Is Sleep Procrastination Keeping You up at Night?

Find out how to break this popular pandemic habit
A person procrastinates falling asleep by watching a TV show on their laptop while laying in bed.

Meetings, errands, appointments, unexpected emergencies — our days are filled with so much. And when it feels like they aren’t yours to enjoy, it’s easy to feel cheated or unfulfilled. So what’s the harm in making the most of that small window of time that you have right before you hit the hay? A little scrolling, posting, reading or binge-watching to forget the troubles of the day can’t hurt, right?  

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When that small window of time turns into a doorway to hours of mindless entertainment, this can wreck your sleep. Get in the habit of doing it night after night, and you’ll end up zombie walking through your days. Why do we do this to ourselves and how can we break the habit? Behavioral sleep medicine psychologist Alicia Roth, PhD, explains what revenge bedtime procrastination is and offers some tips for getting our sleep routine back on track.  

What does revenge bedtime procrastination mean? 

Dr. Roth says revenge bedtime procrastination is like a mix of procrastination and stress relief.  

“One of the reasons why it refers to revenge is because it’s like you’re trying to exert some control over your life in a society where we have so little control. You’re taking revenge on your inability to control your life and using that little time before bed — that wind-down time — to doomscroll or do something that’s not necessarily healthy for sleep.” 

Has this always been a thing? 

Yes. But given how the pandemic has made us more stressed and taken away a lot of our control, we’ve become more aware of the concept of revenge bedtime procrastination. It’s believed that this phrase first popped up on Chinese social media around 2018. The Chinese refer to revenge bedtime procrastination as ‘bàofùxìng áoyè’. Another translation for this is ‘retaliatory staying up late.’ In the same year, a national survey showed that 60% of Chinese people who were born after 1990 weren’t getting enough sleep. Big-city dwellers missed out on sleep the most.  

When we engage in revenge bedtime procrastination, it’s like we’re trying to squeeze in some little wins after a tough or draining day.  

“It’s like you refuse to do something that you know is good for you because you’re trying to indulge yourself a little bit to make up for how hard life has been the rest of the day. With revenge bedtime procrastination, we’re trying to regain that freedom or regain an hour or so of personal time. And it happens to a lot of people in various situations. For instance, with parents, this is the only time when they can feel like themselves. The same might also be true for overworked people or really anyone who just feels like their day is being stretched thin.” 

How working from home might contribute to sleep procrastination 

Dr. Roth says that when we’re working and sleeping under the same roof, our boundaries can easily become blurred. It doesn’t mean that this new way of life is negative, but it has made it harder to maintain a sense of balance.  

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“There’s not a lot of data about the prevalence of revenge bedtime procrastination, but there is data to reflect that more of us are working at home. That means we’re blurring boundaries. For many of us, home used to be a safe, relaxing, comfortable space. With work from home, there’s not a clear demarcation between work hours and home hours. It can be a lot, especially when you have other responsibilities like caring for children, a spouse, a parent or even a pet.” 

Bedtime procrastination is not just a sleep issue

After reading this, you might be thinking, “Yes, revenge sleep procrastination is why I can’t get enough sleep!” But Dr. Roth says the problem can run much deeper.  

“Sometimes, this phenomenon is deeper than just good sleep and healthy habits. Part of it is reevaluating what you care about in life and figuring out if you are spending time on things that are important to you. When you take these elements and then look at how you’re spending your time during the day, a discrepancy between them can cause a lot of distress.” 

A major discrepancy would be if you value spending time with loved ones and focusing on your health but you spend most of your day stressed out and working. There’s a huge gap between what you truly love and what you spend your time doing.  

Dr. Roth says that people don’t come to her with specific requests to work on bedtime revenge procrastination. Instead, she helps people reprioritize and focus on what matters most.  

“No one has come to me and said, ‘I need to work on revenge bedtime procrastination.’ It’s more like people want to figure out what’s important in their lives. I help them redesign their days so they have time for those valuable things in addition to the stuff that they have to do. That can be major, overarching therapy work and it can look different for every person.” 

What you can do to help prevent sleep procrastination 

While getting to the root of why you’re losing sleep should be the first step, Dr. Roth says there are a few things we can do to tap into our inner Sleepytime Bear. 

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Listen to your body 

Sure, you have that ideal bedtime in the back of your mind, but is it right for your body? Not necessarily.  

“Sometimes you’re setting goals for your sleep and your body isn’t ready for that yet. Listening to your body’s needs is important when it comes to having good sleep habits. It’s usually not beneficial to set up arbitrary goals like going to bed at a certain time. Instead, if you know that your body is ready for sleep, meaning your head can hit the pillow and you’d be out by 11 p.m., then you can structure your sleep health goals around that.” 

Create a buffer between the world and sleep 

Dr. Roth says giving yourself a buffer zone between the world and your sleep is ideal. You can have a little bubble for pre-bedtime activities but stay out of bed until you’re ready to get some shuteye. 

“It’s possible to do counterproductive things while you’re in that bubble. So stay out of bed until you’re ready to sleep. If looking at videos relaxes you and helps you detach and feel better, that’s fine. Do it before that ideal time when you fall asleep and don’t do it in bed.  

Try to troubleshoot for a few weeks  

If you’ve been battling sleep procrastination, Dr. Roth suggests trying to change your approach for a few weeks. If nothing seems to help, talk to your healthcare provider. 

“If after a couple of weeks it’s not getting better, reach out sooner rather than later to your primary care doctor. You might not need sleep intervention. You might just need to see a general therapist to work through your stress.” 

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