A new study found a link between low-quality sleep and the tendency to procrastinate the following day. Researchers claim that this is due to a decreased ability to self-regulate one’s behavior.
Poor sleep, poor willpower
Everyone procrastinates to a degree, but some really can’t help it — and this can significantly impede them from reaching their goals. Previously, psychologists found that individuals with a low capacity for self-regulation are more likely to delay action towards meeting their goals and to engage in unwanted behaviors.
Self-regulation involves controlling one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts in the pursuit of long-term goals. Self-regulation, or self-control, reflects a person’s maturity. An emotionally mature individual is better able to face emotional, social, and cognitive threats in the environment with patience and thoughtfulness.
Individuals who have low self-regulation are more prone to procrastination than those with high self-regulation. Now, in a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Dutch researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that quality sleep mediates our ability to resist browsing social media or engaging in some other mindless activity in favor of more productive endeavors.
The research team recruited 71 healthy adults who worked in a wide range of fields, such as finance, education, and sales. Each participant self-reported their sleep quality and tendency to procrastinate at the workplace over a period of 10 workdays. To gauge their level of procrastination, participants had to rate how much they agreed with statements such as “Today, I promised myself I would something, and then dragged my feet.”
Low-quality sleep was associated with higher levels of procrastination in the following day. This effect was moderated by an individual’s self-regulation — that is, individuals with low self-control were even more affected by the quality of their sleep than those with high self-control.
The findings make sense because keeping yourself focused to meet goals is mentally taxing, occupying a lot of cognitive resources. Poor sleep simply doesn’t replenish our energy enough, so we become more prone to engage in unproductive activities. Interestingly, even individuals with high self-control would become very vulnerable to procrastination following low-quality sleep.
Obviously, if you’re one of those people who would rather clean the living room than go about that checklist, quality of sleep ought to be the first thing you want to address. But here’s the thing: there’s also something called bedtime procrastination. According to researchers, it’s quite common for people to delay going to sleep by engaging in unhelpful activities such as checking e-mail or browsing social media “for just 5 minutes.” What ends up happening is people go to bed late, sleep poorly, which leads to even more procrastination the following day, in a self-repeating cycle.
If you find yourself procrastinating instead of going to bed, you might want to experiment with various solutions and tools. For instance, if you’re low on self-control, you can relinquish control to an external party like an app that blocks social media on your phone after a given time.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.