Health

‘Why Can’t I Stick to a Bedtime?’

Experts say there are more important things than putting yourself to bed at the “right time.”
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
March 31, 2021, 3:02pm
photo of woman sleeping with eye mask with a gradient frame and cartoons of an embarassed face, notebook, and cellphone
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How to actually stop doing the things you know aren't exactly good for you.

It’s 2:01am on a work night: Where are you? Tucked in bed, fast asleep? Or scrolling down to the “personal life” section of Stanley Tucci’s Wikipedia page? More importantly: how does waking up the next morning feel depending on which you chose? 

Sleep is one of the body’s most basic needs—which is why it can be confusing when bedtime becomes a battle between what your brain wants (information about Stanley Tucci) and what it needs (REM sleep, for starters). If you find yourself unable to stick to a bedtime, you’re not alone—and you’re not totally out of luck. 

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According to sleep psychologist Deirdre Conroy, when exactly we hit the hay every night is not the most important factor to getting a full night’s sleep. In fact, putting yourself to bed at the “right time” can actually keep you awake longer if you aren’t tired. “I'd rather you go to bed later, in favor of winding down, than rushing and putting yourself to bed just because you think you should,” Conroy told VICE. “If it turns out that you end up going to bed at midnight, that's not the worst thing because your body will be more prone to initiate sleep and you might even sleep better that night.”

According to Stanford Medicine sleep specialist and author Rafael Pelayo, that pre-bed winding down period often gets lost in the daily shuffle. He told VICE the problem stems from the way we think about sleep: as an inconvenience versus an activity that’s an indispensable part of a healthy life. “Sleep is the ultimate form of self care, the most natural form of self care” Pelayo told VICE. “What sleeping is about is rejuvenating the brain and resetting things and getting ready for the next day.”

Pelayo said he urges the people he works with to reframe sleep as a priority rather than a chore. “Ask anybody, ‘how much sleep do you need?’ and ‘how much sleep do you like to get?’ You’ll get two different numbers,” he said—and constantly scraping by on the bare minimum we “need” sets us up for failure. “If you do get a full night of sleep on a regular basis, you are going to be sharper, more alert, more productive, and just overall healthier,” he said. “If you're getting by on as little sleep as possible and you skip sleep completely one night, you’re a wreck the next day.” According to the professionals, a really good night’s rest has more to do with what happens before you go to sleep, and regulating when and how you wake up.

Bedtime can vary—wake-up time shouldn’t.

Setting a strict bedtime might not necessarily help us sleep better, but according to the experts, getting up at the same time every day is the best way to a dependable night’s sleep. “Variable wakeup times lead to variable amounts of light hitting the eyes at different times, which throws off that system,” Pelayo said. “It still works but doesn't work as robustly. Locking in the wakeup time and getting bright light in the morning, that’s when it really sets into a rhythm.”

That light exposure might look like throwing open your curtains before opening every single one of your new emails, or starting your day with a little walk outside in the sunshine to let your brain know to start its engines. The connection between light and wakefulness also means it’s best to avoid bright lights before bedtime (so dim any screens and… well, more on that later), lest your brain believe it’s party time and sleep accordingly. 

Don’t wait until you’re exhausted to wind down.

It’s tempting to stay up until you absolutely can’t anymore, especially when work and non-work are slowly blending into one. After a hectic day, late night can feel like the time when everything is finally quiet and you can hear yourself think. But clinging to consciousness until the last possible second is counterproductive, according to Pelayo. “If you think of gasoline and putting gas in your car, it's like driving to the gas station and saying ‘I'm gonna let the motor run at the pump, because there's still gas left in the tank,’” Pelayo said. “That seems ridiculous, but that's what you're doing when you're staying awake until you can’t stay awake another second.”

Instead, build in some kind of concentrated bedtime routine that you can kick off while you’re still automatically blinking. “Give yourself 30 or 45 minutes to read a book, watch a TV show, dim the lights, maybe have a snack,” Conroy said. “You have to prime the stage to make sure that the brain and the body are ready for this really sophisticated biological process called sleep to happen.” Once you’ve built the habit of winding down at your first meaty yawn, you won’t have to worry about unpeeling yourself from the couch when you wake up in the middle of the night, teeth unbrushed, so you can crawl into bed instead. 

Unplug, please.

You already know what it is: Looking at your phone right before bed is not a good way to sleep soundly. That’s not, however, necessarily because of the nature of your phone as a device—it’s more about the things you read and watch on it. “The reason people stay awake [while looking at their phones] is not so much because of the blue light,” Pelayo said. “It's really the content, because what they're doing is something that's interesting.” 

Because the expectation when catching up on your open tabs or scrolling through social media is that you’re going to gain some new information, your brain will fight to stay away and learn instead of shutting down for some much-needed rest. Pelayo chalks that response up to evolutionary psychology—specifically, the human need to stay vigilant at night in case of danger. “When you were a little kid, if your parents read to you before you went to bed, it was the same two or three books every time—your parents would not do a new book every night, because the novelty or uncertainty will keep you awake,” Pelayo said. “In a state of uncertainty, the brain avoids sleeping as much as it can or sleeps as lightly as possible…  That's why people fall asleep when they’re bored, because boredom is equated with safety to our brains.”

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Conroy added that not only can the things you’d read on your phone be interesting—they can also be stressful in a way that inhibits a good night’s rest. “We know that greater social media use or interaction can actually lead to mood problems, depression, anxiety,” she said. “Say you see something on Instagram that upsets you; that could trigger you, and your mind could be racing, and that interferes with sleep.” Conroy also recommended avoiding stressful conversations with your partner before knocking out—a loaded late night chat about finances or relationship issues in the dark of your apartment does not set either of you up for a great night of sleep.

Try to build some “you time” into the daytime.

There’s one more big culprit that keeps us from getting a good night’s sleep: capitalism. Sorry, we know, but because late night is most people’s “break from life,” according to Pelayo, we’re likely to deprioritize sleep in order to max out our only free time. He pointed to parents of young children, only able to unwind when their kids are in bed, or teenagers, only able to really relax once Mom and Dad have already turned in, as likely bedtime procrastinators. “We all have these busy lives,” he said. “When do we really have time for ourselves? That's going to be at night.”

Sleep just isn’t as alluring as freedom, which is why we formally recommend slacking off as much as possible during the work day so you can sleep better at night. Go ahead: Actually take your lunch break! Nap during a company-wide meeting! Take a shower in the afternoon so you don’t have to go to bed with wet hair! You also could try this tip from writer Jia Tolentino: block social media apps from your phone and computer for a certain period of time—say, 10am to 10pm—a trick that an anonymous source (my editor) cited as “hugely helpful” for approximately two weeks until “personal weakness” intervened. 

But, more seriously, if you’re putting off sleep to feel more like a person, it might be worthwhile to see which of your nighttime activities you could shift into the morning or into the weekends instead; waking up early to jog, read, skim the news, or catch up on TV might not sound restful, but it’s biologically optimal when it comes to setting ourselves up for circadian success.

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