To Stick to a Bedtime, Think of Sleep Like Exercise

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Most people I know, when they say they try to stick to a bedtime, actually have two. There’s the time when they begin to cut themselves off from the day, when they physically climb under the covers and lay their head on the pillow. And then there’s the time after that — maybe a Netflix episode later, maybe after some Twitter scrolling and Instagram stalking and a little online window-shopping — when they actually close their eyes and try to drift off. A few years ago, scientists put a name to this phenomenon: “bedtime procrastination,” when you put off going to bed for no reason other than the fact that you can.

At this point, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that that staring at a screen right before bed (something 95 percent of Americans admit to doing) isn’t great for your sleep habits, and not just because it can cause temporary blindness — the blue light emitted by digital devices can seriously mess with the hormones that cause sleepiness, throwing off your circadian rhythm. And you may have heard the conventional wisdom about using your bed only for sleep and sex, a rule that helps you eliminate other nighttime distractions. And yet, for some mysterious reason, the lure of wasting time is powerful, even when it comes at the expense of an extra hour’s shut-eye.

But in a recent Wall Street Journal column, behavioral scientist Dan Ariely offered one way to beat bedtime procrastination: Enlist someone else to help you do it.

“A firm partner would do fine,” he wrote, but if you sleep solo (or next to a pushover), “you could ask a close friend to be your ‘sleep cop’ and promise to send him or her a picture of you in pajamas every night at 10.”

If you think of sleep as just another hard-to-stick-to habit, the advice instantly feels familiar: Past research, after all, has shown that you’re more likely to keep up with a workout plan if you commit to working out with a friend. Ditto with a diet. Look up any list of tips on how to commit to a goal, or fulfill a New Year’s resolution, and the odds are good that social support will be on it. Bedtime’s no different — it’s hard to stick to, but easier if you’ve got someone looking out for you.

To Stick to a Bedtime, Think of Sleep Like Exercise