“Tonight, I am going to bed early.”
How many times have you promised that to yourself and then ended up postponing bedtime way beyond the time you had planned?
There’s always one more email to write, one more episode to watch, one more drink to have with your friends. Other times, sleep just doesn’t seem to come, so you end up staying up until 2am scrolling through Facebook—or doing nothing at all.
Psychologists call this “bedtime procrastination”. Very often, people who do it are not lazy or lack willpower, but are simply biologically predisposed to prefer a later bedtime. However, this behaviour can be very damaging: ‘night owls’ are more likely to suffer different diseases and disorders such as diabetes, mental illness, and gastrointestinal issues, to name a few.
You might have already tried different solutions such as reducing your caffeine intake or switching off your phone earlier, but you end up with no results. Here’s why:
If you want to find the willpower to consistently go to bed early, you need to work on your mental strength. No matter how many tricks or hacks you try, they won’t work if your mind is not fully invested, motivated and willing to cooperate.
Here are a few ways to train your brain and generate the willpower you need to go to bed earlier consistently, so that you can feel more energized and alive during the day.
Change your systems
Studies by neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists indicate that 40 to 95 percent of human behaviour is composed by habits—automated behaviours that we repeat day in, day out.
Our daily habits are tightly connected to each other. That means that, if you want to change one habit, you need to change the bigger system in which it’s inserted—you need to change your routine.
The same is true when it comes to sleep habits.
For example: if you want to start waking up earlier, you also need to start going to bed earlier to make sure you get enough rest. In order to make sure you sleep earlier, you might need to start watching one episode on Netflix instead of five, or quitting that late-night glass of wine.
How can you find the willpower to do this?
Behavioural scientist BJ Fogg suggests “habit stacking” as an effective method to create new habits. Here’s how it works: whenever you create a new habit, pair it with a habit that you already have.
“After I finish watching one episode, I will brush my teeth.”
“After I [current habit], I will [new habit].”
By connecting new habits to existing ones, you are using the principle of “connectedness of behaviour” to your advantage.
Now that you got the principle or habit stacking, let’s take it further.
Learn to love every bedtime
Even the best world-class athletes and performers have their moments of laziness. Sometimes, we just don’t feel like doing something—no matter how good it is for us.
Luckily, you can train your brain to feel pleasure in doing what’s good for you by using the power of anticipation.
Research shows that dopamine—widely known as the “feel-good” hormone—is released not only when we experience pleasure, but also when we anticipate it.
So if you want to start enjoying going to bed early, what you can do is create an evening routine that triggers feelings of relaxation, pleasure and reward. This way, your brain will start associating going to bed with those pleasant feelings, and soon enough you might start craving an early bedtime. This is often something that you work through with a sleep coach.
How to do this yourself?
Once you have identified the things that might help you start going to bed earlier (such as switching off your phone, reading fiction, or listening to some relaxing music), you can use the principle of habit stacking to create an evening routine that will make bedtime enjoyable.
Here’s an example of what that evening routine could look like:
After I finish watching one episode, I will switch off all my electronic devices.
After I switch off my electronic devices, I will brush my teeth.
After I brush my teeth, I will stretch for 3 minutes.
After I finish stretching, I will read 10 pages from my fiction book.
After I finish reading, I will switch off the lights and close my eyes.
Use the activities that are the most effective for you. If you need ideas of activities for a relaxed evening routine, here is a list of 50.
Set an alarm
In his book ‘Atomic Habits’, habit expert James Clear explains how we often fail to stick with new habits simply because the cues are not obvious enough. We are more likely to take our food supplements if they’re in plain sight, just as we’re more likely to exercise if we leave our workout clothes out the night before.
You can apply this principle to prevent yourself from procrastinating or postponing your bedtime routine simply by setting an alarm.
This might seem way too simple or obvious, but it can be extremely effective. Just like you set alarms in your calendar for important meetings or events, you can do the same for your evening routine.
Choose a time and set your alarm to go off everyday, and when it rings, stop whatever you are doing and start preparing for bed. No excuses—make it non-negotiable. This way, you will be telling your subconscious that sleep matters, and soon your behaviour will become automated and effortless.
Know what you’re aiming for
Stephen Covey, author of the book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, suggests that in order to successfully achieve anything, we need to “begin with the end in mind”.
In other words: before you act, define your goals and intentions, otherwise you won’t get where you want to go.
When we first start doing something, we are powered by the excitement that comes with novelty. However, as time passes, our motivation tends to fade away.
You can counteract this and boost your motivation by reminding yourself of the reason why you are doing it. Whenever you lack motivation, ask yourself:
“Why is it important for me to go to bed early?”
Maybe it’s because you want to feel more energised when you show up for work and for your relationships. Maybe you’re committed to fighting fatigue, irritability and low mood.
Whatever your reasons are, write them down somewhere you can see it, and review them whenever your motivation feels low. Let it be your fuel!
“Mental creation always precedes physical creation”—Benjamin Hardy
Wanting to do something is different from actually committing to do it.
If someone says “I wish I could do a headstand” but doesn’t make the time to practice, then they don’t really want it. They are not committed.
If you want to change your sleep habits, you need to make a decision in your mind before you take action. There are plenty of techniques that can help you do this (such as writing it down, repeating or visualising it) but the truth is, all that matters is that moment when something shifts inside your head and you decide: “I’m doing this.”
Without this commitment—to change habits, to put in the effort, to take action—nothing else will happen.
One way to reinforce commitment is to get external accountability. According to research, we are 95% more likely to stick with our goals if we choose an accountability partner. This can be as simple as telling a friend about your decision to change your sleep routine, and having them ask you about it every once in a while. For even better results, you can buddy up with someone and challenge each other with a mutual goal.
Also, make sure you accommodate for any necessary changes in your social life—for example, you might want to ask your friends to start meeting over the weekend instead of after dinner on weekdays.
It’s All Up To You
Again, going to bed earlier is completely within your power—it’s all a matter of creating the right habits and setting the right goals.
Having a consistent routine is the first step for good quality sleep. The steps in this article are based on extended desk research and expert advice, but the best way to go about it is always to try what works best for you, or use the steps above as add-ons to your current favourite sleep practices.
Do you feel like you could use some extra guidance and motivation in improving your sleep? Try our 37 Day Sleep Challenge—it includes a self-assessment sleep quiz, a step-by-step video course with proven techniques to improve sleep, and your very own sleep journal to keep you accountable and gather important data.