Can't sleep? Boredom may be the culprit

Looking for entertainment or distraction at night might cause us to ignore specific goals - like bedtime.

Emma Jones 4 minute read April 14, 2021
Boredom sleepiness

Bored, tired and can't sleep? New research suggests it might all be linked. Getty

After a long day of work you head to the couch. Too tired to go for that run, you turn on the TV and begin to re-watch Parks and Rec for what feels like the hundredth time this year. Bored, you reach for your phone. Something in the back of your mind tells you that you should probably head to bed, but you’re not too tired just yet, so you keep up the half-watching TV, half-reading a Reddit thread until you look at the clock and realize that, once again, you’re way past your bedtime and won’t get enough sleep before work tomorrow.

Feel familiar? New research indicates that this experience can’t just be blamed on the magnetic pull of  social media. A paper published this month in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that being prone to boredom correlates with putting off going to bed and subsequent poor sleep quality.

The researchers theorized that when participants were bored, they were likely to look for forms of entertainment or distraction that pulled them out of the present moment and focused their attention away from specific goals.

For example, if a participant started getting bored at 9 p.m. and turned to playing video games to alleviate that boredom, they might soon become so caught up in the game that they completely ignore their initial goal of going to bed by 10 p.m.

Being prone to boredom also correlates with more frequent and longer use of social media. A 2020 study on the social media usage of 286 participants found that boredom is strongly associated with information overload and social media fatigue.

Troublingly, this tendency might also become a self-fulfilling cycle. Individuals who are tired – maybe from lack of sleep the night before – may have a tendency to turn to activities that require little effort or distraction when they are bored, which may lead to more inattentiveness when attempting to meet their bedtime goals, and so on.

“In the blink of an eye, hours could have passed, and the person could have inadvertently delayed their bedtime,” the report reads. “Of the behavioral alternatives available, people generally prefer activities that require less attention when they had already had insufficient sleep the night before.”

This study, conducted by researchers at the University of Singapore, recruited 270 participants aged 18 to 69 (average age was approximately 22 years old). Participants were given a series of surveys looking at how often they become bored, their tendency to fidget or let their mind wander (other facets of boredom), tendency to procrastinate going to bed, and their quality of sleep the night before.

Break the boredom cycle
It’s no secret that a lot of people are starting to feel like they are living in their own personal instalment of Groundhog Day as COVID-19 restrictions have us staying away from many of our favourite hobbies, sports and social activities. While the answer may seem obvious – just pick up a different sport or hobby that fits these restrictions! – focusing on learning a new skill may be difficult if you’re already bone tired.

To break this cycle and get yourself back on track, the researchers recommend trying Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII), a technique evaluated by researchers at New York University.

The technique has a complicated name, but the steps are simple. Step one is to set a goal, or more whimsically put, make a wish. Maybe you want to get in the habit of going hiking several times a week, maybe you want to get up early to work on a novel before the day starts – whatever it is set the goal and envision yourself meeting that goal. Then, start working backwards – what is preventing you from reaching that goal? Too tired? Why are you too tired? Are you going to sleep too late each night? What are you doing that prevents you from going to sleep on time?


Once you’ve identified what’s preventing you from doing what you need to do, figure out a game plan for how you’re going to overcome these obstacles. Maybe it’s putting a time limit app on your phone, maybe it’s finding ways to make your bedtime routine more enjoyable – like playing a podcast while you get ready for bed.

Keep envisioning your goal, evaluating why you’re not meeting this goal, and plotting ways to get over these obstacles until you find a way to make it work. The habit of staying up until 2 a.m. didn’t evolve over night, and so breaking this habit will take time. Give yourself a break and keep trying different tactics to get yourself to bed on time.

And please, whatever you do, stop taking your phone to bed with you at night.

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