My mom had this funny habit when I was growing up. She’s a nurse, and so, after long shifts on her feet, she’d come home, sit down to watch a show, and fall asleep on our couch almost immediately after.
I didn’t get it then but I do now. Life is busy and sometimes you want to wind down after the day is through. For most people, this time comes in the evening, letting them head to bed at a reasonable time. For others, it’s the start of a vicious cycle.
I watched this cycle play-out with one TV series my mom particularly loved, The Waltons, on DVD. After the episode had played through, it would flip back to the title screen. Each night, you’d hear the theme song playing over and over again, measuring out the time.
And as a kid, tucked in by 7 p.m. each evening like clockwork, this always seemed strange to me. She was clearly tired after work, and she fell asleep anyway, so why not go straight to bed? Her answer was that she wanted to relax first.
It always starts out the same. You feel like you deserve a break, so you watch one episode, one TikTok, play one game, whatever it is, it never is just one. And there’s a name for this. It’s called revenge bedtime procrastination.
The ins and outs of sleep
The revenge of it all comes from the mindset of, “I live a busy life, I deserve a little time to unwind.” However, all too quickly, you’ll find yourself in the dead of the night, some theme song playing incessantly in the background, tomorrow on the horizon, and you won’t have had the adequate amount of sleep to face any of it.
Sleep matters, I can tell you that much. It has been linked with mood, sociability, and general mental stress. The researchers of one study heeded such risks. Sleep deprivation can lead to lower school and work performance and even lead to medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and an increased risk of death. How much you sleep and when you sleep matters.
So, then, why? Why aren’t we sleeping when we know it’s important? Well it might not be as simple as just wanting more time for yourself. The hours of sleep people get each night has been trending down for some time. In the 1900s, most people got an average of nine hours of sleep each night. Nowadays, we’re lucky to get seven.
But the history of sleep and sleep associations, as well as our reasons for bedtime procrastination go even further back. Another study looked to the ancient Greeks for their answers. They believed that “the god of sleep (Hypnos) and the god of death (Thanatos) were siblings, one of the earliest sleep-death associations. Now, in modern language we see frequent associations between the two: “For example, to wish good intentions for a deceased person, people say “rest in peace” by linking death to resting and sleep.” Because of these associations, many people, myself included, can see time spent sleeping as time taken away from living. As the saying goes, “sleep brings us ever closer to death.” It is the ultimate deadline to procrastinate.
Of course, there are many more reasons to stay awake than death. Anxiety, self-control, life purpose, and circadian energy were also found to be major contributors. But that leaves us with another question. How do we stop procrastinating sleep?
Moving towards better habits
Janet Miller knows quite well that relaxing into sleep is not always conducive with student life. Working as a registered psychologist at Mount Royal University’s Student Counselling Services, she sees sleep as something on the forefront of many student’s minds. Yet, during crunch time, or exam season if you will, this doesn’t necessarily translate into good behaviour.
“There’s value in having an all-nighter or a late night here and there, but there are some good rules around that, too,” said Miller. “How to know when to push the late night limits versus when sleep is going to be better for you.”
Sleep deprivation makes us miss out on important details. We struggle to see and act with clarity because of it.
Dr. Jonathan Charest, director of athlete sleep services at the Centre for Sleep & Human Performance, says that one of the ways to counteract this is to focus on sleep hygiene. This can mean sleeping in a quiet, dark room, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, and shutting off your devices.
“You don’t go and sit at a table waiting to be hungry. So why are you in bed waiting to be tired? You should go to your bedroom when you are ready to sleep,” said Charest.
He understands that life can get busy. The idea, instead, is to make time for personal activities or hobbies, so that it does not impair your bedtime. It’s saying yes to some things and no to others. It’s listening to your body’s cues and making sleep non-negotiable.
Miller also encourages students to come into counselling if they feel they might be struggling with this. If it’s something deeper, they can talk to their medical doctor.
“Is it about nutrition? Is it about exercise? Are you stressed about relationship stuff? Am I dealing with children or parents or roommate stress? What is the context here that needs to be addressed,” said Miller.
Addressing the root of the issue and establishing that good sleep hygiene will make a great deal of difference. It has for me.
As an adult, much like my mom, I fell into my own busy schedule. I would push hard during the daytime to meet deadlines, and then try to make the most out of my evenings at home. I found myself queuing up Netflix at the end of the day only to wake up to the classic “are you still watching,” three hours later. I limited my sleep, hoping to limit my stress but found that I was only doing the opposite.
Developing a healthy nighttime routine has helped me change some of my poor habits. Rather than bringing my laptop into bed at night, I might watch something in the living room instead. I try to set limits on how long I’ll spend staring at a screen before bed and I’ve found that listening to something or reading lets me assess when I’m actually ready to sleep whereas watching something means dedicating more of my attention to the plot and less to being tired.
These changes mean I now sleep better, longer, and wake up more well rested than I have in a long time.