‘Revenge Bedtime Procrastination’: The Story of Our Lives

“When sleep is abundant, minds flourish. When it is deficient, they don’t.”

Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

It’s 3 am on a Monday. What am I doing? I am busy watching Friends for the millionth time or Korean Mukbang videos on YouTube. I can barely manage to keep my eyes open, but I keep watching. For over an hour, I’ve been telling myself, “Just five more minutes.” When the alarm wakes me up later in the day, I promise myself to better my sleep cycle. But you and I both know that will not happen.

Does this sound familiar? Welcome to the ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ club, where members follow the practice of delaying one’s sleep to enjoy some leisure time; essentially sacrificing sleep for some ‘me-time’.

Sleep Foundation states that three criteria need to be fulfilled to consider one’s act as revenge bedtime procrastination:

(i) shortened sleep
(ii) staying awake only for leisure time
(iii) fully aware that you should go to bed but failing to do so

The term bedtime procrastination was first coined in a research paper published in Frontiers in Psychology by behavioural scientist Dr Floor Kroese and colleagues in 2014, and they described it as “going to bed later than intended time while no external circumstances are accountable for doing so”.

Since then, the term has been associated with poor self-control and lack of self-discipline among other explanations as discussed by experts in this area. But how did the word ‘revenge’ come into the picture? In 2016, the phenomenon surfaced on China’s social media platforms with the word ‘revenge’ added on.

As per an article on Health magazine, revenge bedtime procrastination is a psychological phenomenon. Terry Cralle, a certified sleep health consultant educator and writer, explains it as a deliberate choice: “Failing to go to bed at an intended time in order to claim some much needed me-time.”

On June 2020, Taipei-New York City based journalist Daphne K. Lee tweeted the much used Chinese term: 報復性熬夜, translated as ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’. The tweet went viral – today’s over-worked population could relate to it, especially workers around the world who follow China’s obnoxious 9-9-6 work culture, working from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week.

The phenomenon of overwork is very common globally. In Japan, the word ‘karoshi’ translates as death due to overwork.

Looking at our current state, where we are all locked up at home and barely stepping out unless it’s an emergency, it is clear that the boundaries between work-home-leisure have been blurred. Clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff rightly points out that without this apparent ‘self-claimed time’, we are only left with work and sleep, and this act of pushing your bedtime can be understood as a way to simply do things you like, i.e. watching shows/films on OTT platforms, playing mobile games, scrolling on Instagram or anything else that you want to.

My PhD study was on ‘sleep’, and it is interesting to note that while I interviewed shift workers (research participants) as part of my study, they would often describe instances and experiences from their daily lives which sounded a lot like revenge bedtime procrastination. It is far more common than we imagine.

When it comes to sleep procrastination, a lot of theories have been offered up. It is still not a fully established concept in sleep science and there definitely needs to be a substantial amount of research with conclusive evidence to help one understand it better. It could very well be the result of multiple variables and interactions among them i.e. chronotype, daytime stress, and difficulties in self-regulation among others.

Dr Laurie Santos, director of comparative cognition lab at Yale, says that free time is very important for one’s well being. However, interestingly she also mentions that many problems that lead to revenge bedtime procrastination such as feeling low, depressed or overwork leading to burnout, insufficient time throughout the day to engage in leisure and so on, can be dealt with by getting enough sleep at the first place. According to Sleep Foundation, a few tips that can help us deal with this phenomenon are

(i) managing a consistent bed and wake-up time, even on non-working days
(ii) limiting the use of electronic devices before bedtime
(iii) avoiding alcoholic and caffeinated beverages in the latter half of the day
(iv) engaging in relaxation activities that will help prepare for sleep
(v) regular exercise during the day
(vi) peaceful and non- disturbing sleep environment that will help one consistently manage good sleep hygiene

According to social psychologist Dr DiDonato, revenge procrastination is also an indication that our psychological needs are not being met during daytime. So it is important to also work towards that, which can include:

(i) taking breaks between work
(ii) spending quality time with partner/family
(iii) adding fun activities to daily routine among others

Occasionally staying up late is nothing out of ordinary, but making that a regular practice is extremely unhealthy. Contrary to popular belief, it is a fact that no one gets used to little sleep and poor sleep hygiene will take a severe toll on one’s overall health sooner than later.

Moitrayee Das is currently serving as a guest faculty (community psychology) at FLAME University, Pune.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty