Confessions of a bedtime procrastinator
26th September 2021

Confessions of a bedtime procrastinator: Do you put off heading for bed or find yourself cleaning the house at midnight? You’re part of a modern trend. CLAUDIA CONNELL tries a way to break the habit

  • Claudia Connell admits her Bedtime Procrastination has become more extreme
  • 55-year-old says being single and living alone, undoubtedly fuels the problem
  • Heather Darwall-Smith encounters the problem often at The London Sleep Clinic
  • Psychotherapist shares her top tips for improving the situation  

Every mother will remember the days when her toddler resorted to all manner of avoidance tactics when bedtime came around.

The child was either over-stimulated or ratty and exhausted, and insisted they needed a drink, they were hungry, they wanted to look at a book or had something of vital importance to say. Anything to not get into bed and go to sleep.

Now, imagine the same situation, but the person in question is 55 years old. She has to be up at 7am, but instead of climbing beneath the covers, she has decided that she’s going to colour co-ordinate the mugs in her kitchen cupboard at 1am.

That person is me, and it’s only recently that I discovered there’s a name for what I’ve been doing for years. It’s called bedtime procrastination — although it’s now become known on social media as ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’.

Psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith shares advice for overcoming bedtime procrastination, as Claudia Connell (pictured) admits her condition has become more extreme since lockdown 

This is a direct translation of the Chinese term for the habit. (Research has shown the problem is particularly prevalent in China, with people rebelling against their traditional 8am to 8pm work culture — it’s believed the bedtime avoider is trying to grasp some control over their night-time hours as they have so little control over their daytime ones.)

I hardly work in a Chinese sweatshop, but that doesn’t stop me from swearing I will go to bed at 11pm and still being up two or three hours later.

Shoelaces need whitening? Sock drawer need tidying? An inventory made of how many teaspoons I have versus how many ‘nice’ forks? There’s nothing I won’t seize on rather than doing the sensible thing and getting as much sleep as possible before a busy day ahead.

While my habit has become more extreme since lockdown, I’ve always struggled with regulated bedtimes. Even in my twentysomething flat-sharing days, my flatmate, having woken up to use the bathroom, would say the next day: ‘Was I dreaming or were you in the living room painting your toenails at 3am?’

Rather than a sleep disorder (such as insomnia), bedtime procrastination is a self-sabotaging psychological condition. And it doesn’t end there. Once the procrastinator gets into bed, they may well experience something else called sleep procrastination, which is the avoidance of falling asleep.

I have banned myself from having phones and tablets in my bedroom for this reason (65 per cent of us take our phones to bed). I also have no TV. All of which has helped, though I still sometimes fall at the last hurdle.

Some nights I will make it into my pyjamas and into my bedroom… and then have an overwhelming urge to try on clothes I haven’t worn for two years. Just the other week, I did a huge bedroom clear-out for the charity shop — at two o’clock in the morning to music.

Being single and living alone undoubtedly fuels the problem.

Heather Darwall-Smith said bedtime procrastination is very common because we are designed to seek pleasure from life and for some, the act of going to bed isn’t necessarily a pleasurable thing (file image)

Heather Darwall-Smith is a psychotherapist who focuses on sleep and has written a book called The Science Of Sleep. I’m reassured to hear that my problem is one she often encounters at The London Sleep Centre.

‘It’s very common,’ she says. ‘We are designed to seek pleasure from life and, for some, the act of going to bed isn’t necessarily a pleasurable thing.

‘It’s like knowing you should eat broccoli and not a burger because the gain from the broccoli will be long-term good health. But it’s the burger that’s going to bring you all the pleasure, and humans are strongly wired for pleasure.’

Set your alarm — for bedtime 

Tips from Heather Darwall-Smith, author of The Science Of Sleep:

1 Early on in the day make a plan for how you are going to prepare for bed. Settle on a time — midnight, for example — and set an alarm so you stick to it.

