The Surprising Way Boredom Can Mess With Your Sleep

Photo: Getty Images/ JGI/Jamie Grill
There are some emotions science shows can affect how well you sleep: Stress, anxiety, being super excited about something happening the next day...can all cause some element of tossing and turning at night. (Annoying? Yes. Surprising? Not really.) But there's another emotion that can keep us up, and that's boredom, according to a new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

As it turns out, being bored in the house, in the house bored, can lead to what the study authors call bedtime procrastination—aka putting off when you actually go to bed. That, in turn, affects sleep because the longer you delay turning off the lights and going to bed, the less sleep you wind up getting—after all, most people can control what time they go to bed, but not when they have to get up for work or take care of their kids.

Experts In This Article
  • Ai Ni Teoh, PhD, Ai Ni Teoh, PhD, is a senior psychology professor at James Cook University Singapore. Her research focuses mainly on psychological and cardiovascular responses to stress.
  • Rebecca Robbins, PhD, sleep expert at sleep-tech company Oura

It's certainly an interesting connection. If you're so bored, why not just...go to bed? Here, Ai Ni Teoh, PhD, lead author of the study health and a social psychology professor, plus Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a Harvard Medical School professor who works with sleep app Loóna, explain the connection, as well as how to overcome it and form habits that actually lead to quality zzz's.

How boredom leads to sleep procrastination

Some 270 people participated in Dr. Teoh's study, and the researchers measured their level of boredom based on mind wandering and fidgeting. They found that these traits were directly linked to putting off going to bed. One reason for this is that when you're bored, you're easily distracted—and that can lead to delaying bedtime, Dr. Teoh explains in the paper, which reads: "Going to bed later than intended has to do with low self-regulation, as bedtime procrastinators are more responsive to distractions, and they are depleted of resources for self-regulation after a long day at work."

So, in essence: "Our study tested a model that linked boredom to inattention, and from inattention to bedtime procrastination, and subsequently sleep quality—and the results confirmed the model," Dr. Teoh says. "This suggests that people who are bored find it hard to concentrate, including paying attention to bedtime if the sense of boredom is felt near bedtime, in turn delaying bedtime. Such a delay compromises their sleep quality."

While Dr. Teoh says the study didn't include what the participants did when they were bored and weren't going to bed, she and Dr. Robbins both have a pretty good hunch: watching TV or scrolling social media. (Dr. Teoh adds that other studies back up that this is exactly what people do.)

"At the end of the day, our willpower is depleted," Dr. Robbins says. "We have been making decisions and processing information, so we are less able to self-regulate and prioritize healthy choices, like keeping our consistent bedtime routine." That means we're more likely to grab our phones and start scrolling, even when we know it isn't the greatest evening habit.

Dr. Robbins says both activities are doubly bad for quality sleep for more reasons than just keeping you up later. Screen-time is proven to get in the way of good sleep. (You knew that was coming, right?)

How to establish an evening routine that works for you, not against you

To recap what the experts have revealed so far, when you're bored, you're more easily distracted. And in that state, you're increasingly likely to put off going to bed. But here's the thing: Dr. Robbins says it's not "bad" to be bored. In fact, she says boredom can play an important role in our overall mental health. "Allowing your mind to wander is a crucial part of everyday life," she says. "After all, we cannot sustain a razor-sharp focus for protracted periods of time."

In her study, Dr. Teoh and her fellow researchers suggest channeling boredom into enjoyable activities throughout the day that allow the mind to wander, and that's exactly what Dr. Robbins recommends, too. Some examples: cooking, putting away dishes, or folding clothes.

It's also important to give yourself this type of mental break ahead of hitting the hay; otherwise, your thoughts could keep you up later. "Before bed, mind wandering can help you separate from your planned, regimented, and focused day," says Dr. Robbins.

Her best advice is to create an evening schedule that allots for this. "Kickstart a sleep routine in the 60 minutes before bed that will sooth you," she says. If you want time to scroll social media mindlessly? Cool, she says go for it. Just do it before your hour wind-down begins so that you keep that limit in place.

Instead, "fill these moments before bed with relaxing activities," she says. "For instance, light a candle, turn the lights low, take a warm shower, and consider downloading a smartphone app that can ease you to sleep with soothing activities, stories, or mindfulness exercises to transport you from your day and prepare your brain and body for better sleep," Dr. Robbins says. (These types of apps are audio-based, so they pass her no-screen test. Bottom line: Whatever it is that helps you transition from the stressors of the day to a relaxing night's sleep, go for it.

What's most important is sticking to an evening routine—including doing away with digital devices at least an hour before bed, according to Dr. Robbins. Doing so, she says, is the antithesis to the boredom that can lead to sleep procrastination. "If we keep our routines consistent, we fall asleep faster, into better quality sleep," she says. And that's going to lead to feeling more energized and healthier overall.

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