Updated: May 8
By: Jenna Cook, M.Ed., LPC, NCC All of us know the classic problem of a child wanting to stay up late past their bedtime. Typically, this is due to fear of missing out on what exciting or fun things might happen after they go to sleep.
Something similar happens to adults and teens. For many folks of all ages—especially those with features or a diagnosis of ADHD—bedtime is one of the primary responsibilities that is put on the back burner or pushed off until later and later. As a therapist who specializes in working with folks ages 8 through 30 who have executive functioning difficulties related to anxiety, depression, ADHD, and perfectionism, I am seeing more and more folks struggle with getting to bed and, separately, going to sleep.
All of us value our free time and want to get the most out of it. For those with ADHD and/or other EF difficulties, there is often a heightened awareness and need for free time, paired with the constant feeling that they’ve never gotten enough. Sleep is a less exciting, and therefore less appealing activity than most other waking activities. This, paired with circadian rhythm differences in those with ADHD and ASD, make it an even more “procrastinate-able” task.
After a long and stressful day of holding it together, people desire to come home, enter their comfort zone, and have some precious time to relax and have fun. Unfortunately, life responsibilities and stressors don’t vanish upon entering our homes. Homework, chores, or parent duties are still looming over us. But because our inner monologue often says, “Man, today was long and hard. I deserve some time to chill right now. Just for a little bit! And then I’ll start on those other things,” we often indulge in some half-hearted, totally ineffective “chill” time. It ends up being half-hearted and ineffective because 1 of 2 things happen:
#1: during our “chill” time, we look over at the clock every couple of minutes, stressing about those looming tasks. Or we have a sense of angst somewhere in the back of our minds about the tasks. Our stress about the miserable tasks we still have to do impedes our ability to actually have an effective fun or relaxing moment
Or #2: we get totally lost in the fun or relaxing task—scrolling through TikTok, watching Netflix, or playing a video game—for way longer than we intended. It is actually quite fun and relaxing UNTIL… we look at the clock and a wave a shame and dread and misery wash over us. We think, “How could I have done this?! Now I don’t have enough time!” And we beat ourselves up. Any sense of fun or relaxation that came from our time spent is now blotted out by our negative self-talk and regret.
For the group of folks I work with, there is a sadness or sense of dread that comes over them when the sun begins setting. For students, this is especially true during the school year. Since homework is typically something viewed as stressful or difficult, and is therefore procrastinated into the evening, stress and anxiety intensify the later it gets. As the end of the day approaches, the things left undone become more apparent and serve as ammunition for the individual to shame themselves.
Later into the night, the person is likely the only one still awake in their home. Being alone serves as a retreat, where they feel as if they can free themselves of the judgment of others. In this comfort zone, the person stays up later and later—maybe working on things they needed to accomplish OR getting further entrenched in distractions or “free time.” The following day, the individual might have difficulty waking up on time and may experience overall sleep deprivation. The cycle continues that evening, as tiredness kicks in and is an added layer to the struggle.
In sum, bedtime is a commonly dreaded and procrastinated, yet super essential human task. Putting off bedtime is a slippery slope, as later bedtimes entail either later wakeup times or not enough sleep. Establishing a realistic, consistent sleep-wake cycle takes trial-and-error, discipline, and—often—externalized accountability. Working with an Executive Function Coach, therapist, parent, partner, or friend can be a helpful first step.
For ideas about how to combat Bedtime Procrastination, prioritize sleep, and get better sleep, check out my next article "Bedtime Procrastination Part 2: Putting Bedtime Procrastination To Bed".