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How Sleep and Self-Control Relate to Wasting Time at Work

Not sleeping well? Low on self-control? This research speaks to you.

The research on time wasting at work is sparse, but Dutch colleagues from the University of Amsterdam, Wendelien van Eerde and Merlijn Venus, recently made a new contribution. They hypothesized that high sleep quality (but not quantity) provides energy and necessary self-regulatory abilities so that we can work effectively. Low sleep quality would result in time wasting.

The interesting innovation in their study is that they next asked, is this true for everyone? Isn’t it possible that more “hardy” individuals might be able to push through sleep deprivation (low sleep quality the night before) and stay on task? To answer this question, they explored how self-control might be a resilience resource in the face of poor sleep quality.

They expected to see that there was an overall relation between low sleep quality and time wasting the next day, but that this would be moderated by self-control. They argued that when self-control was high, there would be less procrastination, even with low sleep quality.

Their Method
They enlisted 71 participants (average age about 35 years) from a diverse range of occupations: finance, banking, government, education, construction, health care, marketing and sales (among others). These participants completed the study in two waves.

In the first wave, they completed a measure of self-control. They did this before the next wave as the researchers were trying to reduce the effect of common methods bias—measuring people multiple times tends to inflate the relation between variables.

In the second wave, the participants completed daily diaries for 10 consecutive work days.

  • At 11 a.m. each day they reported on the quality of their sleep the night before. Participants rated their sleep on a single item: How would you evaluate last night’s sleep (using a 5-point scale from “Very bad” to “Very good”).
  • At 4 p.m., they reported on their time wasting at work (what the authors labeled work procrastination).

As a preface to the results, it's not entirely clear that they studied procrastination, per se. Although they adapted items from an existing measure of procrastination, the three items that they used are not exactly procrastination. Participants were asked to rate their work day on these three items (on a scale from “Completely disagree” to “Completely Agree”):

  1. Today, I was an incurable time waster;
  2. Today, I was a time waster, but I couldn’t seem to do anything about it; and
  3. Today, I promised myself I would do something and then I dragged my feet.

It’s clear they measured how much their participants felt that they wasted time, but wasting time is not the same thing as procrastination. There are a couple of issues here.

First, many of us avoid one task but do not waste time at all because we get lots of (other) things done (see for example John Perry’s notion of structured procrastination).

Second, procrastination is a gap between intention and action. We intend to do a task, but then we irrationally put it off. The authors agree, as they write in the introduction, “Procrastination is irrational delay that encompasses the discrepancy between intention and action: it occurs when people intend to act but do not act, in spite of knowing that they will be worse off.” The issue here is that we may waste time quite needlessly but still be on task. Wasting time doesn’t mean that there is a discrepancy between intention and action, just that I’m not being as “on task” or as efficient as I might be.

In sum, although we may waste time when we procrastinate, knowing that I feel like I’m wasting time doesn’t mean that I’m procrastinating. (For more on issues like this in psychological research, see the Jingle-Jangle Fallacies). All this is to say that I think it’s important to note from the outset that this study isn’t about procrastination, it’s about wasting time. It’s still an important study because it helps us understand what predicts time wasting at work — in this case, lack of quality sleep.

Their Results
As expected, they replicated past research that demonstrated a relationship between sleep quality and “procrastination” the next day. The poorer the sleep quality, the more time wasting reported. And, as they hypothesized, self-control made a difference.

In fact, for those with high self-control, this relation was non-existent! As the authors sum it up, “This implies that sleep quality is more important for those low on self-control, as only for these respondents, it was negatively related to procrastination the next day.”

Concluding thoughts
The authors speculate about the psychological mechanism at work here and suggest future research to help identify the processes involved. I tend to agree with the authors that individuals with high self-control may experience feelings of depletion because of poor sleep quality, but they have personal resources to help them stay on task despite these feelings of depletion. I also agree with them that future studies may well want to explore the personality “super trait” of Conscientiousness, as I think we’d see the same results had they measured this trait in place of self-control.

Conscientiousness is defined by sub-traits (or facets) such as self-discipline, dutifulness, and organization. I think you can see why this may be a major resilience resource to help prevent time wasting at work. In fact, conscientiousness has been shown to be a key predictor of workplace success across numerous studies and varied measures of “success.”

The good news is that we can improve our self-regulatory strength or self-control. And, ironically, developing more self-regulatory skills or strength may well contribute to better sleep quality by reducing sleep procrastination.


van Eerde, W., & Venus, M. (2018). A daily diary study on sleep quality and procrastination at work: The moderating role of trait self-control. Frontiers in Psychology, 9: 2029. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02029 (Read the paper)

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