Why We Procrastinate at Bedtime
And the challenge so many of us have convincing ourselves it's OK to sleep.
Posted Mar 23, 2015
Cannot the laborers understand that by over-working themselves they exhaust their own strength and that of their progeny, that they are used up and long before their time come to be incapable of any work at all, that absorbed and brutalized by this single vice they are no longer men but pieces of men, that they kill within themselves all beautiful faculties, to leave nothing alive and flourishing except the furious madness for work. –Paul Lafargue, The Right to Be Lazy (1883)
Canadian journalist Carl Honoré used to battle with his 2-year-old boy over bedtime stories. “You’re going too fast!” the boy would say. Honoré admits he would often lead his son, who savored the long stories, toward the short ones. Why? Because Honoré was eager to finish up his work before he went to bed. That same year while waiting impatiently in an airport, he read a newspaper to feel productive and noticed a headline that stopped his fast-tracked mind: “The One-Minute Bedtime Story.”
“Think Hans Christian Anderssen meets the executive summary,” Honoré writes in In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, the book that the one-minute bedtime story article plus his own guilt with his son inspired him to research and write.
If Honoré is like a slew of entrepreneurs and creatives, he likely suffered from what scientists in the Netherlands call “bedtime procrastination.” Bedtime procrastination is defined as "failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.”
That last part of the definition—“while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so”—I find especially fascinating.
Is bedtime procrastination unique to our times and unique to entrepreneurs and creatives, male or female? And what, if anything, can we do about it without "managing" our time? I am especially calling out men because we do not talk about these matters publicly (although we do privately).
What does bedtime procrastination look like?
Bedtime procrastination looks like a male entrepreneur choosing to cram-read parts of three work-related books for an hour or two beyond when he knows he should normally go to sleep because he did not make time for reading during the day, instead of, say, relaxing with a loved one or meditating or doing something non-work related for 30 minutes before bed. It looks like his wife downstairs hunkered at the coffee table as she drafts her next video presentation for her upcoming program and making similar choices.
In both cases, they may or may not have children to tend to and may or may not have ailing parents to tend to, but they have chosen the challenges of working for themselves and have chosen how to devote their attention and action in pre-bedtime in ways that give them insufficient sleep. They are actually procrastinating going to bed at a reasonable hour and getting the kind of deep creative, cognitive-rebooting sleep that could translate to even more optimal prioritizing and focus the next day, the kind of rest that might remind us why we're here anyway.
I know this situation because the example above is based in part on our household. Like Honoré, I also have internally struggled with how I have at times rushed through my little girl’s bedtime stories because I have imposed upon myself some other “looming deadline” or urgency. Only once did my little girl, an adept memorizer, call me on my speed-reading: “Papa! You didn’t read this part!” I usually don’t dwell in guilt for long because it’s not worth the energy and because I know I’m a pretty damned attentive father otherwise.
But there's something here in this study during this epoch worth unpacking.
Is bedtime procrastination unique to our times?
Let's root bedtime procrastination within another conversation, the one about how we work and how we spend our time and attention outside of work in nourishing ways. Let's call "how we spend our time and attention outside of work in nourishing ways as ends unto themselves" as "self-care." The question I'm hearing in several circles is this: Are we spending too much time working? Let's be more specific: Are you spending too much time working?
This conversation has been around for centuries. Need perspective? Think of how children used to labor in London in the 18th and 19th centuries. A 1770 essay attributed to a “J. Cunningham” suggested that “bastards and other accidental poor children” should work for 12 hours a day. So as a global culture, we might be doing a wee bit better. Still, the conversation is kicking up again—and although I often hear the conversation among women and mother entrepreneurs—the conversation is not limited to nor unique to women and mother entrepreneurs. Brigid Schulte—author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time—asks in The Washington Post, “Are you a work martyr?”—and in the same article president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association Roger Dow notes, “People really wear it on their sleeves how they don’t take time off.”
What is different as I see it is this: On one hand, more and more businesses are placing work limits on their employees. More and more business leaders recognize the value of limiting hours for work and even email exchange. Employees at Contentedly or Vynamic or Lovesocial (as highlighted recently in Jill Kransy’s Fast Company article “The Latest Thinking About Time”) all have policies that moderate employees’ work time. Of course, they know the mounting evidence shows that more time off actually increases productivity—but if I'm such a worker, I don't care about their motives. It's good policy.
But here’s the kicker for a lot of us: More and more people are their own boss. Entrepreneurs, creatives, contractors, freelancers, service providers, teachers, and other business artists account for more and more American “business.” Most American businesses have no paid employees. 40% of Americans have worked on their own. That number is predicted to rise exponentially within the next few years. It is the age of the business artist.
So who is going to create a policy for the independent business artist—or even the CEO? Who is going to monitor when they “go home”?
