The clock strikes midnight. Your face is bathed in the blue light coming from your phone. You feel a twinge of guilt about this late-night habit, but it’s quickly eclipsed by a feeling of quiet defiance as you continue to scroll your social media feed for more than an hour past your intended bedtime.
As an adult human person, you set your own bedtime. So why do you find yourself repeatedly staying up well past that hour? The answer could be something called “sleep procrastination.”
Though the term may sound a bit strange at first, the behavior it describes is likely more familiar than most of us would like to admit. We’ve all been there, doing that –– when we know an earlier bedtime almost always yields better mornings and better days.
Granted, the occasional midnight Netflix binge session is probably harmless. But what can be problematic is sleep procrastination that has become a habit, which can make it harder to get the sleep you need and may affect your ability to function during the day. When that happens, it might be time to think about implementing new habits and sleep hygiene routines that will help you stick to a healthier bedtime.
Read on to find out what sleep procrastination looks like, what causes it, and how you can break the habit to get the sleep your body needs.
Simply put, sleep procrastination (or bedtime procrastination) is failing to go to bed at your intended time, even though there aren’t any external circumstances preventing you from going to bed.
It’s not about staying up late to do essential household chores, finish a work assignment, or meet a deadline. Rather, it usually involves passive leisure activities and media consumption: scrolling social media, watching videos, reading, browsing your email inbox, etc.
A common trickle-down effect of putting off and repeatedly missing an intended bedtime is insufficient sleep that can impact daytime energy levels and individual well-being.
How can you tell if you’re a sleep procrastinator? Here are some behaviors that could indicate you’ve been putting off your bedtime unnecessarily:
Are you guilty of these guilty pleasures? And, when you factor in the energy toll and the next-day repercussions of insufficient sleep, can you really call it a “pleasure”?
The concept of sleep procrastination can be traced back first to the Netherlands and later to China.
The term “bedtime procrastination” was first used in 2014 by Dutch researcher Floor Kroese. Kroese studied people who voluntarily put off sleep and found a correlation between this lack of self-regulation and insufficient sleep.
In 2018, a more colorful name for this new area of procrastination began to take root in China. In a post that spread rapidly on Twitter, journalist Daphne K. Lee reported learning a new term: revenge bedtime procrastination.
An alternate translation, “retaliatory staying up late,” points to an underlying issue Lee cites as a common thread among many of those most likely to make a habit of this behavior: “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.”
The concept resonated with thousands of Chinese workers who replied to Lee’s tweet with reports of feeling robbed of a personal life and leisure time. Staying up late to eke out even a modicum of “me time” seemed to be a kind of quiet rebellion against China’s grueling but normalized 996 schedule –– working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.
An increase in the number of people who have transitioned from office jobs to work-from-home has made the problem of sleep procrastination even more pronounced and widespread.
Lacking a predictable rhythm or consistent routines in your daily life can make it difficult to maintain a good nighttime routine and a regular bedtime.
Because delaying sleep unnecessarily might be less of an explicit goal and more of an unconscious behavior, it should come as no surprise that pinpointing a single, definitive cause for sleep procrastination is hardly cut and dry. But it’s often a result of wanting to carve out time for yourself or have some control over your day when it’s been largely dictated by other responsibilities or a work-life imbalance.
For example, you may be procrastinating sleep because:
The desire for downtime and self-care is understandable and healthy. Spending time away from the pressures of your workday is important for well-being, and the failure or inability to detach can lead to stress and burnout.
But here’s why sleep procrastination matters. Although stealing time from your sleep to indulge in a little mindless entertainment might sound like a harmless trade-off, the lost sleep adds up. But it’s not just about losing hours of sleep. It’s also about missing the opportunity to go to sleep when your body is naturally primed to rest, according to your circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm is a kind of internal body clock that tells your body when to be active and inactive during a roughly 24-hour cycle, resulting in predictable dips and peaks of energy at different times of the day. As you'll see in the RISE app, your ideal bedtime falls within what we call your Melatonin Window. DLMO (dim light melatonin onset) marks the beginning of this phase. As your brain ramps up production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, you are likely to feel drowsy and ready to turn out the lights.
What makes sleep procrastination a truly tangled web is that staying up when you should be going to bed eats into your overall sleep time. It also means you miss your Melatonin Window. But on top of that, you’re usually spending the time engaging in activities like playing video games, browsing social media, or watching bingeable TV shows. By missing your window and exposing yourself to blue light, you’re likely to have a much tougher time falling asleep and staying asleep, which will only further diminish the amount of sleep you’re getting.
People struggling with sleep procrastination — and the resulting lack of energy during the day — who want to meet their sleep need consistently should first rule out any serious sleep disorders or underlying health conditions. If your doctor doesn’t find any major health problems, you can begin by addressing the lack of perceived control that’s often the driving force of sleep procrastination.
Although it may not be within your power to change some of the more challenging or problematic circumstances of your job or home life, taking charge of and prioritizing your sleep schedule could be a viable workaround solution.
The RISE app makes it easy to optimize your sleep and energy schedule, in part by tracking your sleep debt. Sleep debt is a running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed, compared to the sleep your body needed over the past 14 days. As you get closer to paying back the amount of sleep you owe, your sleep debt goes down.
Having a number (your sleep debt number) in the app that you are in control of can feel empowering and help you avoid sleep procrastination. Gradually beginning to understand that a lower sleep debt score equates to feeling better and having more energy during the day reinforces the good habit of going to sleep at the bedtime you set for yourself.
The desperate need for me-time or downtime is often at the root of bedtime procrastination. To satisfy that need without slipping into the procrastination part, why not create a bedtime routine that feels indulgent but allows you to get the sleep you need?
Start by determining when you need to go to bed in order to meet your sleep need. You can do this one of two ways: by working backward from the time you have to get up or by using the RISE app to know your Melatonin Window, which is the best time to go to sleep.
Once you know your bedtime, you’ll want 60-90 minutes of wind down before that. Again, if you use the RISE app, it will alert you when your wind-down routine should begin.
The key is to be intentional about how you’ll spend that time and resolute about the kinds of activities (e.g., scrolling social media or playing games on your phone) you will avoid.
Steer clear of TV episodes that end in cliffhangers and games that push you to reach the next level. They’re designed to make you crave the next episode or level and can tempt you into pushing back your bedtime.
Instead you might drink a cup of tea, take a warm bath, listen to calming music, read a chapter of a novel, or write in your journal. And if watching TV or using your phone will be part of your wind-down routine, we recommend wearing blue-light blocking glasses so that it doesn’t interfere with your ability to fall asleep at bedtime.
In his book “Good Night: The Sleep Doctor's 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health,” sleep medicine expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., suggests a specific sequence for the activities you include in what he calls the “Power Down Hour”:
Whether you call it sleep procrastination, revenge bedtime procrastination, or revenge sleep procrastination, the most important thing to know about this phenomenon is that it exists — and that it’s within your power to do something about it. Being able to recognize the tendency to put off going to bed is the first step on the path toward overcoming the problem.
Next, as you begin to understand the particular reasons driving your counterproductive behavior, you can work to replace your bedtime procrastination routine with a healthy self-care routine that allows you to meet your sleep need and feel good the next day.
The RISE app can help you track your progress. Because when it comes to facing an uncertain world or an overly demanding job, the best revenge is a good night’s sleep.
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