Why Bedtime Procrastination Is Worse for Night Owls

Night owls miss the mark on bedtime by two hours on average, according to new research. Here are some tips from experts on surviving in an early bird’s world.

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Going to bed late is par for the course among night owls. This sleep chronotype experiences a natural energy peak in the late evening, making it difficult for them to get to sleep at standard societal bedtimes.

But that might not be the only factor driving them to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning (or late hours of the night, depending on your perspective).

New research from SleepScore Labs, our partner in sleep data and science expertise, has found that night owls are more likely than early birds to have bad cases of bedtime procrastination.

“Bedtime procrastination is defined as failing to go to bed at an intended time, despite no external circumstances preventing someone from doing so, and research suggests that it’s related to poor self-regulation and insufficient sleep,” explains Elie Gottlieb, Ph.D., applied sleep scientist at SleepScore Labs.

Bedtime procrastination takes on many forms. It might look like doomscrolling on your phone, watching TV, playing video games, or any other activity that isn’t sleeping. It happens to just about everyone from time to time! But there are some compelling explanations behind night owls’ strong tendencies to stay up past their bedtimes.

Night owls vs. early birds: Who has worse bedtime procrastination, and why?

To figure out whether bedtime procrastination is worse among night owls or early birds, we looked at data SleepScore Labs collected on more than 25,000 people, including whether their chronotypes skewed more toward morning or night, their goal bedtimes, and the times they actually went to sleep.

The research showed that night owls were much less likely than early birds to stick to their goal bedtimes. In fact, their actual bedtimes averaged a whopping two hours later than their intended bedtimes. In contrast, the typical early bird still stayed up past bedtime, but by less than 90 minutes, says Gottlieb.

This isn’t the first time bedtime procrastination has been shown to be worse among night owls. A 2020 study on 175 teens in Poland found that those who identified as night owls had higher tendencies to put off their bedtimes than their morning lark peers. The question is: Why?

Bedtime procrastination often happens when a person puts off sleep to a later time in order to recapture some “me time” they may have missed out on during the day.

“A lot of times, we’re so busy with work or social obligations during the day that we feel we deserve that time at night to scroll through social media or watch TV,” says Dr. Stephanie M. Stahl, a sleep medicine physician and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine.

The reason it’s more common among night owls, however, has to do with energy peaks and how late in the day they tend to still feel alert. Simply put: Their high nighttime energy levels make it easier for them to stay awake late into the night.

“It’s definitely easier for night owls to engage in bedtime procrastination because early birds get tired earlier. There are other signals telling them they need to get into bed,” adds Stahl.

There’s also the clash night owls face with the typical nine-to-five workday schedule. If you need to be awake by, say, 7 a.m. to start your workday on time, you’ll need to hit the hay around 11 p.m. to get a full eight hours of sleep. That bedtime might feel too early for an extreme night owl, making them less likely to fall asleep when they need to. Instead, they put on yet another episode of “The Real Housewives,” get lost in Twitter threads, or putter around at the expense of shut-eye, ultimately facing the consequences the next day.

How to find your bedtime sweet spot

Even though bedtime procrastination is worse among night owls, the data showed that it can affect everyone, irrespective of their sleep chronotypes. While scrolling on social media past your bedtime isn’t a huge deal on occasion, regularly depriving yourself of sleep can harm your health in big ways.

Sleep deprivation can compromise your emotional and psychological health, not to mention that it can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and dementia, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. At the very least, it could leave you feeling less than your best, so it’s important to tackle bedtime procrastination and avoid letting it become a long-lasting habit.

Interestingly, your chosen bedtime can play a big role in whether or not you go to sleep at the time you intend. The research from SleepScore Labs found that, when people set too early a bedtime, they tended to stay up later. The reverse happened for those who set too late of a bedtime — they tended to conk out earlier than they planned.

“No matter your chronotype, there’s a clear Goldilocks zone for bedtimes — set a bedtime that’s not too early, as you’ll likely stay awake too late, or too late, to avoid falling asleep too early,” says Gottlieb.

Unless you’re one of those lucky few who controls their everyday schedule, your wake time is typically dictated by the time you need to get to school or work in the morning, or when children, pets, partners, or other external factors awaken you. Figure out what time you need to set your alarm clock in the morning to start your day on time, then work backward to figure out a bedtime that will allow you to get adequate sleep.

“Adults need at least seven hours of sleep, and none of us sleep 100% of the time we’re in bed. So, most people need a bedtime that’s between seven-and-a-half and eight hours prior to your desired wake time in order to get sufficient sleep,” says Stahl.

Make an effort to stick with this sleep schedule every day — including on the weekends, when you might not have to get up to go to the office. Doing so can help your body get high-quality sleep on a consistent basis.

“When our bedtime and wake time are swinging significantly, it throws off our body clock,” says Stahl, adding that it can be helpful to set an alarm that lets you know bedtime is coming up in a half hour. When you hear it, turn off electronic devices and start your bedtime routine to let your body know that it’s almost time to get to sleep.

Tips for night owls in a 9-to-5 world

Getting the recommended amount of sleep may mean setting an earlier bedtime than your body naturally prefers, especially if you’re a night owl.

“We found that the typical nine-to-five workday clearly favors early birds, with strong morning types significantly more likely to stick to their goal bedtime when compared to strong evening types,” says Gottlieb. “If you’re a strong night owl, unable to lean into your ideal bedtime and wake time, try seeking flexible work arrangements that might help you get the most out of your days and nights.”

But even if your boss won’t budge on aligning your work schedule more closely with your sleep chronotype, there are some other things night owls can do to make it a little easier to get to bed at an appropriate time. Here are some tips:

Adjust your bedtime gradually

“If you’re going to bed too late at night, roll your bedtime back 15 minutes each week until you reach your new bedtime goal,” says Stahl. Slow changes typically work better than extreme adjustments.

Leverage your light

Light helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Exposure to bright light in the first hour you’re awake can help you feel more alert in the morning and make you feel sleepier a bit earlier in the evening. Likewise, avoid bright light in the two hours leading up your bedtime. That includes light from screens, like your smartphone, TV, or computer.

Squeeze in a workout

People often find it easier to fall asleep at night when they’ve had some physical activity during the day, just not too close to bedtime.

Find a bedtime routine

Doing relaxing activities before bed can prime your body for sleep. Ideas include reading a book, taking a hot shower or bath, meditating, and doing light stretching.

Avoid late meals

Digesting a big meal can keep you up past your ideal bedtime. The Cleveland Clinic recommends scheduling your last meal no later than three hours before bed.

While night owls may never feel totally comfortable living in an early bird’s world, making some changes to your lifestyle and sleep routine can help keep the urge to stay up past your bedtime at bay.