The line between one day ending and another beginning has become impossibly blurred over the past year. It feels like we're all just waking up, working from home, going to sleep, and then starting all over again. For some of us, though, the going to sleep part doesn't come so easy.
See if this sounds familiar: You've had a full and busy day, barely found time for dinner, probably did your nighttime skincare routine, and now you've been scrolling on your phone (or doing another mindless activity) for long past your bedtime. Even though you know you have to get up early in the morning, you're just not ready to give up your quiet free time and call it a night just yet.
If this sounds like you, you might be doing something called "revenge bedtime procrastination," a concept that's been widely circulating on TikTok recently. TikTok user @samanhaiderr explains the idea in a video that has garnered over 15 million views and over three million likes. "Fun fact, did you guys know that there's this thing called revenge bedtime procrastination," Saman Haider starts, "where people will refuse to sleep because they don't have much control over their daytime life, so they will sleep very late at night, even if they're super tired, because they just don't want that free time to end at night, and they don't want tomorrow to start?"
With the amount of attention this TikTok has received and the thousands of commenters writing things like, "I feel seen," we know that a lot of people are having trouble going to sleep right now. What we don't know from the video is how legitimate the "revenge bedtime procrastination" phenomenon really is and how to stop it. So, we talked with clinical psychologist and Diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., aka "The Sleep Doctor," to get the full picture.
Is revenge bedtime procrastination real?
While Dr. Breus doesn't deny that "revenge bedtime procrastination" is happening, he cautions against referring to it as a psychological disorder or condition. Instead, he identifies the phenomenon as more of a trend, something that has understandably worsened for many during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and wants to move the conversation away from "diagnosing" it and more toward finding ways to avoid it. "I would argue that it's a stress-induced situation," he explains, citing financial, familial, and health-related stressors, along with changes in day-to-day routines. "But it's very easy to remedy."
It's also important to distinguish the trend from other sleep disorders, like insomnia, and other mental health conditions, which may require more specific medical attention.
Is revenge bedtime procrastination a form of insomnia?
The short answer is no. While staying up late at night and procrastinating going to sleep may seem similar to insomnia, there's one crucial difference. "Insomnia is something that you don't do purposely, whereas sleep procrastination is purposeful," Dr. Breus explains. "So you're actively knowing that you're doing this, whereas with insomnia, you're laying there and [are unable to sleep]." So, someone who is procrastinating their sleep may be scrolling on TikTok for hours out of choice (though, perhaps, absentmindedly), while someone with insomnia may be doing this because they're unable to fall asleep.
If you're unsure of what you're experiencing at night, Dr. Breus shared some more specific criteria for insomnia, which is called the rule of threes. To qualify as insomnia, "it needs to take you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, or you need to wake up and be up for longer than 30 minutes," he explains. "That needs to happen more than three times a week for at least three weeks a month for more than three months." If you aren't experiencing this level of difficulty falling asleep, and are choosing to stay up late on your own accord, then you probably aren't experiencing insomnia.
Dr. Breus also clarified that "it takes the average human approximately 15 to 20 minutes to fall asleep when their eyes are actually closed." So, don't fret if you don't fall asleep instantly once you put your phone away and shut your eyes. "It doesn't work that way," Dr. Breus added. "In fact, if you fall asleep in under five minutes, I would argue that you're sleep-deprived, not well slept, because that would actually be a sign of sleep deprivation."
Insomnia can also be a symptom of circadian rhythm disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and ADHD, so be sure to consult a doctor if you have significant and repeated difficulty falling asleep. However, if your main issue is that you're having a hard time cutting yourself off from technology and deciding to go to sleep, then keep reading for more advice.
So, what can you do to stop revenge bedtime procrastination?
1. Carve out more breaks during the day.
The viral TikTok video about revenge bedtime claims that people stay up because they don't want their "free time to end at night, and they don't want tomorrow to start." While this makes sense, Dr. Breus says he doesn't necessarily think the issue is about people fearing tomorrow, but more so that their "time management during the day is probably not up to speed."
To improve this, Dr. Breus says you should be weaving in some breaks throughout your day so that you aren't trying to cram in all your quiet free time late at night. This might look like a walk around lunchtime or a refresher coffee run. If it's not easy for you to break during the workday, take intentional time after dinner and before bed to relax and work through some thoughts and emotions. That way, when you do get in bed at the end of the night, you'll be more able to focus on just getting some sleep.
2. Get an accountability partner.
If you're deep into a social media scroll or stuck marathon-watching a favorite show, it can feel almost impossible to pull yourself out of the rabbit hole. So, that's where an accountability partner comes in. "Remember when mom would say, 'You get 30 minutes to watch TV tonight and then time's up'? Guess what? Same idea and principle here," Dr. Breus explains. "If you want to spend 30 minutes and scroll through your stuff, go for it, but you can't do it for three hours...because it really kills your sleep."
Whether it's your partner, your roommate, or a friend, ask someone to hold you accountable to a specific timeframe for whatever activity is keeping you up at night.
3. Put your phone away, like, actually away.
Dr. Breus says many people tell him that they "have to" charge and keep their phones beside their beds in order to check them and use the alarm—but he doesn't buy it. "I'm officially calling BS on that," he says. "The truth of the matter is you don't have to plug your phone in by your bedside. I think that most people should be able to wake up or go to sleep without their phone next to their head, which again, propagates this whole idea of scrolling and spending time on it."
Challenge yourself to plug your phone in across the room or even in another room. Having your phone out of sight and out of mind might be anxiety-provoking at first, but over time it could help you resist the urge to keep scrolling and get to sleep. To further break your dependency on your phone and the need to keep it by your side, Dr. Breus recommends buying an alarm clock and using that instead of your phone app to wake you in the morning.
4. Phase out your phone before bed.
So, maybe you're not ready to put your phone away an hour before bed as many sleep and health experts suggest. That's okay. Dr. Breus says you can work up to that point in small increments that feel comfortable for you. He explains that he's used a "taper schedule," similar to those used for substance addiction, to help some of his patients resist using their phones before bed. "For some of them, it was 'Okay, can you not play with your phone for 10 minutes before you go to sleep?' And then once I get them to 10 minutes, I go to 15, and then once I get them from 15, I go to 30."
5. Replace scrolling with more relaxing activities.
One way to reduce your late night scrolling is to replace it with more relaxing activities that promote sleep. Dr. Breus recommends something called progressive muscle relaxation, which is a mindful practice of tensing and relaxing your muscles from your toes up to your head. You can find the sleep doctor's guided muscle relaxation audio here so that you can listen along to mimic the movements when preparing to go to sleep.
Dr. Breus, who is a partner with the sleep company Hästens, also recommends the app Hästens Restore, which offers a number of meditation soundtracks and gratitude exercises that you can use to relax and unwind before bed.