The psychology of revenge bedtime procrastination

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Have you ever come home after a long day at work, with a narrow window of time to eat, shower, and go to bed, but decided to carve out some leisure time at the expense of your sleep? This is called “revenge bedtime procrastination”, and it can be extremely harmful to your physical and mental health.

Getting revenge on our daytime life

The term “bedtime procrastination” was coined in 2014 by Dr. Floor Kroese, a behavioral scientist from Utrecht University, and her team. They defined it as “going to bed later than intended while no external circumstances are accountable for doing so.”

In 2020, Daphne K. Lee described revenge bedtime procrastination 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.” The term emerged from Chinese (報復性熬夜), possibly because of the brutal 996 working hour system practiced by some companies in China, where employees are required to work from 9am to 9pm, six days per week, totalling 72 hours per week.

Despite the tiredness, people will finish their tasks and stay up later than they should. For example:

  • An exhausted mom staying up scrolling on social media after she finally managed to put the kids to bed
  • A freelancer watching a movie until 2am after they shipped a late-night project for a client
  • A student reading comics late in the night after they struggled to finish writing an essay due for the following day

Researchers from the University of Minho and the Central University of Chile made the distinction between bedtime procrastination (procrastinating before going to bed) and while-in-bed procrastination (procrastinating after going to bed). In both cases, there are three typical behaviours to watch out for.

Revenge bedtime procrastination symptoms
  1. Delay. Going to bed late is not necessarily bedtime procrastination if that was your plan all along. Maybe you have some chores to catch up on, maybe you are a night owl, or maybe you know you won’t have to wake up early the day after. In contrast, bedtime procrastination involves going to be later than you originally intended.
  2. No valid reason. Sometimes, life happens, and we can’t go to bed when we had planned to. You or a loved one being sick that night, having to stay up because of a roommate who forgot their keys… There are many reasons why you may stay up for longer that don’t involve bedtime procrastination. However, we sometimes don’t have a valid reason to stay up later than intended.
  3. Awareness. Finally, bedtime procrastination involves knowing that your actions will result in negative consequences. Similar to regular procrastination which is accompanied with feelings of guilt, people who procrastinate at bedtime know they should really go to bed and get some sleep.

Bedtime procrastination becomes revenge bedtime procrastination when the decision to delay sleep is in response to a lack of free time earlier in the day. Staying up late and carving out some leisure time even if we feel tired and need sleep becomes a way of getting revenge on daytime hours with little free time.

The impact of bedtime procrastination

Sleep loss is increasingly common due to the pressures of modern life. Researchers from the University of Turku in Finland argue that “working hours are constantly increasing along with an emphasis on active leisure. (…) Furthermore, people tend to stretch their capacity and compromise their nightly sleep, thus becoming chronically sleep deprived.”

Many people think our bodies can adapt to fewer hours of sleep, but this is a misconception. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in the United Kingdom explains that “a common myth is that people can learn to get by on little sleep with no negative effects. However, research shows that getting enough quality sleep at the right times is vital for mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety.”

Bedtime procrastination, revenge bedtime procrastination, and while-in-bed procrastination can all lead to sleep deprivation. Your body won’t be able to properly recharge, leading to irritability, degraded decision-making, thinking, and memory, reduced impulse control, as well as many potential health issues, including metabolic disorders and cardiovascular problems. These are not effects to take lightly. So how can you avoid inflicting these to yourself?

How to cope with revenge bedtime procrastination

The more stressed and pressured you feel during the day, the more likely you are to engage in revenge bedtime procrastination. While managing your stress and the external pressures of life may be challenging at times, there are some simple principles you can apply to ensure you are getting enough sleep.

  • Stick to a routine. It may not always be possible, but keeping a consistent bedtime and wake-up time — including on non-working days — can help avoid revenge bedtime procrastination. Instead of just using an alarm to wake up, you could also set an alarm to go to bed. Some people also like to put their sleeping time in their calendar, just like any other important task.
  • Consider your metabolism. Avoid drinking coffee or alcohol late in the day. If you can, grab an early dinner, and if you can’t, try to stick to a light meal so you don’t overwhelm your digestive system before going to bed. Weekly meal preparation, where you batch cook your dinners during the weekend, can also be a great way to use eating as an excuse for revenge bedtime procrastination.
  • Ease into your bedtime. Instead of screen-based activities such as watching videos or scrolling on social media, which are additive, numbing, and tiring for the eyes, try to relax your body and your mind before going to bed. Meditation and journaling are great activities to practice mindfulness and to switch off before sleep. You will feel calmer and ready for a good night of rest. You can also read a few pages of a book while in bed.

Don’t beat yourself up if you did fall prey to revenge bedtime procrastination the previous night and went to bed later than you intended. Apply some basic self-care strategy to help your body cope with the extra stress: drink lots of water, go for a walk, eat healthy, and, if you have time, try to take a short nap. In the evening, go to bed early. Don’t try to power through your days with caffeine and high-calorie foods. Just be extra kind to your body.

Revenge bedtime procrastination is harmful to your physical and mental health. Staying up a bit later to carve out some leisure time may feel good in the short-term, but will lead to some pretty worrisome negative effects in the long-term. It’s okay if we slip from time to time, but breaking this pernicious habit will result in a healthier, more balanced life.