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Staying up too late? Welcome to revenge bedtime procrastination

People are so desperate for time to call their own — even if it comes at 2 a.m. — they’re exhausting themselves

Ally Rzesa/Globe Staff

It’s the hottest bad habit going. The kids on TikTok are all over it. So are suburban moms, Glamour magazine readers, and, in Revere, a grandfather named Michael Norton.

It’s called “revenge bedtime procrastination,” and it’s when you’re so desperate for time that belongs to you — and only you — that you stay up too late doing … whatever … even though you know you’ll be exhausted tomorrow.

Behind every episode of revenge bedtime procrastination is a story, and it typically involves a life that’s not quite in balance, a taskmaster (a boss, maybe, or a baby or even yourself), and a yearning for a sweet breath of joy before going to sleep and starting the whole schlep over.

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In Revere, Norton’s journey into the night began when his wife retired a few years ago, a move that allowed her to go to bed later, which in turn delayed his alone time with the television, and with it his chance to zone out to shows of his choosing at a volume of his choosing (loud).

“I’m in a world I want to be in,” Norton, a senior adviser on market reforms with the Massachusetts Health Connector, said of his midnight viewing. “I’m transported out of the day-to-day grind and boredom.”

People have been staying up too late for forever, of course. But the destructive behavior is gaining attention as the pandemic increases insomnia and studies document the associated harms, which include, but are in no way limited to, an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, injury, and accidents.

The phenomenon of putting off sleep — minus the delicious concept of “revenge” — was identified by a behavioral scientist from the Netherlands and appeared in a 2014 paper in Frontiers in Psychology. “Bedtime procrastination: introducing a new area of procrastination,” the headline read.

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The reaction wasn’t quite a yawn, but in today’s world, if you want to go viral, you need drama, you need emotion, you need hate.

You need REVENGE!!!

Enter 2020, and Twitter. In that year, on that platform, revenge made its appearance in the sedate world of sleep hygiene, when journalist Daphne K. Lee wrote about a phenomenon in China.

“Learned a very relatable term today: “報復性熬夜” (revenge bedtime procrastination), a phenomenon in which people who don’t have much control over their daytime life refuse to sleep early in order to regain some sense of freedom during late night hours.”

Never mind that the person exacting this so-called revenge at bedtime and its victim are one and the same. If ever there was a moment when people are so frustrated that they want to strike back at something — anything, even themselves — this is it.

(Revenge may be the word of the year, the new “social distancing.” There’s revenge shopping. Revenge travel. Revenge dining. As a June headline in Adweek put it: “Revenge spending will drive consumer trends this year.”)

Because research about sleep procrastination is in the early stages, experts don’t know who is most affected, according to a piece on sleepfoundation.org. But a 2019 study found that students and women were the most likely to engage in the behavior.

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“When men want/need time, they generally will take it and won’t feel as guilty about saying ‘no,’” Kali Patrick, a Waltham-based wellness coach who helps clients with sleep issues, said in an e-mail to the Globe.

“Women often need help making themselves a priority,” she added, “especially when they’re taking care of so many others.”

There’s no shortage of advice for bedtime procrastinators and the non-vengeful sleep-deprived: Avoid late caffeine. Don’t use your phone or other devices after 10 p.m. Make space for yourself during the day. Eliminate time-wasting activities.

In the sleep disorders clinic at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Dr. Ina Djonlagic explains to patients that when they deprive themselves of sleep they are less efficient the next day, which sets up a “vicious cycle” where they need to stay up late again.

It all makes so much sense, until the end of a hard day, when you’ve done nothing but Zoom and child care and laundry and paperwork and your nighttime self has lost the will to care about your daytime self.

That’s Julie Clifford of Medford. Most days, she said, “I feel like I have zero moments of decompression.”

Alone all day with her sons (ages 3 and 6) — making meals, breaking up fights, supervising playdates, saying “no” to screen time — until her husband returns home from work right around “our hellish dinner time,” all she looks forward to is her alone time. In her case, that involves watching “The Real Housewives” and playing a game on her iPhone that involves decorating imaginary homes.

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“I find myself waiting for him to fall asleep,” she said of her spouse. “I don’t want to be up so late but, my god, it’s wonderful to actually choose something for myself.”

Even as revenge bedtime procrastination grabs attention, people are also claiming time at the other end of the day. It’s revenge early waking, and Shira Cohen-Goldberg, an executive with a literacy-focused nonprofit, and the mother of three (ages 2, 6, and 9), is its poster woman.

At first she started rising at 5 a.m. to have time to herself to read and listen to the birds. She found it so energizing she began setting her alarm for 4 a.m. “I’m willing to get up at any hour just so I can have time for myself,” she said.


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her @bethteitell.