It’s early morning in 2018 and I’m sitting on the floor of my bedroom, in a bathrobe, drinking Diet Mountain Dew.
I’m leaning against the wall, opposite my bed, so that I’m not tempted to crawl to it and sleep. The Diet Dew tastes like liquid candy and chemicals, but I indulge because the fake sugar lets me ride the caffeine wave without the crash. Like sleep deprivation, I reserve diet soda specifically for nights when I need it most.
Soon, indifferent keyboard clicks find a rhythm and I fall into the trance of early morning, where messy minds find mercy in the slowness of sleeplessness and assistance from performance-enhancing juice (caffeine). While the sun rises and its light slowly creeps across the carpet, inching closer to my procrastination corner, I finish what I needed to do – to be presented later, when the rest of the world is awake.
If you want to sabotage your health, there’s no quicker or easier way to do it than to restrict your sleep. We’ve written loads of articles about why sleep is the flagship of your health, and how well-being takes a nosedive once you start to chip away at those crucial hours. Among other things, sleep deprivation hurts your immune system; reduces your ability to problem-solve or regulate your emotions; and may increase your risk of dementia and also your risk of early death. So why do so many of us participate in it willingly, knowing it’ll make us feel terrible? And why, dare I ask, does burning the candle at 4 a.m. feel helpful in certain circumstances, boosting creativity or focus enough to get work done?
People like me have long been willing participants in sleep deprivation as part of our twisted game of procrastination and productivity. We search for a quick hit of “inspiration” or creativity that’ll let us produce something we’re proud of – or at the bare minimum allow us to make a Hail Mary pass for something we could’ve accomplished with a lot less fanfare at a more holy hour.
But the wealth of information on sleep as a vital part of our well-being only continues to grow. That includes data on sleep’s intimate ties to our mental health, as well as knowledge about how we can get hooked on the wrong tools when trying to achieve our goals in an increasingly distracting world.
How sleep deprivation creates the perfect storm for chaos
Sleep deprivation causes a stress response in the body, which prompts the release of cortisol. While cortisol is a culprit in many of the harmful health effects associated with lack of sleep, the cortisol and adrenaline released when you’re low on sleep can also be associated with dopamine and the feeling of reward.
It’s possible that people who are stuck in a procrastination loop may thrive on these effects, which include symptoms like feeling giddy or getting that second-wind feeling, according to Dr. Colleen Hanlon, a researcher in deep transcranial magnetic stimulation and vice president of medical affairs at BrainsWay. But whatever you’re doing while you’re in that state, chances are you’re not doing it as well as you think you are.
“It’s very transient, and you kind of fool yourself into being cognitively very aware,” Hanlon said.
Dr. Ralph Lewis, a psychiatrist and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, said that though sleep deprivation is terrible for our cognition overall, a short day-or-two stint of it can make some people feel “a little bit revved up, driven, wired.”
“In that sense, it might feel like you’re more focused, maybe, or more productive,” Lewis said, also stressing that it’s not a good idea to promote sleep deprivation as any sort of tool, ever, given the dangers to your health. (I’m not. We’ll discuss healthier tools at the end of this article, but first we have to walk through all the reasons you’d want to turn to an unhealthy focus hack in the first place.)
Procrastination itself also causes a dopamine and adrenaline rush, and we often caffeinate ourselves to stay up, which also has an effect on our dopamine levels. So you can start to see how the relationship between procrastination, sleep deprivation and productivity gets messy.
Staying up late may also affect your mental state in another way. The middle of the night strips away the distractions of the day and allows us an opportunity to do things when the rest of the world is quiet, kind of like the eye of the storm, especially for people with attention problems or whose schedules are so full they can’t squeeze in any down time.
“That sense of quiet or the world shutting down for the night can sometimes, for some people, feel like it opens up their world a little bit,” said Jessica Stern, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
4 a.m. eye of the storm
When we feel most productive or when we’re able to do our best work also depends on our sleep “chronotype.” The typical 9-to-5 schedule is usually more conducive to people with “bear” or “lion” chronotypes, who have energy early in the day and start to feel sleepy at an earlier hour. But for some people, they naturally feel more productive later in the day and aren’t tired around bedtime.
Michael Breus, the psychologist and “Sleep Doctor” who wrote a book on the four chronotypes – lion, dolphin, bear and wolf – doesn’t see sleep deprivation as any sort of aid.
“I don’t see people using sleep deprivation as a tool for anything,” Breus said. “I see people getting sleep deprived because they don’t realize what their limits are.”
You may have heard the term “sleep procrastination” or “revenge bedtime procrastination” bubble up within the last year or two. Social media has filled up with videos of people, many of them parents, documenting their time spent staying up late and doing fun or decompressing activities, even though they know they should go to sleep because they have to wake up very early.
“All I think sleep procrastination is, is FOMO,” Breus said, referencing the fear of missing out.
“Then you get caught in that dopamine loop; then you’re stuck there for three or four hours,” he said. Breus also emphasized that sleep deprivation will make you experience everything through a negative emotional lens, but said emotion has the ability to “narrow focus.”
ADHD and sleep patterns
People with ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, may be particularly susceptible to the dangers of sleep deprivation and procrastination. Sleep deprivation induces a strong emotional response and sense of urgency, and ADHD tends to seek out those things as a spark to complete a task. And as a general rule, people with ADHD tend to be more prone to sleep problems.