How do we parse out this bedtime procrastination in this larger conversation of self-care? What do we do differently without buying another monitoring app like Dan Ariely’s Timeful? (Were you tempted to go buy that app? Don’t do it yet. You won't app your way to making better choices.)
My views are limited, but they’re based on a few factors—my own experience, my assimilating the experiences of countless clients and community members, my interviews with entrepreneurs and creatives, and my assimilation of a lot of research in psychology to help check my own biases.
Avoid the “This Is How I View it and So It Should Be True for Everyone” Fallacy
We each have our own set of familial and work circumstances, our own personality patterns, and our own goals and priorities. Alert: Not everyone values friendships equally. Not everyone values time with children equally. Not everyone values being on vacation equally. (In fact, most sculptors, writers, and other creatives I know do not really take interest in "vacations," per se.) So honor your own set of values, circumstances, and personality.
There is, for instance, a demographic—female and male—that has had to fight with themselves and partners and family members to claim time and turf to work on their own projects and to invest in their own start-ups when no tangible financial return is in sight. To be allowed to find pleasure in their own work or their own art has itself been a triumph over 10, 20, 30 years of other patterning. They in turn have to struggle against feeling “guilty” for claiming their own time. I asked Fr. Kroese if her research turned up any reliable data on gender differences when it comes to bedtime procrastination or self-regulation. Here's her response:
In our study, we did find that women tended to report getting insufficient sleep to a larger extent than men. However, this didn’t seem to be traced back to the actual hours of sleep or the extent to which they went to bed later than intended. So while women may suffer more from fatigue, at this point I wouldn’t say that it is attributable to gender differences in bedtime procrastination. Also on a more general level, I don’t think gender differences between people’s ability to self-regulate are typically found.
On the other hand, a business client who also has authored a book coming out this year rails against the myth of the work-life balance. In essence, he champions the work ethic done wisely if his audience is going to achieve what they say they want to achieve. I have felt for years that “work-life balance” is a harmful metaphor. It perpetuates an illusion and perpetuates guilt on either side of “working avidly” or “hanging out with the kids.” It perpetuates false dichotomies of "work" in one corner and "life worth living" in the other corner—a division that also sallies working itself.
Part of Tracking Wonder's Compass of Wonder states, "The 'rest of your life' outside of creative work is part of your creative quest, too." It's an inclusive frame that sees all that you do as a continuum instead of a conflicting divide. My take is that each business artist has to own what is important to him or her and then prioritize, choose accordingly, and finesse constantly ever-shifting circumstances. Each business artist has to own his or her set of aspirations and goals as well as the necessary challenges those goals and challenges require.
I will offer a bit more personal background to put into perspective my suggestions. I do track wonder and its myriad faces every day, but I do have to work at it and have since I was a teenager. I have an inner Soldier Boy who has functioned at full force since I was 14 years old and left largely to my own devices to make lots of daily life decisions. That pattern has often shown up when I am producing work that in my mind will help provide for my little girl when in fact the “payoff” is in part illusory. I also know that for 25-plus years I have derived considerable pleasure from work and writing. I get that pattern in me. I accept it. That Soldier Boy has “done me good.” And I do my best to monitor and regulate it.
But I will make this generalization: That self-monitoring and regulation—ongoing with compassionate vigilance—is the key. At least that's what I'm testing out. What we do have in common are these capacities. These are all qualities related to meta-cognition, our ability to be aware of our own thoughts, sensations, and attention. The more we practice paying attention to where we pay attention, the more we each can choose where to direct or re-direct our attention and our actions. It's basic though takes a lifetime to master. Not coincidentally, the lead scientist of the bedtime procrastination study is Floor Kroese, the founder of the Selfregulation Lab.
How I spend my time and attention is largely my choice. My wife—a sought-after health practitioner, business owner, entrepreneur, and mother to two children—says the same of her situation. That’s not an easy claim to own. It’s not easy for me to say, “I mostly choose my challenges.” It’s not easy for me to say that when I am overwhelmed or feel as if I do not have sufficient “time” to do all I want and think I need to do comes largely from my choices. But when as a business artist and writer I assume agency for my priorities and choices, then I am more prone to choose differently. Not with the aid of an app but possibly with the aid of a little more self-awareness in the moment.
So tonight when I feel rushed or when I grab two books and a magazine on the way upstairs, I will observe that rush. I will put the books back in my study, and with the 5-year-old's chin snuggled on my shoulder or chest, I will savor the expressive words of Anderssen’s The Little Mermaid and talk a little more spaciously with her about her day and then hang out for a few minutes with my wife-partner before we all at appropriate hours float into that other world that provides rejuvenation and replenishment for a dreamy-headed guy and his dreamy-headed family.
At least that’s my intention.
Originally posted on TrackingWonder.com.