2 Notice when you are procrastinating. Pause and take a breath, then reflect on your actions. Developing awareness is the first step.

3 Write a to-do list of the things you need to do before bed. Then prioritise them and leave anything else for another time.

4 One hour before your bedtime, stop all screen time. Turn off messaging on your devices and stop looking at social media. Do something relaxing — read a book or try sleep yoga. This will put you in a different headspace and get you ready for sleep.

5 The next morning, get lots of light into your body as quickly as possible. Open your blinds and curtains, and maybe have your morning coffee in the garden. Getting into the daylight before 9am sets up your natural sleep-wake cycle.

6 Commit to your new bedtime for two weeks. Changing habits is hard but with consistent repetition we can rewire the brain. Your aim is to get good sleep across seven nights and do away with those mammoth weekend lie-ins.

Another factor is that our self-control is at its weakest at the end of the day, when we’re most tired and our brains are less alert. It’s why dieters will often fall off the wagon late at night. In my case, I believe a huge part of my problem is that I am an owl and not a lark. Left to my own devices, I would much rather start work at lunchtime and carry on until midnight.

I can even recall as a child asking my mum if there were any schools where classes started at midday instead of 9am.

Unfortunately for me and my fellow owls, life is geared towards those pesky larks.

As Heather says: ‘During the working week, society needs you to be up early, but that doesn’t suit you. A huge study has been done, and about 20 per cent of people are natural night owls — they just don’t feel sleepy when others do.

‘Your natural body clock — what’s called your chronotype — doesn’t work with societal requirements. It’s virtually impossible for you to fall asleep before midnight.

‘It sounds to me that you are what I would term an “extreme night owl” and you are always going to have difficulties with early bedtimes and early mornings. It’s how you are built.’

In many cases, it’s tablets and phones that occupy procrastinators. Checking social media sites, or playing an online game, gives them a hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine, which only serves to delay bedtime even longer.

That must be why I often find myself falling down a late-night rabbit hole on YouTube.

Recently, for reasons I cannot explain, I have started watching videos of people on roller coasters: the world’s scariest, the world’s highest etc. Just as I decide ‘That’s it for tonight’, YouTube suggests another one, I’m sucked in again and another half an hour has been killed.

While I sleep little during the week, I tend to have mammoth sleeps at weekends, often clocking up 13 hours in one night.

This, as Heather tells me, is called ‘social jetlag’, where I have built up a sleep debt by the end of the week. Come Monday, the pattern starts all over again but, of course, it’s far better for the body to get an equal amount of quality sleep over seven nights.

Is there any way an extreme night owl like me can stop delaying bedtime like some bratty toddler? ‘You are always going to struggle, but you can certainly improve your situation,’ says Heather.

Claudia (pictured) said she went to bed instead of watching an episode of Friends on Netflix, after reading Heather’s book 

‘You need to make adjustments in stages rather than attempt to revolutionise your bedtime all at once.’ She says I must think of a tangible gain that is the result of going to bed — something that will bring me more pleasure than watching a video of people on a roller coaster on top of a skyscraper in Las Vegas.

‘Just telling yourself you’ll feel better with more sleep won’t work. Perhaps if you got to bed earlier, you’d have more time in the morning to meet a friend for a coffee? Perhaps if you were able to wake up earlier, you could get a blow dry before work?’

Heather’s book suggests owls should set their morning alarms 15 minutes earlier than usual and go to bed 15 minutes earlier every night for a week.

We should repeat this for three weeks until it becomes routine and then, since our circadian rhythm (the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle) thrives on routine, keep to the same pattern over seven nights. After a while, my body should gradually adapt to my new timetable.

While I’ll never be one of those people who rises at 5am to seize the day, I do intend to try to get to bed earlier.

Just this week I found myself flicking through Netflix and stumbling upon an episode of Friends that I’ve only seen 34 times before. Instead of watching it, I went to bed. Ok, I did quickly reorganise my earring box and sort them into ‘studs’ and ‘danglies’. But it’s a start.

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