Get Better Sleep

What if there were a precise scientific way to get yourself to go to bed on time, that was also practical enough to implement? Good news! There is.

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Most nights, you have every good intention of getting to bed on time. You want to get a good night’s sleep, and you know that having a regular bedtime is important, especially if you’re planning on waking up early. But once that bedtime rolls around, one thing leads to another, and you don’t actually end up going to bed.

We call this bedtime procrastination. Now, sometimes you have to delay going to bed for good reason -- your child is sick, or you have a report due the next morning (a situation created by earlier procrastination). But sometimes you put off going to bed for seemingly no good reason.

What exactly is the problem here? Why is it so hard to get to bed on time? You know when the alarm’s going to go off in the morning, and you can do the math to figure out what time you have to go to bed. So why is it so difficult to get yourself to stick to it?


Much of the research around sleep-deficit related health problems is focused around insomnia, sleep apnea, and other medical conditions that might be solved with a pill. But a lot of the time, it’s actually a behavioral issue that’s responsible for us getting less sleep.

When we think about procrastination, we typically generalize to this notion of something we don’t want to do. But when you think about bedtime procrastination, the context is very different. What is it we’re avoiding by not going to bed?

Here are a few hurdles keeping you from getting to bed on time:

You didn’t get everything done yet.

Some days, at the end of the evening, you recognize that your hopes for what you would have accomplished that day were not realized. You might choose to cope with your expectations not having been met by saying, "I'll just tackle a few more items on my to-do list right now," instead of reprioritizing them for the following day.

You feel entitled to having extra time at the end of your day.

It seems that most people have some sense of entitlement to having a certain amount of time to do things (get more work done, watch TV, unwind) before bed. If you feel that you deserve this time at the end of the day to do other things, maybe you do! But it may be leading you to prioritize poorly simply because this feeling of deserving more time is telling you not to go to bed until you’ve done something else.

Joel Anderson draws a great analogy in his podcast on bedtime procrastination:

“It's like when we go to the mall and we feel we deserve a new pair of shoes, but we don't have the money for it. In the same way that we can spend money we don't have, we can also spend time we don't have (because we feel we deserve that time) by not going to bed.”

You're lacking proper signals to keep you aware of the time.

Now that we have DVRs and Netflix, and we can watch TV whenever we want, we no longer have that signal when an episode ends that it’s exactly 9:30pm. You might say, “I’ll just watch this one episode,” or, “I’ll just check my email for a minute,” but you know that if you have more than a few emails waiting for you, it'll likely end up being longer than a minute. Without a good measure of how long we’re spending on these activities, it’s easy to get caught up in them and let the time slip away.
We use each of these reasons as a license to delay. So, what can we do to get past these obstacles, and get ourselves to actually go to bed on time?

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What if there were a precise scientific way to get yourself to go to bed on time, that was also practical enough to implement? Good news! There is. Follow these steps (seriously, all of them) and you’ll be getting to bed earlier before you know it.

Step 1: Reduce light exposure before bed.

Your retinas serve two purposes -- receiving input necessary for vision, and housing sensors that detect the rise and fall of daylight. Your body uses light to set your internal clock to a 24-hour cycle, regulated largely by the hormone melatonin. Your body produces melatonin at night, which tells your body that it’s time to go to bed. But when your retinas take in light, especially blue light (emitted by energy-efficient light bulbs and most electronic devices) this light suppresses production of melatonin, messing up your circadian rhythm.

→ Do right now: Install f.lux on all your devices. F.lux is a software utility that adjusts the amount of blue light that your device emits, based on the time of day (meaning you’ll take in less blue light at night). Even better, opt for a good book or a conversation with your spouse instead of defaulting to watching TV or browsing reddit.

Step 2: Make the change gradual.

If you’re currently going to bed at 11pm, don’t decide that tonight you’re going to get to bed by 9pm. First of all, your internal clock resets at a rate of about one hour per day, and some body systems may take even longer. But more generally, when you’re making behavioral changes, instead of trying to jump all the way to the finish line right away and then missing, you should aim to take smaller steps to build up to your bigger goal.

It’s also important to give your body time to adjust as you start bumping up your bedtime. If you’re not tired enough to fall asleep after 10-15 minutes of tossing and turning, get up and do something else. One core tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is stimulus control, which aims to associate the bed with sleeping, and not with stimulating behavior (like watching TV). Stimulus control principles advise that you only go to bed when you are tired, limit activities in bed to sleep and sex, and move to another room if you don’t fall asleep within 10 minutes of being in bed.

→ Do right now: Decide to go to bed 15 minutes earlier tonight than you usually do. Write it down, or say it out loud. Understand that you may not fall asleep right away, and give yourself permission to fail, so long as you attempt to get to bed at that time.

Step 3: Set up your environment to avoid objections.

One of the biggest reasons we don’t do the things we intend to do is that we don’t plan for them appropriately. First, walk through exactly what your evening will look like in your head. Something like, “I’ll have dinner at 7pm, then I’ll do a little more work, I’ll watch an episode of this show, brush my teeth, and go to bed by 10pm.”

Great! You’ve got a plan. But… by the time the end of the day rolls around, your attention and ego resources are already depleted, and your willpower may not be strong enough to stick to your plan.

So what you’ll need to do before the time comes to put your plan into action is to think through your specific plan, and identify and rehearse potential objections. The idea is to plan around these -- to design your environment to make it less likely that you’ll get distracted and ditch your plan.

Think of Ulysses binding himself to the mast in order to resist the temptation of the Sirens’ song. What can you do to resist watching TV tonight? Perhaps hide the remote, or move the TV to another room. Or even set a timer to shut off the TV at a certain time.

→ Do right now: Envision your routine for this evening. Be as specific as possible, using times to set markers. Now think through any possible obstacles that may distract you from following your plan, and decide on specific ways that you will avoid those obstacles.

Step 4: Set reminders for yourself to stick to your plan.

Once you’ve mapped out a plan for your evening, you can make it even more actionable by setting reminders for yourself. (Remember the point above about losing track of time?)

The idea here is that reminders not only alert you in the moment, but they also help you build tiny habits by creating triggers for certain behaviors. For example, you can decide, “as soon as my alarm goes off, I will cozy up on my couch and press play on Netflix. As soon as the show ends, I will brush my teeth and get into bed.” Creating triggers for each part of your sequence of events will help you succeed with each next intended behavior.

→ Do right now: Decide what time you’re going to begin the process of getting ready for bed. Add it to your calendar, or send yourself a scheduled text at that time. Then create a very deliberate plan for exactly what you’re going to do once that reminder goes off or you get that text. Build in explicit triggers throughout the process.

Step 5: Make a public commitment.

Making a public commitment to getting something done is a great way to create accountability for yourself. Because you don’t want others see that you have failed to follow through on your commitment, you’ll make it much more likely that you will, in fact, follow through. Studies show that the once we make a public commitment, we are more likely to honor it.

→ Do right now: Decide what time you’re going to go to bed tonight, and make a public commitment to it. Text a friend to tell them what time you’re going to bed, and commit to texting them again to let them know if you missed your bedtime. Or better yet, post to Facebook, or tweet that you’re going to bed at a certain time. Your friends will see if you’re online past your bedtime!


You’re ready to overcome any obstacles and stop procrastinating on getting to bed, and you’re on track to make important behavior changes. Good luck!

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