How to stop revenge bedtime procrastination and get better sleep : Life Kit When your days are packed, it can be hard to find some "me time" time to unwind. You might find yourself staying up past your bedtime, scrolling on social media or watching an extra episode of your latest show, That's called "revenge bedtime procrastination." These tips can help you overcome it.

Stop doomscrolling and get ready for bed. Here's how to reclaim a good night's sleep

Stop doomscrolling and get ready for bed. Here's how to reclaim a good night's sleep

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photograph of a man lying on his side in bed at night. His face is illuminated by his phone as he scrolls instead of sleeping.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

My days often feel like they're bursting at the seams. Between work, caring for my kids and handling all the tasks it takes to keep my house from falling into utter chaos, it can be hard to find time to properly unwind.

By the time I get into bed, I find myself picking up my phone and just scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. I stay up past my bedtime, despite being exhausted and knowing I'd be better off going to sleep. This behavior is called "revenge bedtime procrastination."

The idea comes from a Chinese phrase that describes the habits of workers who skimp on sleep to engage in leisure activities as a way to make up for long work days.

"We value productivity so much that we pack our days," says Lauren Whitehurst, a cognitive neuroscientist and sleep researcher at the University of Kentucky. Revenge bedtime procrastination, she says, "is really a kind of commentary on [our lack of down time.]" It's not about the inability to sleep – it's about delaying sleep in an effort to assert some kind of control over your time.

Revenge bedtime procrastination tends to be more common among parents, shift workers and those who have high-stress jobs. While the phenomenon isn't new, more time at home during the pandemic made many people more aware of their sleep patterns – including late-night moments stolen for oneself.

But those moments come at a price. Not getting enough rest "affects the way you're going to be functioning at work, at home, at school the next day," says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a specialist in pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

Chronic sleep deprivation has broad implications for health. When we don't get the full amount of sleep we need each night, it can disrupt critical bodily processes, Whitehurst says. Sleep gives our cardiovascular system a break, and bolsters our cognitive abilities and immune system. "Cardiovascular disease can be predicted by how poor someone sleeps throughout their lifetime. Alzheimer's disease has also been linked to sleep losses throughout [one's] lifetime," she notes.

Here are some strategies to break the cycle of bedtime procrastination and reclaim some of those precious hours of sleep. And, remember: "sleep is very individualized," says Dr. Dasguptao if – so, if one strategy doesn't work for you, try another.

Reserve your bed for sleeping – not stressing

If you really can't sleep, it may be better to get out of bed and take care of whatever is on your mind before returning to your bed. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

If you really can't sleep, it may be better to get out of bed and take care of whatever is on your mind before returning to your bed.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Sometimes getting up and doing the thing that's keeping you awake can actually help you fall asleep faster. "Go ahead and finish that thing for work or [send] that email to your sister – whatever it is that you need to get off your mind," Whitehurst says. "And then you [can] try to engage in sleep again."

If what's keeping you up is your stress about still being awake, "go ahead and get up out of bed," Whitehurst says. Walk around the house and wash dishes or do some light stretches – whatever will settle your mind.

"I'll do things that are kind of naturally calming and I'll kind of work out whatever [I am ruminating on] outside of my bed," says Whitehurst. "Most times I get really sleepy again, and I go back to bed and I fall asleep just fine."

Create an environment conducive to sleep

"Our brains' biggest cue about when to be awake and when to sleep is light," says Whitehurst. If you do get out of bed to work out your anxiety, bright lights in the hallway or the rest of the house will only further disrupt your ability to fall asleep. She advises placing night lights throughout your house to guide your way at night without overstimulation.

Minimizing how much light seeps into the sleep environment can help promote better sleep. Consider installing blackout curtains or room-darkening shades in your bedroom. Cooler temperatures can also sleep better, adds Dasgupta. If you don't want to run the AC or a fan all night, try rethinking what you wear to bed. Experiment with what works best for you.

Narrow your after-hours to-do list

Your work day is done, the family has had dinner and the kids have finished their homework. Still have 17 other things on your to-do list? Instead of staying up late to tackle them all, pick one or two things and just focus on those, Whitehurst advises.

The same advice goes for the activities you use to unwind, Dasgupta adds. For example, instead of staying up until 2 a.m. binging the final season of his favorite show, "I'll stay up an extra hour," he says. "Maybe I will only watch one episode." In other words, give yourself some grace – but be mindful of prioritizing rest.

Make a bedtime routine – and stick to it

Parents know that bedtime routines help young children wind down before bed. Taking a warm bath, changing into pajamas and curling up with a good book before turning out the lights at a consistent time works just as well for adults, says Whitehurst.

"The more that you can create regularity in your day, create regularity around your sleep...the better it is for you," she says.

If you have trouble starting your sleep routine, try setting a sleep alarm to remind you when it's time to start settling for the night.

Society doesn't always make it easy, but it's important to do the things that are within our control to prioritize getting enough sleep, says Whitehurst. "Being intentional about [getting to bed at a reasonable time] could really help you still get ... time for yourself," she says, "but also make sure that you're getting good sleep."


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with engineering support from Kwesi Lee. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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