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How to Stop Procrastinating: The Secret Is Your Sleep Debt and Circadian Rhythm

Resisting the urge to procrastinate is a whole lot easier when you get enough sleep and schedule your tasks to match your body clock.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Woman procrastinating by turning attention to social media

We’ve all been there. Maybe we’ve got a report to write, a presentation to prepare for, or even a difficult task in our personal life to do. But instead of tackling it straight away, we wait. We do other lower priority tasks or we turn to social media for a few minutes — or hours — of pointless scrolling. But we eventually have to come back to the task, usually at the end of the day or much closer to the deadline than necessary. This is procrastination in action. 

It happens to the best of us, but there is a way to reduce the likelihood of it happening. And while popular advice says to try hacks like the Pomodoro technique, the getting things done method, or the 2-minute rule, these things only help every now and again. Chronic procrastination requires more than a simple hack. The real secret to beating all types of procrastination is harnessing the power of sleep and circadian rhythm. 

But we’re not encouraging you to take a nap to avoid doing something. In fact, we recommend the opposite. Sleep — including naps — can actually help you get more done. In this blog post, we’ll explain how keeping your sleep debt low and aligning your day with your body clock can reduce the chance of procrastination and give you the energy you need to tackle any task head on.  

Sleep Deprivation Makes Us More Likely to Procrastinate

We know what procrastination looks like: putting off a task we have to do, despite knowing the negative consequences of delaying it until the last minute. It's self-sabotage, and yet it can be almost impossible to resist. But what actually causes us to procrastinate in the first place? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a personality trait some of us have and others don’t, and it certainly isn't laziness or a lack of time management techniques. We all procrastinate from time to time, and the likelihood of doing so can be higher some days than others.

Research suggests procrastination is a form of self-regulation failure, and our ability to self-regulate is weakened through a lack of sleep. So when we’re sleep deprived, we’re much more likely to procrastinate as we have less resources available to concentrate, persist, and motivate ourselves to do a task. 

On the other hand, getting enough sleep and matching this sleep to your circadian rhythm (more on this later) gives you more self-regulatory resources to call upon. When we can self-regulate better, we have more self-control, less impulsivity, and so an easier time ignoring distractions, staying focused, and resisting the urge to switch tasks. 

Therefore, getting enough sleep not only helps you get started on a task, it helps you stay on track and actually complete it — eliminating procrastination and boosting productivity all round. 

One study found employees procrastinated less on days when they had slept better, and another found shift workers had more energy and willpower — and so were less prone to procrastination — when they had slept better and longer.  

And the link between procrastination and sleep goes the other way, too. The more we procrastinate, the more likely we are to have sleep problems. We worry about the tasks we’ve been putting off, meaning our sleep is affected, which leads to — you guessed it — more procrastination the next day. This vicious cycle affects our mental health, leading to negative emotions like stress and anxiety. Some of us may even engage in sleep procrastination, which is when we put off sleep itself. This again leads to sleep deprivation and even more procrastination.

Lack of Sleep Reduces Cognitive Performance 

But not getting enough sleep doesn’t just lead to procrastination. It has a huge impact on our cognitive performance when we do finally get started on a task. 

When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain’s prefrontal cortex — the area in charge of things like problem solving, organizing, and planning — takes a hit. Studies show everything from attention to processing speed to short-term memory are negatively affected by sleep deprivation. 

And not meeting your sleep need — which is the unique and genetically determined amount of sleep you need each night — leads to an increase in daytime sleepiness, making it harder to feel motivated to do any task, let alone the ones we're tempted to procrastinate on. 

The average sleep need is 8 hours 10 minutes, plus or minus 44 minutes or so, but 13.5% of the population may need 9 hours or more sleep a night. So many of us don’t even realize we’re not meeting our sleep need each night. 

Beat Procrastination by Keeping Sleep Debt Low 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app will show you the amount of sleep debt you have.

So by getting the right amount of sleep each night, you can not only reduce the likelihood of procrastinating the next day, you can ensure you’re performing your best mentally on the tasks you need to do. 

