How I thwarted sleep procrastination

Jun 11, 2023 8:12 pm

My least favorite habit

One habit I’ve found incredibly hard to break is sleep procrastination (going to bed later than intended without a legitimate reason for the delay). I’ve done this since I was a teenager and it’s gotten more pronounced in the past decade.

I’m not sure why I do it, but it’s consistent and enduring.

Shift work only made it worse because I’d come home late at night and veg out for hours - a kind of silent permissiveness for bad habits surrounding a naturally sleep-disruptive schedule.

Now I’m trying a new approach to thwarting this and, to date, it’s been a win. More on that in a minute.

A unique strategy

In our most recent episode on How to Have a Nearly Perfect Shift, our guest Dr. Christina Shenvi spoke about mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) as a tool to pre-plan for obstacles and difficulty.

MCII is a goal-setting strategy that involves vividly imagining both the desired future outcome and the potential obstacles/barriers to achieving that outcome.

By linking these contrasting thoughts with specific If-Then plans, the chance of success increases dramatically. In other words, it’s self-coaching. Goal → barriers → If-Then action steps → iterate.

Researching this topic, I came across a study that used MCII to great effect in addressing sleep procrastination. Whaaaaat? You had me at hello!

Here’s what I did

Mental contrasting:

Goal: getting to bed on time.

Best outcome: feeling well-rested in the morning.

Obstacle: the near-compulsive act of watching TV, including but not limited to scrolling through options on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney, and Apple for an hour.

Implementation intention:

“If it is 11:00 pm, then I will stop with whatever I am involved with and get ready for bed.”


This is 10x harder without accountability (or 10x easier with it - glass half full!) I let my wife know what I was doing and that served two purposes. She gave real-time reminders as it was getting close to shutdown time but eventually just knowing I had an accountability buddy gave me an extra push.


The habit literature is replete with the concept of making an identity around a new habit. The identity here might be something like I’m a person that goes to bed at time X to feel rested the next day.

I’m not quite there with identity and have been experimenting with thinking about this in the third person, such as what would someone who goes to bed on time do? That works better for me.


I used an Oura ring to track the before and after.

Pre-intervention 6-7 hours sleep per night. Feeling rested 40-50% of mornings.


Post-intervention 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Feeling rested 89-90% of the time


Application to shift work

This experiment took place with a consistent bedtime. The same principles, however, apply to inconsistent and irregular sleep times.

When I work with clients on optimizing their post-late shift routines, we often uncover a treasure trove of sleep procrastination habits, especially following evening or night shifts. Small changes in these routines can have a massive impact, especially when compounded over many years.

This is bigger than sleep hygiene

Getting to bed at a target time is an aspect of sleep hygiene. We know this. It's not a mystery.

But many of us have a habit or habits that easily overcome and impede this non-mysterious knowledge.

On the pod, we've discussed many ways to deconstruct unwanted habits and build new ones (Atomic Habits, Tiny Habits), but none of them had been able to crack sleep procrastination for me. This one did (at least so far!)

If you too are a sleep procrastinator, give it a try.

Keep on rocking

Robbie O


How can I help?

If you're feeling stuck, burnt, overwhelmed, or simply want to elevate your career, I specialize in 1-on-1 coaching for physicians and high-level performers. Learn more here.


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Arguably one of the best rock drummers of all time, the late Neal Peart's 10 Aspects of Success.

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PS, there is no marketing here and I don't get anything if you buy this stuff. Some readers asked if these are ads - they are not. They're just bits and bops that have caught my eye.


The Big Kahuna

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