If the above scenario sounds familiar, you may have fallen victim to the vicious cycle of sleep loss and procrastination. And you're not alone: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that roughly one in three adults in this country aren’t getting enough sleep. And without proper sleep, carrying out important projects and tasks can be damn near impossible... which can, in turn, make it even harder to fall asleep on following nights.
How sleep loss can lead to procrastination
According to neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, sleep is an opportunity for the brain to rejuvenate and repair itself. While you may swear up and down that you can operate with just a few hours of shut-eye and a strong cold brew, the brain needs between 5.5 and 7.5 hours of sleep nightly in order to reap its full cognitive benefits.
“The body still needs sleep, even if you think you don't need it,” says Dr. Hafeez. “When you sleep, your cells regenerate and they help the neurons communicate with one another. If that's not happening, how does your brain know what to do? Different parts of the brain, instead of working in tandem, are now doing their own thing.”
When we don’t get enough sleep, says Dr. Hafeez, our brains can only handle the absolute bare minimum. Executive functions—aka the mental processes that help us make decisions, pay attention, regulate our emotions, and carry out projects requiring concentration—take a serious hit when we get too little sleep.
This lapse in executive function makes it difficult to practice self-control and see tasks through to their completion—a mindset ripe for procrastination. Even when we’re well-rested, it’s natural for our brains to seek out immediate gratification and resist complex, hefty tasks. But studies show that sleep deprivation’s impact on cognitive function can lead to heightened impulsivity, risk-taking, and poor decision-making, such that procrastination (especially on tough or important tasks) becomes the more appealing choice.
“When you lose sleep, you wake up the next day and have certain things you need to get done... but you don't have the mental wherewithal to do it, so you put it off.” —Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, neuropsychologist
“When you lose sleep, you wake up the next day and have certain things you need to get done, perhaps something really important,” says Dr. Hafeez, “but you don't have the mental wherewithal to do it, so you put it off. And then at the end of the day, you realize that you've procrastinated on that important task.”
Procrastinating tasks can cause anxiety to build up, making it even more difficult to fall asleep at night. This insomnia feeds into the sleep loss and procrastination cycle: You can’t fall asleep because you’re worried about tomorrow’s task load, but as noted above, you won’t be able to complete tomorrow’s tasks without adequate sleep.
“In the back of your brain, you know that there's a bunch of things that need to be done,” says Dr. Hafeez. “You procrastinated because there was no urgency to them at the time, but the back of your brain is keeping tabs; it knows you need to do these things. That's where that unbridled, free-floating anxiety comes from.”
Luckily, there are a few sleep habits you can implement that will help you break the sleep loss and procrastination cycle, once and for all. Ahead are Dr. Hafeez’s tips for getting your sleep back on track.
4 ways to break free from the cycle of sleep loss and procrastination
1. Build a calming bedtime ritual that works for you
Creating a consistent bedtime routine can help your busy mind catch up with your tired body. Our circadian rhythms love regularity and consistency, and over time, our bedtime routines become a cue for our mind that it’s time to wind down.
First, complete the tasks that will help you best prepare for the following day, like brushing your teeth, washing your face, setting out tomorrow’s clothes, or setting up your coffee maker for the morning. Since these self-care tasks set you up to succeed in the morning, they may help ease some anxieties about the day ahead.
After this, settle in with a relaxing, electronics-free activity like reading a good book or practicing meditation. “Have a lavender tea, something that calms and suits you at night,” suggests Dr. Hafeez.
Additionally, breaking bad sleep habits like drinking caffeine late in the afternoon, eating a heavy meal immediately right before bed, or taking frequent naps will help you establish (and stick to) your new bedtime routine. Pick a time that you’ll begin your bedtime ritual, and stick to it every evening; even if you don’t fall asleep on time every time, your mind will get used to the routine and will begin to associate it with sleep time.
“The only way we can get somewhere is by consistently developing small habits,” says Dr. Hafeez, “whether it's 10 minutes of deep breathing, two minutes of meditation, putting on a sound machine, or plugging your phone in far away from your bed. It won't become a habit unless you consistently force yourself to do it every day.”
2. Write your goals for the next day before going to sleep
A 2018 study compared the positive sleep effects of journaling before bed among two different groups. One group spent five minutes writing their to-do list for the next day, and the other group spent five minutes writing about the tasks they had completed that same day. Those who wrote their next-day to-do lists fell asleep significantly faster than those who wrote about their accomplishments.
Putting pen to paper and planning out the next day’s to-do list may help you stop overthinking about tomorrow’s agenda and ease mounting anxiety about the tasks you’ve put off, thereby making it easier to fall asleep on time, says Dr. Hafeez. Rather than using your phone’s notes app, though, reach for a physical journal and pen instead. The blue light that’s emitted from electronics can suppress the body’s release of the hormone melatonin, which plays a critical role in the sleep-wake cycle, making it even more difficult to fall asleep
3. Avoid the lure of "revenge bedtime procrastination"
Even though you’re exhausted at the end of a particularly long and stressful day, you may find yourself habitually scrolling social media, bingeing TV shows, or playing video games into the late evening hours.
This habit is called revenge bedtime procrastination, and it stems from feeling like you don’t have control over what happens during your waking hours. When you’re finally at your own home, off the clock, without your boss or children needing things from you, you’re motivated to take your time back—even if it’s at the expense of your sleep quality.
“When you finally have some downtime, a part of your brain wants to relax,” says Dr. Hafeez. “We all know how to waste time at night.”
Nothing’s wrong with wanting to unwind at the end of the day, but putting off sleep in the name of "me" time can feed into the sleep-loss cycle. While tempting, do your best to resist the urge to doomscroll Facebook or play Sims until 4:00 a.m. During the daytime, find opportunities to do meaningful, enriching things for yourself, like reading a book on your lunch break or listening to a podcast on your daily commute. Injecting pockets of time that are productive and dedicated solely to your well-being can quell the desire for revenge bedtime procrastination.
4. When all else fails, see a sleep expert
If you can’t seem to break the sleep loss and procrastination cycle on your own, you may need to enlist the help of a sleep physician or sleep psychologist who can help diagnose the root cause of your insomnia and find solutions that work for you.
In the long term, not getting enough sleep can lead to blood pressure changes, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, so it’s crucial that you seek help as soon as you can. “If it's a constant issue, then you should definitely address it sooner rather than later,” adds Dr. Hafeez.
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