down and get into the proper frame of mind for sleep. Alcohol can aid in that process but, alas, can also lessen sleep quality.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Franklin says:

    I agree with this, and am guilty of it. It doesn’t help that most of us are also staring at a computer screen or phone right before bed, tricking our eyes and brains into thinking it’s still daytime. Link

  2. Yea, I’m guilty of this too. Staying up later than I ought to knowing I’ll be paying for it the next day, and possible for days afterward.

  3. Ben says:

    That commenter sshoys nails it for me. The reason I stay up later than I should is that it’s the only time I ever get to myself. From the moment I get home from work, I’m helping my wife cook dinner, playing with my son, giving my son a bath, putting him to bed, cleaning up the mess from earlier, etc, etc. By the time I can sit down to have some me-time, it’s usually well after 9PM, sometimes close to 10. If I go to bed early without any recreation time, it drives me crazy after a few days. People need time to decompress.

  4. Rafer Janders says:

    There’s Nightime Rafer and Morning Rafer. Nighttime Rafer, as befits the Rafer’s general night-owl personality, is a jolly fellow who can read, watch movies, get some work done, go out with friends, etc. but, most important of all, does not care one little bit what happens to Morning Rafer. Oh, sure, he has some sense that if he keeps staying up, things might get a little unpleasant the next day for Morning Rafer, but who cares? That’s on Morning Rafer, not Nighttime Rafer.

    And when Morning Rafer wakes up the next day, groggy and sleep-deprived, what can he do? Shake his fist and vow to get even with Nightime Rafer? By the time Nighttime makes his next appearance that evening, Morning Rafer is dead and gone.

  5. Rafer Janders says:

    Because you’re a night person struggling in a stupid system which assumes everyone is a morning person.

    Bingo. My body has a natural rhythm, and over many decades of fighting it it’s clear that that rhythm is to go to bed at 2:00 AM and wake up at 10:00 AM. Anything else is unnatural.

    But, in an office culture, that just doesn’t work. So it’s either not work in an office, or work in an office and exist in a constant state of sleep warfare.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    I used to be guilty of this a lot, and it basically boiled down to “hey, I don’t get much time to do things I WANT to do, damnit!” That and a big side of “I’m a computer game addict and I just want to play One… More… Turn…”

    The funny thing is that as I got less free time, this behavior actually decreased. I have 2 kids now and I don’t stay up to midnight playing a computer game or reading a book much anymore, despite the fact that my free time is basically 8pm-10pm. It happens now and again, but it’s very rare. I just can’t afford it. Why? Well…

    I’m in this wierd place now where I seem to only be able to sleep for ~7 hours, but I’m usually tired when I wake up. But having woken up, I’m unable to go back to sleep, because my brain turns on and/or I’m not comfortable (back/neck). I have also lost my ability to nap.

    It would be easy to blame this on the kids, but it’s really not them at all. They go to sleep around 8 and get up around 6:30-7. They are not keeping me up or getting me up early. On “good” nights, I fall sleep around 10:30 and wake up around 5:30, and lay in bed for an hour, trying and failing to get more sleep.

    The bad nights are the ones where I wake up at 4am, tired as hell, and lay there trying to sleep for 2 1/2 hrs until the alarm goes off. Because I cannot nap anymore, I can’t catch up. My wife and I will switch off on the weekends letting the other person sleep in, but more than half the time I’m not actually sleeping. I’m lying there listening to my wife, daughter and dogs go about their morning (not that the sound is the real problem – the real problem is my brain is on. Silence probably wouldn’t help) and eventually I give up and head down to get some breakfast.

    It’s frustrating as hell. I’m hoping redoubling my efforts to excercise will help. If not, I may have to take other steps.

  7. Rob in CT says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Gonna feel like hell tomorrow, so I won’t go to sleep tonight.
    Na-na-nah-na, sorrow. Everything’s gonna be alright!

    Too Much Joy, The King of Beers

    Nighttime Rob used to hate the very thought of becoming morning Rob again, and his solution was to put that off by staying up even later. Nighttime Rob was an idiot.

  8. the Q says:

    I guess we are channeling here Jerry Seinfeld’s bit:

    JERRY: I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, cause I’m Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. ‘What about getting up after five hours sleep?’, oh that’s Morning Guy’s problem. That’s not my problem, I’m Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want. So you get up in the morning, you’re tired, you’re exhausted, groggy, oooh I hate that Night Guy! See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There’s nothing Morning Guy can do. The only Morning Guy can do is try and oversleep often enough so that Day Guy looses his job and Night Guy has no money to go out anymore.

  9. DrDaveT says:

    @Rafer Janders: Exactly. And the smug morning people who say “Well, just go to bed earlier!” clearly cannot comprehend that there is no real benefit to me in going to bed and lying there staring at the ceiling. I can’t sleep at will; I have to be sleepy. I am not generally sleepy at 10 PM. Or 11 PM. Or even midnight.

    I blame the fact that I’m evolved for a lifetime of hard physical effort every day. Well, and that I clearly evolved on a planet with a 27-hour day…

  10. DrDaveT says:

    I happen to be both a morning person and one who’s unusually disciplined about sleep.

    Sorry, you can’t have it both ways. If you are a morning person, then you are not going to bed because you are disciplined, unusually or otherwise. There is no moral superiority in getting sleepy earlier than other people do.

  11. Tyrell says:

    Two things can interfere with getting enough sleep: one is having a tv in the bedroom.

  12. Rafer Janders says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Nighttime Rob used to hate the very thought of becoming morning Rob again, and his solution was to put that off by staying up even later. Nighttime Rob was an idiot.

    Yes, but it didn’t hurt Nighttime Rob, did it? It only hurt Morning Rob. Totally different guy.

  13. PAUL HOOSON says:

    When I do sleep, which is only about once every two days, it’s only for short periods. I usually work about 16 hours or longer days in my office between the car dealership and the strip club I own. – Most Americans don’t work hard enough in my view. I put in the hours, now I own a $2 million dollar strip club and a car dealership. – Paul Hooson

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And all this time I thought it was pain that woke me up 6-7 times a night.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I’m not claiming moral superiority. But what I mean is that I seldom stay up very late even when I don’t have to get up the next morning and essentially never sleep in. If I’m in bed past 7, I’m probably sick.

    I think it stems from my military days, in that I had to report in most weekdays by 6 am for physical training. That forced me to start going to bed earlier, or I’d have difficulty waking. And even then it was difficult, because I naturally wanted to sleep in on the weekends. But I learned that was re-setting my body clock, so I started setting an alarm to wake the same time every day. I essentially trained myself to become a morning person.

  16. Grumpy Realist says:

    For those who want to try it, there’s always melatonin. Start with the lowest dose possible and be careful. It can have weird side effects.