"Just say no to the swipes, lit screens, and stressors keeping you up at night,” suggests one article about avoiding the trap of procrastinating sleep. If only it were that easy.
The sensation is familiar to all except the most self-disciplined among us—your mind and body crave sleep even as you lie in bed scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, playing mindless games or, if you are slightly more godlike than the rest of us, reading a book. “Another 10 minutes,” you negotiate with yourself, “and then I am switching off the light and putting down the phone.” Except it’s followed by another 10, and before you know it, it’s 2am when you finally make that superhuman effort and close your eyes. My preferred time-sinks are those “5-minute craft/recipe/makeup” videos that play on loop and give you a false sense of using your time productively because you are “learning something”. Except, I am never actually going to curl my hair using plastic forks or make a toothbrush holder from a Coke bottle.
This is “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination”, a term that has been doing the rounds of the internet since mid-2020, at least, when it started cropping up on Chinese message boards. A close translation of the Chinese term bàofùxìng áoyè, it is one of those rare turns of phrase that capture an elusive feeling neatly and vividly—the word “revenge” evoking the almost vengeful, frenzied scrolling we indulge in along with the attendant feelings of guilt and self-loathing. Even though researchers in the Netherlands first defined “bedtime procrastination” in 2014 as “failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so”, “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination” has a more honest and real ring to it, akin to “hate-watching” a show or “ironically listening to Justin Bieber”.
Psychologists say the phenomenon has grown during the pandemic, with a loss of control over one’s time as work and home lives bleed into each other. The post-dinner hours are often the only time people have to themselves, and procrastinating bedtime by doing something—and this is crucial—even if you are not particularly enjoying that activity feels like a way to regain control over your time. It’s the compulsive nature of the activity that sets it apart from being absorbed in a book or a TV show that you are genuinely enjoying too much to drag yourself away from.
But there may be more to it, say therapists and psychologists we spoke to. “It might be connected to feeling a bit more in control of your life and time, but it could also stem from a feeling of not having ‘earned’ that much-needed sleep and rest because when you review the day in your head, you feel inadequate—as if you don’t really deserve it,” says Mahesh Natarajan, counsellor and co-founder at InnerSight Counselling and Training Services in Bengaluru. “This feeling of guilt may prevent you from feeling relaxed enough to go to sleep.”
“Yes, ‘Revenge Bedtime Procrastination’ is real, but different ways of doing this have always existed. In effect, it is a kind of self-harming behaviour and self-harm is always done to regain a sense of control,” says Rachana Patni, founder, The Matrix of Enquiry, a counselling and leadership coaching institute based in Goa. “Often, the attempt to exercise control over our own life can create a spiral of negative activities when we are not given that control with honour and love, for instance teenagers drinking and partying in order to ‘break the rules’ when parents are too strict,” says Dr Patni. “Human beings need a sense of control over their day or their lives, and will find pockets for it.”
If this is something that’s bothering you, affecting your mental and physical health or your ability to be productive and focused the next day, the first step is to recognise it as self-harming behaviour, says Dr Patni. “Secondly, assess and negotiate for some more control over your own time daily, and thirdly, allow yourself to underperform if external demands prevent you from getting any time for yourself,” she advises.
“The most important thing is to recognise sleep as valuable and in a positive way. Consciously reiterate to yourself the value of sleep, and see it as the ultimate me-time,” says Natarajan.