The RISE app calculates how much sleep you should be getting each night, so you have a number to aim for. Plus, the app also works out how much sleep debt you have. 

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you owe your body compared to what you should have had over the last 14 nights. The higher your sleep debt, the worse you’ll feel and perform and, as we’ve seen, the more sleep deprived you are, the higher the odds of you procrastinating. 

We recommend keeping sleep debt below five hours to be at your best each day. If you have a lot of sleep debt, here’s what you can do: 

  • Go to bed a little earlier: Head to bed a little earlier than usual to get in some extra sleep. 
  • Take naps: Aim for a nap that lasts for 10 to 90 minutes and isn’t too close to bedtime, so as to not disrupt nighttime sleep. It’s best to nap during your afternoon dip in energy, and RISE can tell you when this is.
  • Wake up a little later: As a last resort, sleep in later to get more sleep. Just make sure it’s for no longer than an hour, so your circadian rhythm isn’t impacted too much. 
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Sleep hygiene includes behaviors you can do throughout the day to help you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep all night, allowing you to get more sleep overall. This includes things like avoiding caffeine, large meals, and alcohol too late in the day. RISE can tell you the best time to stop doing these things according to your own chronobiology. 

Reduce Social Jetlag to Beat Procrastination 

Studies show it’s not just the amount of sleep we get that makes us more likely to procrastinate, social jetlag is also a factor. You experience social jetlag when your natural preferences for sleep and wake times are misaligned with your schedule. For example, maybe you’re a night owl and you biologically prefer sleeping until 10 a.m., but you have to be awake and “on” for meetings every weekday at 9 a.m. You can also experience social jetlag when you stay up late on weekend nights, only to force yourself back into weekday sleep hours and wake up early for work come Monday. 

One study found the more social jetlag employees had, the more they procrastinated. And employees with more than 35 minutes of social jetlag procrastinated more on days they did not get a good night’s sleep. Another study found the more work times were misaligned with employees’ chronotypes — whether you’re an early bird, night owl, or somewhere in between — the more pronounced the inclination to procrastinate was. 

So to reduce the likelihood of procrastination you should align your day with your circadian rhythm to reduce social jetlag. Your circadian rhythm is the roughly 24-hour internal body clock that dictates things like when we feel awake and tired. 

RISE uses data like your inferred light exposure and your previous night’s sleep to predict your circadian rhythm each day. You can then see when your body naturally wants to wake up and go to sleep and start aiming to be as aligned with these times as possible. You can also work on becoming a morning person if you’re a night owl who needs to wake up early. 

Schedule Your Day to Fit Your Circadian Rhythm 

RISE app screenshot showing your peak energy and dip times
The RISE app will predict your circadian rhythm each day.

Beyond sleep and wake times, you can also align your schedule throughout the day with your circadian rhythm. We all have two peaks of energy during the day — usually in the morning and early evening. During these times, you’ll have much more energy, alertness, and motivation. So these are the ideal times to work on big projects and do your most challenging and important tasks, including anything that requires creativity, analytical thinking, or decision making — essentially those hard tasks we’re often tempted to procrastinate on. 

You can then schedule easier small tasks — like admin, emails, and household chores — for when your energy is naturally lower, like in the early afternoon. Or you can simply use this time to take a break (or nap to pay down sleep debt).

RISE can tell you when your peaks and dips in energy are each day and how long they’re likely to last. Plus, by keeping sleep debt low you can make your energy peaks higher and longer, reducing the likelihood of procrastination even more.

Beat Procrastination with RISE 

Science shows just how linked sleep and procrastination are, so there’s a good chance the secret behind successful people's productivity is simply a good night's sleep. To banish the urge to put things off, you should focus on keeping your sleep debt low and aligning your schedule with your circadian rhythm. 

RISE takes the guesswork out of this by calculating and keeping track of your sleep debt and predicting your circadian rhythm each day. By focusing on these two things, you’ll have much more energy and motivation to tackle any task that comes your way.

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RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential

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