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Sunday Scaries

Can’t sleep? These two science-backed tips will help

Scientists find an association between boredom and poor sleep quality.

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People, when bored, fall asleep. This isn’t just a stereotype confined to stuffy afternoons in a snooze-worthy class. Studies on animals suggest neurons in the brain can induce sleepiness when there are no stimuli engaging the mind.

On the flipside, boredom is also associated with poor quality of sleep. This is a different breed of boredom — one that’s attached to a concept called “bedtime procrastination.” This is boredom that prevents you from settling down and going to slumbertown. And it’s a problem that some scientists argue we need to pay better attention to.

In a study published in March in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers from James Cook University in Singapore report being bored is associated with inattention, which in turn increases bedtime procrastination and poorer sleep quality.

First author Ai Ni Teoh, a senior lecturer of psychology, tells me that bedtime procrastination refers to a “deliberate delay in bedtime without valid external reasons despite foreseeing the negative outcomes of such behaviors.

“We do not consider cases like study for tomorrow’s exam and hence delaying bedtime as bedtime procrastination,” Teoh explains. “Bedtime procrastination involves activities that do not need to be done at that time and that delay bedtime, such as browsing YouTube and social media.”

The solution? Teoh’s research suggests strategies that can help zero in on two critical actions: mindfulness and self-regulation.

The science of boredom — Teoh and colleagues examined three aspects of boredom: boredom proneness, fidgeting, and mind-wandering.

They surveyed 198 women and 72 men between the ages of 18 and 69, asking them to report on a scale how likely they are to engage in bedtime procrastination and how well they sleep. The participants were also asked to self-report their levels of boredom proneness, fidgeting, mind-wandering, and mindfulness.

Previous literature generally showed that boredom can compromise sleep quality, Teoh says.

Poor self-regulation is associated with poor sleep quality. Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

“People who are prone to boredom generally refuse to go to bed and try to find something interesting to get rid of the sense of boredom,” she says. Meanwhile, fidgeters try to seek stimulation and mind wanderers aren’t paying attention to the task at hand: going to bed. All behaviors contribute to poorer sleep quality.

However, this study was only able to show an association between boredom proneness and bad sleep — not fidgeting or mind-wandering, though future studies could prove a connection. The people who were prone to boredom were also more likely to be inattentive. They reported being engaged in the present less often and do irrelevant tasks before bed.

The solutions — The links between boredom proneness, inattention, and doing unhelpful activities instead of going to sleep suggest interventions that address self-regulation and mindfulness could help.

Previous studies suggest low self-regulation is associated with going to bed later than intended, and people who are bedtime procrastinators are more responsive to directions. One study Teoh referenced found this group is “depleted of resources for self-regulation after a long day of work.” Other research suggests those with bad self-regulation are also averse to bedtime routines, waking up, and are inclined to media use before bed.

“I myself am also a regular bedtime procrastinator.”

Theoretically, self-regulation interventions should reduce boredom proneness. An example of one intervention is known as “mental contrasting,” which “requires participants to identify a wish and imagine the best outcome of their wish,” Teoh and colleagues write. The next step is identifying the obstacles that stop that outcome and considering what behaviors could help you overcome those obstacles. Most simply, it could mean telling yourself: “My bedtime is 11 p.m., and when it is 11 p.m. I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, brush my teeth, and go to bed.”

Mindfulness means working on being engaged in the moment: It’s time to sleep, so you turn your full self to going to sleep. There are different ways to engage in mindfulness, and some people turn to meditation.

Critically, the strategies that work for some may not work for others.

“Falling asleep easier as people are listening to a podcast or leave the TV on might not be instances of bedtime procrastination because they do fall asleep instead of procrastinate bedtime,” Teoh says. “However, listening to a podcast and watching TV, which leads to a delay in bedtime, are activities that contribute to bedtime procrastination.”

The big takeaway — Ultimately, boredom before bed can spur repercussions. When sleep quality is compromised, so are health and behavior. “It is a problem that needs research attention,” Teoh says.

Boredom hasn’t really been studied as a direct cause of bedtime procrastination, and research on bedtime procrastination is already a young field of study. There’s much to explore, Teoh says — and she intends on continuing her research.

“Bedtime procrastination is an issue that bothers many, especially young adults,” she says. “I myself am also a regular bedtime procrastinator.”

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