The first time I saw the phrase revenge bedtime procrastination, my jaw dropped. I felt like my entire way of sleeping (or, more importantly, not sleeping) had been explained in just three words.
The term bedtime procrastination appears to have been coined in a study from the Netherlands, defined as failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so. Revenge seems to have first appeared on the internet in China in 2016 and writer Daphne K. Lee then defined it on Twitter as "a phenomenon in which people who don't have much control over their daytime life refuse to sleep early in order to regain some sense of freedom during late night hours." You’re literally getting revenge on a day in which you feel like you had no freedom, control, or time to yourself. Because you can control whether or not you let sleep take you, the easiest way to get revenge on your day is to simply stay awake.
I’ve never been a great sleeper, but I’ve engaged in revenge bedtime procrastination my entire life. When I was a child, my parents and siblings would turn in at eight, nine, or ten o’clock at night and I would steal another few hours alone in the quiet, dark house to do what I loved more than sleeping or anything else in the world—read. As a teen, I used to say I “liked thinking,” valuing the time from eleven o’clock at night til often four o’clock in the morning to daydream, read, go on the computer—whatever I wanted. And then my alarm would go off at seven o’clock in the morning for school. On the weekends, I’d sleep until ten o’clock if I could, trying to make up the sleep debt of the lost weekday hours.
Until I started living with my now-husband, I never went to sleep before one o’clock in the morning, no matter what I had to do the next day or how early I had to get up. Many times, I couldn’t sleep simply because I didn’t feel tired, but I wouldn’t do anything about it, enjoying the hours I was wide awake and felt alone in the house. Other times, I’d fight sleep to stay awake. Whether I couldn’t or wouldn’t sleep didn’t matter—I just didn’t, and I often valued those hours more than the daytime ones.
The difference between sleep procrastination and insomnia is choice: with revenge bedtime procrastination, you are reclaiming the hours of your life you feel like you lost during the day on purpose. Like many things, your gauge for whether or not it’s an issue is whether it’s negatively impacting other parts of your life and why you are using the coping strategy in the first place.
Unfortunately for me, during high school, college, and then adulthood, most people I talked to were tired. Kids fell asleep in class, my college roommates would sleep until the afternoon, and, “How are you?” is often met with, “Exhausted!” in the workplace. So if I was ever tired, it just seemed normal. And I enjoyed my revenge bedtime procrastination, so what was the big deal?
There is no question that sleep is important. Sleep disruptions have substantial adverse short- and long-term health consequences and inadequate sleep is associated with increased stress responsivity, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, emotional distress and mood disorders, cognitive, memory, and performance deficits, hypertension, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease, weight-related issues, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and colorectal cancer. Not good.
The number of hours of sleep someone should get per night varies from person to person, but in general, adults should receive seven to eight hours of sleep per night and some people function best with nine. And while many people tend to sleep fewer hours during the workweek and try to “make it up” at the weekend (guilty!), that’s not ideal. Studies show that weekend recovery sleep is not an effective strategy to prevent metabolic dysregulation associated with recurrent insufficient sleep.
And during the COVID-19 pandemic, things have only gotten worse. The prevalence of sleep problems during the COVID-19 pandemic is high and affects approximately 40% of people from the general and health care populations. With the blurred lines between work and home, home schooling, and stay-at-home orders or restricted travel, revenge sleep procrastination is now impacting more people than ever.
At this point, most of us know the tips and tricks to sleep better: don’t use your phone in bed before you go to sleep, keep your room cool and dark, meditate, drink a calming tea before bed, have a relaxing nighttime routine, and more. If you need more inspiration, check out some tips from our therapist community about ways you can improve your sleep tonight or our mental health calendar packed with a month’s worth of resources to help you get a good night’s sleep.
The most important thing is that you actually test some sleep tips and see if they work for you, then build a routine. You can say that you’re not going to scroll before bed, but if you plug your phone in to charge overnight right next to your head, you probably will.
If I work or socialize right up to the time I’m supposed to go to sleep, I feel a stronger need for revenge bedtime procrastination. Then I find myself watching Youtube videos for two hours to “decompress.” If I take a shorter amount of time to do a bedtime meditation, journal, read, and/or do some self-massage with a little sleepy time lavender lotion, that decompression time can be cut down to more like twenty or thirty minutes, giving me another hour and a half of precious sleep. It’s easier to pull up Youtube, which is why making your bedtime ritual a routine is the important part. With repetition, it becomes more natural.
Avoiding blue light, drinking chamomile tea, and keeping my room nice and cool isn’t going to treat the revenge procrastination part of the problem—if I don’t feel like I have freedom during my daytime hours, I tend to slip back into staying up late to reclaim my personal time. When it comes to revenge sleep procrastination, it’s a two-pronged attack: I have to take care of myself during the day and night.
The desire for freedom and control of your day is completely and totally valid, but it’s not sleep that should be punished for what goes on in the daylight hours. It’s important to set boundaries during the day and carve out time for yourself by practicing preventative self-care. If that sounds hard, it is. But you can do it!
The best cure for revenge bedtime procrastination might be revenge daytime procrastination. Book a “meeting” on your calendar a few days a week (or every day!) to read, exercise, take a walk, meditate, or do whatever relaxes you during the work day (gasp!). If the space is already reserved, you’re more likely to do it and less likely to have it booked over by something else. Hire a babysitter even when you don’t “need” one. Instead of eating dinner in front of the TV or binging afterward, eat a quick and easy dinner and enjoy an activity you usually save for the weekends during the week.
A lot of times, we scroll or stay glued to screens to avoid our thoughts and veg out after a stressful day. If you get to the end of the day and feel revenge bedtime procrastination creeping up on you, take five quiet minutes to yourself to think or write about what happened during that might have made you feel this way. Is it something you can prevent from happening or avoid the next day?
Again, sleep is vital to your mental and physical health and wellbeing. While revenge bedtime procrastination itself isn’t a psychological disorder or condition, general procrastination, unhappiness with your life situation, or struggling to find ways to cope are all things a therapist can help with.
Revenge sleep procrastination is mainly about control. When we don't feel like we can control what happens during the daytime, we fight the feeling of disempowerment by doing whatever we can to take control of our night hours. A therapist can help you learn the skills you need to examine the source of your stress and how to handle it in a healthy way.
Along with proper sleep hygiene, including a nighttime wind-down routine, a healthy diet, and exercise, therapy is also growing as an effective treatment for insomnia and other sleep disorders. If your sleep problems are affecting you long-term or having a serious impact on your day, a doctor or therapist will be able to take a look at your sleep habits to see if you suffer from a sleep disorder and work with you to create a plan to help you start to sleep better.
While taking time for yourself is always a great idea, doing it at the expense of a good night’s sleep can have a negative impact on your physical and mental health. Whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, the sleep hours have to come from somewhere, and one thing we all have in common is that there are only twenty-four hours in a day. If you can ensure your sixteen or so hours of waking time are fulfilling and in your control, you might find that you’re happier about dedicating the remainder to rest.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.