Are You Guilty of “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination”?

Let those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days go

January 23, 2023 5:32 am
A black and white photo of a man looking at his phone in bed.
A revenge bedtime procrastinator, seen here in the wild.
EyeWolf/Getty Images

I was about an hour past my aspirational bedtime the other night, and a few minutes past my point-of-no-return-bedtime, when I made the duncical decision to start combing through Niche’s annual Best School Districts in America list.

For the record — I do not have a kid, much less a kid old enough to enter the public school system. I have many things to figure out before I reach that stage of my life.

Why on earth, then, was I trying to secure the bright futures of my unborn broods at 1:13 in the morning? And why was I cross-referencing one promising landing spot in San Diego County with accounts on Instagram, some of them with stated missions to “document the truth” about their once-proud village? (This evidently amounts to occasional posts depicting homeless people setting up tents near playgrounds.)

No rabbit-hole — no amount of Googling, Instagramming, or Zillowing — could’ve possibly helped me reach a conclusion by morning, even if I were a decade older and on the clock to make a decision. Which I wasn’t. I was perusing, not researching.

By why? To meet my nerves about the future? To interact with some random internet knowledge, like going down a Wikipedia deep-dive? Or maybe just to daydream? I considered this the next morning, flicking crusties from the corners of my bleary eyelids. I wasn’t sure; the only thing I knew was that the longer I’d spent “daydreaming,” the longer I’d kept myself from actual dreaming.

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A study published back in 2014, in an academic journal called Frontiers, was the first to coin the term “bedtime procrastination.” According to the paper: while one in five adults could be considered chronic procrastinators, and the phenomenon is certainly infamous in the academic sphere (students procrastinate at prodigious levels), people are capable of postponing on far more than papers.

In fact, some adults can fall into a persistent, self-defeating cadence where they’re pushing back their bedtimes, too. The authors defined “bedtime procrastination” as “failing to go to bed at [one’s] intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so.” They dubbed it a “novel domain,” which more or less guarantees people will start suffering from insufficient sleep.

At first glance…this doesn’t make any sense. Who would want to delay sleep? A third of Americans walk around sleep-deprived every single day, while 70% of us report having at least one night a month where our sleep goes to absolute shit. (Scientifically speaking.) At the end of a long workday, after cooking, cleaning, running, drinking, watching your favorite team lose, whatever, surely there isn’t any value (let alone joy) in pushing back your chance to finally rest. Right?

But bedtime procrastination doesn’t have to make sense in order for it to exist. Whatever form it may take — from checking work emails, to watching Netflix, to texting friends, to doomscrolling through Washington Post alert…democracy dying in the literal darkness of your bedroom — it’s a robust example of the simultaneous tolls that work stress, day-to-day anxiety and intrusive technology are having on our brains. Sprinkle even a smidgeon of insomnia into that cocktail, and you have a top-tier bedtime procrastinator.

When our days feel out of control, some psychologists have suggested, we try to wrestle some autonomy back right at the very end, whether consciously or not. Any use of our time that feels elective (however late in the day it is, or however stupid the activity it is — like, say, a 20-something yahoo nodding contemplatively at the college readiness score of children in Naperville, Illinois) starts to feel like a treat.

The problem, of course, is that stealing scraps at the end of the day just makes you more tired for the next day, meaning your focus and performance will be impaired, meaning it will take you longer to accomplish tasks, meaning you’ll probably stay up late again, numbing any interior questions of at what point in the day it all went wrong by watching videos where grandmas rate quesadillas. Or something.

For some people, this situation rates as sad and philosophical. As one commenter wrote online: “For years, I have been aware that when I go to bed to sleep, I am giving up on that day. When I leave that day, it is gone forever. I don’t want to leave it. Maybe somewhere in my mind I feel that it is almost like accepting death. Or, maybe I’m afraid something will happen and I will miss out on whatever it might be. I go to bed only because I know I have to.”

Wherever you land on that train of thought, it’s true that going to bed means acknowledging the end of something. And the opposite can carry its own baggage; for some, the first few minutes of waking up aren’t just physiologically uncomfortable — they’re existentially annoying. This again?

I’m tempted to volunteer a few trite “sleep hygiene” recommendations and call it a day (e.g. put an analog alarm clock on your nightstand, instead of your phone), and yeah, sure, if you can stick a few logistical or behavioral changes, then you’ll make it easier, over time, to say goodbye to each day when you planned to, and greet the new ones with a bit more gusto. But the foundation for those changes should be a shift in your self-regulation.

Psychologists define it as “the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values.” Reaching towards an understanding and optimization of self-regulation can prove a real asset for boilerplate procrastinators; of course it has a role for bedroom procrastinators, too. After all: why are you going to sleep? What are you trying to accomplish? How will it help you reach your goals, live a more interesting/inspired life, or, you know, simply treat people with kindness? Is there any way you set aside time to think about these things — and ideally not while you’re under the covers?

The full Chinese term for “bedtime procrastination” actually includes an extra word: “revenge bedtime procrastination.” That’s a pretty violent word to place next to bedtime, no? Who are you taking revenge on, if not yourself?

Those minutes at the end of the day are kind of like those stale donuts that Dunkin’ gives out for free if you show up when the floor’s mopped and all the chairs are rested upside down on the table. There’s something weird and thrilling to eating a donut at that time of the day — maybe you feel like you’ve earned it — but you’ll be bummed in the morning. You know you will.

Whatever fitness goals you have this year, and hopefully they’re still alive and thriving, here a week after so-called Quitters’ Day, consider adding a bit of nightly self-regulation to your months ahead. Learning to properly power down at the end of yesterday is the best way to power up for today.

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