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Between your heavy workload, meetings and the demands of your boss, you rarely have a minute to yourself during the day. So come nighttime, you often find yourself purposefully putting off going to sleep for some “me time”.
Although you’re tired, you delay going to bed in favour of catching up on Netflix (NFLX), reading and life admin you’ve not had time for in the day. You know you have to get up early for work, but you don’t feel ready to give up your time yet. By the time you do go to sleep, it’s getting light out.
The term “bedtime procrastination” was coined in a Dutch university paper in 2014 to explain our habit of stubbornly staying up late for no reason. It’s a phrase popularised by millennials and Gen Z facing punishing work schedules in China, which literally translates to “sleepless night revenge” to describe how they delay sleep to reclaim their own time.
Last year, the phenomenon gained further traction on social media after a post by journalist Daphne K Lee, who described it 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”.
Bedtime procrastination is something overloaded workers all over the world are familiar with, even though they know it’s bad for them. But why exactly do we do it — and how can we stop?
“Bedtime procrastination is something that many of us do, but it tends to be even more prevalent among people who don’t have much control over their daytime life,” says psychology and neuroscience expert Ruth Kudzi.
“They have a highly stressful job where it’s non-stop, or they have a busy lifestyle where there are not many windows for ‘me time’. As a result, we procrastinate and refuse to sleep early or go to bed early, in order to regain some sense of freedom.”
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This rings true for many people whose days and early evenings are filled to the brim with work, meetings, deadlines, life admin and now home-schooling too. When these demands cease at night, we finally have time to check in with ourselves.
“For many, it is the time they use to mentally unwind and relax,” says Meera Mehat, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist who runs Harley Street Consulting. “The day will have been filled with demands and tasks and their frazzled brain needs time to relax and do nothing.
“So many of my clients tell me they will sit in front of the TV or be on their phones looking at mindless posts so they don’t have to think. Many fall asleep on the sofa for short bursts of time and then awaken to continue the chosen activity, still feeling they have not had enough downtime.”
While some people are naturally night owls and enjoy the solitude and quiet, others may delay going to sleep because they can’t switch off.
“Some also think that going to bed is a waste of time as they won’t be able to switch off and will stay awake thinking about work and upcoming tasks,” Mehat says. “Others, refuse to go to bed because the next day will arrive all too soon and then they will have to start another gruesome day at work and by not going to sleep they feel they can delay that feeling of being on a hamster wheel – work, eat, sleep. It gives them a feeling of control.”
Although it might feel good at the time, not getting enough sleep can lead to more problems the next day. “We shave time off our sleep time in order to try and wring the last bit of life out of the day,” Kudzi says. “However, this can lead to frustration that this is the only time you feel you have control over.
“It can obviously lead to tiredness and fatigue and that can affect us physically and mentally, from headaches and aching muscles, to impaired judgement and irritability. Understandably, this can then affect how we perform, react, respond when at work or working and can ultimately lead to burnout.”
A lack of sleep can also have a detrimental effect at work, as our ability to concentrate diminishes due to tiredness. An occasional bad night is unlikely to impact your career in the long-term, but research has shown that trouble sleeping in the long-term can affect work attendance and performance. A separate study published in the journal Sleep in 2018 found that not getting enough sleep had a significant impact on work productivity.
“Insufficient sleep affects cognitive processes like reasoning, problem-solving and critical thinking,” Mehat explains. “Memory and recall are affected. All this can lead to poor judgments, decisions, and inefficient working.”
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How to regain your time
With many people working from home because of the pandemic, the lines between our work and personal lives are almost invisible. We’re working longer hours, checking our emails out-of- hours and spending far more time engaged in work, leading us to sacrifice sleep to win back our own time.
An institutional shift is necessary to change our “always-on” and “forever busy” work culture, but setting firm boundaries at work and scheduling time for yourself during the day can help you regain some control. This might mean approaching your employer about your workload, or taking regular breaks to carve out some leisure time.
“It can be really beneficial, especially if you’re feeling like life is full to the brim — many find comfort in from a routine and it can provide a sense of control, stability and balance,” Kudzi says. “You are in control of you and therefore, instead of trying to wring the last bit of life out of the day, it is beneficial to consider setting new boundaries and self-regulating your day.”
If your procrastination of choice is doom-scrolling, set yourself limits regarding your screen time.
Set yourself time to check social media and catch up on messages, then hide your laptop or mobile. Invest in an old-school alarm clock and leave your phone out of the bedroom, if possible.
Creating bedtime rituals can also help you unwind before bed too, like reading, having a bath or a non-caffeinated drink. “Create a room where you have pleasant music that you can fall asleep to, and lighting that makes you feel calm and creates a feeling of wellbeing,” Mehat advises. “You need to create a desire to go to bed that will overcome the temptations to stay up.”