Social Jet Lag: Chaotic Sleeping and Waking Patterns

Are you one of those people who stay up late during the week to have a social life and then try to catch up on your sleep at the weekend? Do you go to bed at a reasonable time on weekdays and have late nights at the weekend? If the answer is yes, we'll tell you how to minimize the harmful effects of these habits.
Social Jet Lag: Chaotic Sleeping and Waking Patterns

Last update: 25 August, 2022

Nowadays, life follows a rhythm that makes it really difficult for us to reconcile our work and leisure time. We have the kinds of work schedules that mean we have to take advantage of the last few hours of the day to play sports, socialize, or rest at home reading or watching our favorite series. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this. However, by accumulating tiredness and trying to catch up at the weekend, you could develop what experts call social jet lag.

Social jet lag

The term jet lag is used to describe the set of symptoms that people tend to experience when traveling to a place with a large difference in time zone. Having to adjust to a new local time and different hours of daylight can temporarily cause fatigue, stomach problems, difficulty concentrating, and of course, trouble sleeping.

However, this can also happen without the need to travel a long way but by simply changing the home time zone. For example, people who have one schedule from Monday to Friday and another on the weekend. Or, those who accumulate tiredness and lack of sleep and try to recover it on non-working days. That’s not to mention if they go out partying some nights. Nevertheless, trying to recover hours of sleep isn’t as effective or beneficial as it’s thought, since it can lead to social jet lag.

Our bodies are governed by circadian rhythms. These generally have a 24-hour cycle and lead us to sleep at night (when daylight decreases).

The problem is that, in order to keep up with the current pace of life, you’re often forced to alter your circadian rhythms. Consequently, your body is continually adapting between its biological clock and social clock. Social jet lag is the difference between the sleep rhythms of your routine and non-routine days.

Woman asleep in bed
Social jet lag occurs when there’s a gap in sleep between routine and non-routine days.

Causes and symptoms of social jet lag

There are three possible causes for developing social jet lag:

  • Irregular sleep schedules. For example, going to bed and waking up early on weekdays and late on weekends.
  • Changing work/sleep schedules. For instance, working one night shift and one day shift.
  • A mismatch between chronotype and sleep schedule. This means that biological sleep preferences don’t coincide with the sleep schedule.

It’s important to note that although work schedules are mentioned among its causes, social jet lag can also happen to unemployed people or homemakers. In short, it’s a mismatch between the sleep rhythm that certain activities (work, leisure, or others) force us to do and the biological one (or predominant and preferential).

Having continuously changing circadian rhythms may cause the following symptoms:

  • Intense morning sleepiness.
  • Increased daytime sleepiness or feelings of jet lag.
  • More difficulty falling asleep.
  • More difficulty concentrating when doing tasks.
  • Worse mood, irritability, and depressive feelings.

Can it affect us long-term?

Since social jet lag can cause sleep and cognitive disturbances on a daily basis, experts have been interested in its long-term implications. It seems that if you keep your body in this state of constant adaptation, social jet lag could become a chronic condition that might also be related to other health problems.

In 2018, a group of researchers conducted a study with the aim of discovering which diseases are associated with suffering from social jet lag. The results showed an increased risk of:

  • Cardiovascular diseases.
  • Metabolic syndromes (obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure).
  • Stress.
  • Depression.
  • Sleep disorders and apnea.

Do you suffer from social jet lag?

If you want to know if you’re suffering from social jet lag, you must first calculate the midpoint of your main sleep period. Then, work out the midpoint of your secondary schedule. If the difference between these two values is greater than two hours, it can be said that you have social jet lag. Let’s take an example:

If you generally need to go to sleep at eleven p.m. and wake up at six a.m., the midpoint would be three a.m. If at weekends, or on your days off, you usually go to sleep around four a.m. and wake up at twelve p.m., the midpoint would be eight a.m. Therefore, eight minus three would result in a jet lag of five hours.

Woman turning off the alarm clock
In the long term, social jet lag can promote stress and some sleep disorders.

What can you do if you have social jet lag?

If you’ve calculated the difference between your two schedules and it’s greater than two hours, you’ve probably wondered what you can do to minimize its effects. In general, it’s best to move your sleep schedules closer together so that the two coincide as closely as possible. However, this can be tricky.

A possible solution to pay off your sleep debt is to take naps between 15 and 90 minutes, depending on your particular case. This is a good way to alleviate the difference, especially if you have pretty severe social jet lag. You can also resort to what’s known as ‘prophylactic napping’. This consists of sleeping before the waking period. For example, take a nap before working a night shift.

On the other hand, natural light helps your body to secrete and regulate substances that’ll keep you awake, as well as induce a state of fatigue when bedtime approaches. This is also the case with melatonin. Therefore, try to see the right kind of light when you wake up for at least 15 minutes to help your body balance itself. If you can combine it with some physical exercise, all the better.

Sleep hygiene

Finally, it’s essential to maintain proper sleep hygiene. This consists of adopting habits that are beneficial for sleep. For example, using comfortable, clean, and cozy bedding, having good ventilation in the room and a suitable temperature, and a low noise level. You should also avoid heavy foods, alcohol, and caffeine in the five hours before sleeping, and not carry out any work and recreational activities in bed.

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  • Wittmann, M., Dinich, J., Merrow, M., & Roenneberg, T. (2006). Social jetlag: misalignment of biological and social time. Chronobiology International, 23(1-2), 497-509. https://doi.org/10.1080/07420520500545979
  • Hittle, B. M., & Gillespie, G. L. (2018). Identifying shift worker chronotype: implications for health. Industrial Health, 56(6), 512-523. https://doi.org/10.2486/indhealth.2018-0018