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How to Stop Revenge on Bedtime Procrastination and Sleep Better : Life Kit : NPR

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 seem packed. Between work, caring for my kids, and managing all the chores necessary to keep my home from descending into total chaos, it can be hard to find the time to properly relax.

By the time I get into bed, I find myself picking up my phone and scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. I stay awake after bedtime, even though I’m exhausted and know I better go to sleep. This behavior is called “vengeful bedtime procrastination.”

The idea comes from a chinese expression which describes the habits of workers who skimp on sleep to indulge in leisure activities to make up for long days at work.

“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 kind of a commentary on [our lack of down time.]”It’s not about inability sleep – this refers to delaying sleep in an effort to exert some kind of control over your time.

Bedtime procrastination for revenge tends to be more common among parents, shift workers, and those with high-stress jobs. While the phenomenon isn’t new, spending more time at home during the pandemic has made many people more conscious of their sleep patterns, including stolen late-night moments for oneself.

But those moments come at a price. Not getting enough rest “affects how you will function at work, at home, at school the next day,” says Dr Raj Dasgupta, a specialist in pulmonary care, 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, says Whitehurst. Sleep gives our cardiovascular system a break and boosts our cognitive abilities and immune system. “Cardiovascular disease can be predicted by how well a person sleeps throughout life. Alzheimer’s disease has also been linked to lifelong sleep loss. [one’s] life,” she notes.

Here are some strategies to break the bedtime procrastination cycle and get back some of those precious hours of sleep. And remember: “sleep is very individualized“, says Dr. Dasguptao though — so if one strategy isn’t working for you, try another.

Reserve your bed for sleeping – no stress

If you really can’t sleep, it may be best to get up and take care of whatever comes to mind before you go back to bed.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR


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Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR


If you really can’t sleep, it may be best to get up and take care of whatever comes to mind before you go back to bed.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Sometimes getting up and doing what keeps you awake can actually help you fall asleep faster. “Go ahead and finish this thing for work or [send] that email to your sister — all you need to distract yourself,” says Whitehurst. “And then you [can] try to fall asleep again.”

If what’s keeping you awake is your stress of still being awake, “go ahead and get out of bed,” says Whitehurst. Take a walk around the house and wash the dishes or do some light stretching – anything that will calm your mind.

“I’ll do things that are kind of naturally calming and kind of work it out [I am ruminating on] outside my bed,” Whitehurst said. “Most of the time I fall asleep again, and I go back to bed and I fall asleep just fine.

Create an environment conducive to sleep

“Our brain the most important thing about knowing when to wake up and when to sleep is light,” says Whitehurst. If you’re getting out of bed to eliminate your anxiety, bright lights in the hallway or the rest of the house will only further disrupt your ability to fall. She advises placing night lights throughout your home to guide you through the night without overstimulation.

Minimizing the amount of light that leaks into the sleep environment can help promote better sleep. Consider installing blackout curtains or room darkening blinds in your bedroom. Cooler temperatures can also sleep better, adds Dasgupta. If you don’t want to run the air conditioning or a fan all night, try rethinking what you wear to bed. Experiment with what works best for you.

Refine your after-hours to-do list

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

The same advice goes for the activities you use to unwind, adds Dasgupta. For example, instead of staying up until 2 a.m. binging the latest season of his favorite show, I’ll stay up another hour,” he says. “Maybe I’ll just watch one episode.” In other words, give yourself some grace, but be sure to prioritize rest.

Establish a bedtime routine — and stick to it

Parents know that bedtime routines help young children relax before bedtime. Taking a hot bath, changing into your pajamas and curling up with a good book before turning off the lights at a regular time works just as well for adults, says Whitehurst.

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

If you’re having trouble getting your sleep routine started, try setting a sleep alarm to remind you when it’s time to start settling in 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. “Be intentional about [getting to bed at a reasonable time] could really help you still have…time for yourself,” she says, “but also make sure you’re sleeping well.”

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with technical support from Kwesi Lee. We would love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at [email protected]

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