If you’re like a lot of people, night after night you find yourself turning off the lights later than you wanted, and morning after morning you’re frustrated that you’re so tired.
The worst part is what you do at night doesn’t matter much–surfing the Internet, watching YouTube videos, or answering email–but the lost hours of sleep have a huge impact on your health, happiness, and productivity. You say you want to go to bed earlier, but it never happens.
Fortunately, there are some simple, practical changes you can make that will help you overcome physical, mental, and emotional sleep barriers so you can finally get to bed on time.
At its core, sleeping is a physiological process, so the best place to start exploring what might keep you up late is to examine the physical elements that can throw you off.
One common issue is getting overstimulated. Revving your mind up with video games, movies, or other stimulating activities, particularly with screens, can disrupt your natural sleep cycle. When you’re mentally buzzing and your body isn’t producing melatonin, you end up in that frustrating place of lying in bed but not being able to sleep.
To overcome this challenge, experiment to see how early you need to stop doing stimulating activities in order to get to sleep when you go to bed. That could include limiting screen time and having a cutoff time for phone calls. Also, closing curtain shades and dimming the lights in the evening can help your melatonin levels rise, as well as wearing BluBlocker glasses that block the blue light found in most technology.
Another physical barrier to sleep is losing track of time. Some people naturally start getting drowsy when it’s their bedtime and other people don’t. If you’re in the latter category, you don’t have the biological pull to go to bed at a certain time so the hours can slip by unnoticed.
If your circadian rhythm isn’t enough to prompt you to prep for bed, set a “Why are you awake?” alarm on your computer or phone. That way at a designated time each night, you’re prompted to consider whether you should start winding down for bed.
You can choose to override the alarm and stay up later if what you’re doing at the moment is more important than sleep. But if it’s not, then you have the opportunity to choose to get some shut-eye.
Once you’ve taken care of or ruled out physical elements that could keep you up, turn to your mental line of reasoning. Oftentimes people fail to consider competing beliefs or priorities that could conflict with the goal of sleeping earlier if not properly addressed.
If you have a tendency to get home late from work, if you have a lot of evening commitments, or if you don’t make what’s important to you a priority, the pull to stay up late often comes from feeling that you haven’t had time to do what you wanted to do. This can lead to late-night reading, browsing the Internet, or simply working on a personal project with the reasoning that you spent the day doing things for everyone else and now it’s time to do something for yourself.
Wanting more time for yourself is a legitimate desire that you shouldn’t override. To honor that need, determine how much time you need to relax and get things done before going to bed. Then set your departure time from work or events to give you that personal space. Also, give yourself permission to do what’s important to you during the day by blocking out time for it. There will always be more requests from other people, so sometimes you simply need to put your own work first.
Another mental hang-up that can keep you up to all hours of the night is insisting on finishing things before going to bed. Some people are just fine with leaving projects partway done, and others are not. If you fall into the latter category, you’ll find that wanting to finish a movie, a book, or a project can keep you up far later than you would prefer.
There are ways that you can work with this tendency. One of the most helpful is to decide not to start things that you can’t finish before your bedtime. That could mean not starting any TV shows or movies that would end after your desired time to go to sleep. That could also mean choosing to start big projects on the weekends instead of weekday evenings or breaking them down so you can get to a reasonable stopping point before it’s too late.
The final frontier in uncovering why you can’t get under the covers is to honestly assess whether some emotional blocks are standing between you and sleep.
The hazy space between waking and sleeping can be an excellent time to contemplate life. But if you don’t really want to think or feel, this open space with no distraction and nothing to do can be intimidating. That’s why you can have a tendency to resist going to bed until you find yourself at the brink of exhaustion.
To help you not feel helpless when emotions bubble up, keep a journal by your bed. Then whenever something comes to your mind, write it down. Journaling not only helps you go to bed earlier because you’re not avoiding stillness but also can give you mental and emotional health benefits.
Another emotional barrier to sleep can be missing a partner. If you’ve recently experienced the end of a relationship, you can want to escape the sense of loneliness that bedtime triggers.
To minimize this discomfort, try to switch up your routine so that you have fewer triggers to remind you of the past. That could mean moving around your bedroom furniture or establishing a new ritual like reading a book or listening to calming music and meditating. By formulating a new evening pattern, you create a sense of wholeness and completeness to what you’re doing on your own instead of constantly feeling like a part is missing.
Finally, you may want to stay up later because it feels like you’re delaying the start of a new day. Your reasoning is the sooner you go to bed, the sooner you will have to face a new day, and you don’t want to.
If you think you might have depression, seek out professional help. Also, consider whether this dread of a new day could relate to a specific situation that you need to change. For example, you may want to find a new job, move to a warmer location, or simply pick up some new activities to break up the monotony of life. Life’s too short to not make changes that could make you happy.
The next time you find yourself delaying going to bed, think about whether these physical, mental, or emotional barriers could be keeping you up. Then experiment until you find the solution that works for you.