If you’ve ever stayed up too late because you let yourself watch “just one more” episode, or read just one more chapter, which then turned into several more, leaving you exhausted and regretful the next day, you’re not alone. Research suggests that this behavior, called bedtime procrastination, is fairly common. The problem is, it can wreak havoc on sleep quality, which is essential for good health.
What leads people to stay up past their bedtime, even when they know it won’t end well? Some researchers propose that it has to do, in part, with the way we cope with negative emotions. After a long and tiring day, we may choose to do things that make us feel good in the moment, like binge-watching our favorite show, even if they’re less conducive to broader goals, like getting a good night’s sleep. Paradoxically, the things we do to cope with stress and fatigue may fuel a vicious cycle where we’re more worn out the next day—and therefore less able to exert the self-control needed to get to bed on time.
But certain practices could make people less likely to fall into this pattern. One of these practices is self-compassion, which involves taking a kind and non-judgmental approach to personal difficulties, and recognizing that hard times and setbacks are part of being human. A self-compassionate attitude can help people reframe a negative situation in a more positive and accepting light. For example, instead of ruminating on a negative thought like, “Ugh, my presentation was a disaster; I'll never get that promotion,” a self-compassionate person might say to themselves, “The presentation didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but that’s understandable given how much I have on my plate, and I can always try a new approach next time.” By easing negative thoughts and emotions, self-compassion may reduce people’s reliance on sleep-delaying activities as a way of coping with stress.
In a test of this hypothesis, researchers found that participants who scored higher on a measure of self-compassion (e.g., “I try to be loving towards myself when I’m feeling emotional pain") reported less frequent bedtime procrastination (e.g., "I go to bed later than I intended"). They also reported less trouble falling asleep and better sleep quality overall. Using a mediation model, the researchers found evidence that self-compassionate participants procrastinated less on sleep in part because they were more likely to cognitively reframe negative events, which was in turn associated with lower levels of negative emotions such as distress, guilt, anger, and shame.
The researchers noted that there may be other reasons why self-compassionate people are better able to get to bed on time, beyond their ability to cope with negative emotions. In particular, going to sleep early could be seen as a form of self-kindness in itself. Self-compassionate people may be more focused on taking good care of themselves physically, while those who tend to be harder on themselves may be more likely to push themselves in ways that are less conducive to sleep.
Although this research examined the role of self-compassion as a personality trait that differs across individuals, we’re not stuck with the level we’re currently at—it’s possible to increase self-compassion through practice, and doing so might, in turn, improve sleep hygiene, as well as other health behaviors. If you’re someone who struggles with bedtime procrastination, here are three ideas for using self-compassion to get to bed earlier.
1. Give yourself the downtime you need, but be intentional about it.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do something relaxing and enjoyable to unwind in the evening. This is an important part of self-care, and too often we don’t give ourselves this time throughout the day, which may lead us to stay up late in pursuit of it. But we’re more likely to enjoy the relaxing activity if we set a time limit and stick to it. Because of a process called hedonic adaptation, the more we have of something, the less we tend to enjoy and appreciate it—think of that first bite of cake compared to the last one. Plus, if we overindulge in a nighttime activity, we may start to experience feelings of guilt and regret that take away from the pleasure of it.
2. Have compassion for your “morning self.”
Staying up may feel good to your evening self, but it can cause a lot of pain for your morning self, the one who will have to struggle through the day on too little sleep. Research suggests that we often fail to fully empathize with our future selves, who can seem like different people. But this doesn’t mean we should be so future-focused that we neglect our present selves; a self-compassionate approach might consider how the needs of the present and future self can be balanced. That is, how can I meet my present needs in a way that won’t interfere with my ability to get a good night’s sleep?
3. Add a five-minute self-compassion meditation to your bedtime routine.
Psychologist Kristin Neff has developed a practice called Self-Compassion Break, which involves three steps: acknowledging suffering with mindfulness, recognizing that suffering is part of being human, and expressing self-kindness, such as by putting your hands over your heart and saying, “May I be kind to myself” or “May I be strong”—or other statements that resonate with you. In one study, participants who practiced this meditation as part of an eight-week self-compassion training program reported greater life satisfaction and lower depression, anxiety, and stress compared to a control group. Another study found that an evening self-compassion meditation led to reports of improved sleep quality the next morning, thanks in part to less rumination.
Although avoiding bedtime procrastination is something that we can in theory control, there are some situations where staying up late is not our choice, but is instead due to circumstances outside our control, such as family or work demands, physical pain, or insomnia. In those cases, the most self-compassionate thing we can do is to seek out support from medical professionals or others who might help us address these challenges—and to cut ourselves some slack when we don’t get a perfect night’s sleep despite our best efforts.
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Sirois, F. M., Nauts S., & Molnar, D. S. (2019). Self-compassion and bedtime procrastination: an emotion regulation perspective. Mindfulness, 10, 434-445.