The crazy thing is that I fully intended to go to bed early last night. In fact, I was in bed by 9:00pm. But I recently learned that a certain online streaming service is available on my phone and when the one episode of television that I’d planned on watching ended on a cliff hanger, I simply didn’t have the self-control to turn it off. I watched another. Then another. And before I knew it, it was midnight.
So this morning, bleary eyed and full of remorse, I sat down to write this week’s blog post about the science of self-control as a kind of pep-talk to help me get to bed on time. After searching my favourite scientific data base, I found a paper which confirmed my misgivings and suspicions – that my lack of discipline is jeopardising my health.
Researchers surveyed almost 2500 people in Holland and found a link between a lack of self-control and bedtime-procrastination (going to bed later than intended, without having external reasons for doing so). To really hammer their point home, they highlighted the evidence showing that getting insufficient sleep is bad for our health and wellbeing, and that getting too little sleep makes us more likely to do unhealthy things such as smoke, not exercise and become obese.
I know all of this of course. I’ve written a whole chapter on the mind-body-health-sleep connection in my book. But, as I’ve often said, knowing and doing are two completely different things. I did take solace in the fact that I’m not alone in my struggle. More than 50 percent of the Dutch participants in the survey reported going to bed later than they wanted on two or more days during week. In fact, watching TV was the culprit for most people in the survey.
After reading the paper and before I fell into a pit of hopeless weak-willed despair, another scientific paper which was published just this month also caught my eye. It was called Why Don’t You Go to Bed on Time? A Daily Diary Study on the Relationships between Chronotype, Self-Control Resources and the Phenomenon of Bedtime Procrastination. Putting the title into plain English, the researchers wanted to know if there was a link between self-control, going to bed late and a person’s chronotype. As I’ve written about before, your chronotype is your (largely) genetically determined, internal body clock and what the researchers found was fascinating: later chronotypes (also known as evening types or ‘owls') tended to report more bedtime procrastination than earlier chronotypes (known as morning types or ‘larks’).
“Oh”, I thought. “I stayed up too late not because I'm weak-willed, but because of my biology.”
Last year, after I interviewed chronotype expert Til Ronnenberg, I took his online questionnaire and discovered that I’m a genetically programmed owl. In an ideal world, I’d hit the hay at about midnight and rise at 8:00am or 9:00am. Unfortunately, with two young kids and a never-ending To Do list, this is not a practical schedule to keep. The result is that I’m often challenged to get enough sleep.
The authors of the Why Don’t You Go to Bed on Time? study concluded that it’s not that we are unable to control our desire for short-term, pleasurable experiences (in my case watching a hunky Scottish highlander rescue his beloved from the evil clutches of a British red-coat), but rather that we have internal biological processes actively working against our intention to go to bed earlier.
The researchers don’t entirely let us off the hook though, explicitly highlighting that people who experience difficulties going to bed on time are not “victims” of their circadian rhythms and that although our biological programming has a lot to do with our bedtime preference, so do other factors such as the amount of light we’re exposed to during the day. But, my point is, while having good self-control does influence your health and wellbeing, the evidence also shows that self-control alone isn’t the key. In fact, some researchers found that self-control only has a small impact in determining your success.
I spent my entire morning internally chastising myself for not having enough discipline to go to bed on time. In fact the original blog post title I had in mind this week was “Five Ways To Boost Your Self Control.” But I had forgotten the bigger picture. The subtle forces working against my intention to go to bed earlier are complex and interwoven. There’s my biological programming, there’s the behaviour of other people around me, there’s my mood and energy levels, and there are convenient electronic devices with an around-the-clock supply of entertainment.
My four-year-old son is really into super heroes at the moment. He’s captivated by the idea of having supernatural powers to fight evil villains. Unfortunately, there’s never going to be scientific paper that shows me how to develop supernatural self-control to fight the forces influencing my behaviour. That’s why I like Batman. He’s s just a guy who has a lot of tools and tricks that make him seem supernatural.
In order to get to bed on time, I already have a number of strategies in my home. Most important, I have almost no blue light in our house after sundown. The bulbs in our lamps at home have an orange filter and on the occasions when I watch television I wear rather daggy-looking orange tinted glasses that filter out blue light. (Check out my post Is Artificial Light Wrecking Your Sleep? for more on this.) After last night’s binge-TV session I’m adding a new tool to my kit. A blanket rule to not watch television on my phone in bed. My kilted Scotsman will have to rescue his distressed damsel in the living room.