One 2018 study, published in the journal Sleep, found that sleep deprivation and ADHD share a “common neural signature.” Looking at fMRI images of people who were sleep deprived and comparing them to images of people with ADHD and to controls, scientists found decreased activity in executive functioning in both sleep deprived and ADHD groups. More interesting, though, was that sleep loss resulted in a “potential compensatory response” in the thalamus. This could explain, theoretically, why people with ADHD sometimes describe a boost from sleep loss.
Diagnoses of ADHD have been rising for decades, with a particular boom during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw new ways to get diagnosed online and get medication quickly. But Lewis says we’ve been thinking about ADHD all wrong, and as a psychiatrist, he thinks it’s important not to overdiagnose a condition he sees as “executive function on a bell curve,” or put simply, neurodiversity.
People on what he calls the more intense part of the executive function bell curve tend to excel in environments like school and organized work. This is opposite those who have more novelty-seeking behaviors or big-picture thinking, he said. He compares the fact that so many people are trying to compensate for attention problems, or feel like they’re falling behind, to living in a world that favors tall people instead of short people.
“It’s as if we’ve created a society where everything’s high up,” Lewis said. “We’ve artificially created a society of height disadvantage.”
For people with ADHD symptoms, saving things for the nighttime when there are fewer distractions can be a workable strategy, but only if you’re able to make up that sleep during the day, which doesn’t work for most people’s schedules, he points out. It’s also important to stress that sleep deprivation is outright dangerous for people with bipolar disorder or manic depression, and that skipping sleep can have dangerous consequences and trigger a manic episode in those people.
“Sleep deprivation is a dangerous thing in so many ways for the human brain and body,” Lewis said. “We can put it off short-term, but it has terrible effects in the brain and the body.”
Hacks to get things done without losing sleep
If you’ve found yourself in an unhealthy cycle of procrastination and sleep deprivation, consider these tips that’ll trick your body into staying on track and still give you the sense of rush that helps get you going.
Break up tasks
Hanlon, who researches transcranial magnetic stimulation, or the procedure of using magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain, knew she’d met her procrastination match while running a lab on the effects of TMS on addiction. The graduate student helping her sift through her brain images was also a procrastinator, she said.
Working with two similar, stress-reliant cycles is like pushing two magnets together. So they came up with a solution: set up mini deadlines.
“We set up these very small milestones, and honestly it worked really well,” she said.
Moving the goal post closer so you can rush up against it, then moving it out again (as Hanlon does in her lab) is one of best things you can do to get ahead of procrastination. By simplifying tasks, not only are you efficiently working toward your goal, but you might still get little hits of relief or excitement when you finish a task.
Stern said a good motivation for overcoming procrastination is to reward yourself for “doing things you don’t want to do.”
Whatever a “reward” means to you, lean into one after you’ve checked off a necessary task that was making your stomach churn.
Get adrenaline in healthy ways
Being sleep deprived and procrastinating can put you into an overdrive state, Lewis said. Because the long-term health benefits are so damaging, using that stress response to drive productivity really isn’t sustainable.
If you find yourself needing an extra energy boost, Lewis pointed to exercise as one of the simplest ways to get your adrenaline pumping. Going for a bike ride or run, then sitting down to a task that calls for some inspiration, might be all you need. (As a bonus, exercise will help you sleep better, too.)
The note card trick
This is something I started doing recently, and on the days I actually remember to write one, there’s a noticeable difference in how much energy or inspiration I have for all tasks at hand. It’s basically writing a to-do list, but I completely separate tasks I want to do from tasks I’m not excited about.
On one side of the card, I jot down tasks I’m not particularly thrilled about completing but need to get done. On the other side, I write down small “creative” tasks I also need to do that day. Sometimes they’re actually creative, like free write for 15 minutes, but I also throw in daily exercise or anything else I view as feeding the creative monster, and I weave in bursts of energy that way. It’s likely this works for me because crossing off these creative tasks serves as a type of reward, and it also draws out ways to break up tasks.
Actually make sleep a priority
If other wellness habits, such as staying hydrated, exercising regularly and eating nutritious foods, are like cheerleaders leading a rally about how much better I’d feel if I also developed a better sleep schedule, then my nights of scheduled sleep deprivation are the people smoking outside and skipping the rally altogether – we’ve heard it all before, and we’re just not interested.
But to whoever needs to hear this (me): Staying up late and being tired isn’t a badge of honor. While it might provide adrenaline-assisted benefits for a (very limited) one or two nights, chronic sleep deprivation will increase your risk of cognitive decline later in life, increase your risk of heart disease and so much more.
If you’re seeking novelty in your sleep routine, there are small things you can do to enhance the experience, like investing in a scent infuser, being selective about which pillow you use or how you arrange your bedroom, and generally thinking of a nightly routine as something you look forward to that will only help your work in the long run.
Try your best to create your 3 a.m. environment at 2 p.m.
Though sometimes I stay up super late to finish an everyday task because I put it off, I usually find myself in the biggest thick of sleep deprivation with a project I really want to get right. I love having the time, maybe in a dark and dreamy cafe that’s open until 2 a.m., to diddle around and wait for an idea to get its wings, which then makes the rest of the project feel so much easier. I want to give some things the right room to grow.
In an ideal world, Lewis said, we’d all head off to our cabins in the woods, packing only a “big bag of physical books.” But that’s not realistic, so you need to do what you can to make your environment one that’s similar to what you love about the nighttime.
As you start to experiment with ways you can complete your necessary tasks while still respecting the things you truly love to do, you may find that the need to participate in the dangerous sleep-deprivation-and-procrastination game fades away.
“We all crave that peace and quiet,” Lewis said. “Peace and quiet and being understood.”