Here is a potentially familiar scene. You are exhausted after working a full day, the sort of day when you felt like your attention was drawn in 20 different directions, where you were ricocheting between obligations and meetings and running six minutes late to pick-up and realizing that if you didn’t put that load of laundry in the wash now, at 9 pm, the rest of the week could very well collapse in on itself. You answered emails while stirring something on the stove. You answered different emails while half-listening to a story from a family member or roommate. You might have squeezed in some time for exercise, but you spent most of that time thinking about work: either periodically checking your phone or making mental to-do lists. You put your kids to bed, you let the dog outside, you turn off the lights, you’re ready for a much needed good night’s sleep — but then you can’t put yourself to bed.
You stay up binging a mediocre show. You can’t stop scrolling Instagram or Twitter or a dating app. You’re reading some overly-detailed breakdown of a sporting event, past or present or upcoming. You’re playing whatever dumb game you play on your phone. You’re trying to figure out who was invited to Ally Love’s wedding. Or you’re actually doing something you really like: reading for hours, playing a video game you actually enjoy, quilting in the quiet hours of the night, leafing through a new cookbook. It matters less what you’re doing and more that you’re doing it instead of what you’d planned to do: go to bed so as to sleep long enough to feel legitimately rested before you go through it all again. You’re revenge bedtime procrastinating.
That term originated in China, where it’s known as 報復性熬夜, and can alternately be translated as “retaliatory staying up late.” The BBC’s Lu-Hai Liang wrote an excellent article tracing how the term spread in China, partially sparked by a viral tweet by journalist Daphne K. Lee.
As Liang explains:
In China, a national survey in 2018 showed that 60% of people born after 1990 were not getting enough sleep, and that those living in the biggest cities suffered the most. The tech companies who created 996 culture tend to be based in big cities, and their work practices have influenced other sectors. A recent report by state broadcaster CCTV and the National Bureau of Statistics said the average Chinese employee only had 2.42 hours per day when they were not at work or asleep, down by 25 minutes from the previous year.
Gu Bing, a 33-year-old creative director at a digital agency in Shanghai, often works late and considers going to sleep before 0200 an early night. “Even though I am tired the next day, I don’t want to sleep early,” she says. Gu loved late nights in her 20s, but has started to think about adopting more “normal” sleeping habits. Yet her friends are often also awake in the middle of the night. “I really need that time. I want to be healthy but they [her employers] stole my time. I want to steal back my time.”
The “996 Culture” invoked above — when employees work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week — is endemic in many of China’s large cities. But the phenomenon of revenge bedtime procrastination is not, of course, limited to China. It’s a symptom of workism and the burnout that accompanies it, which means you can find it anywhere where that approach to a career has been normalized. It’s illogical and annoying and only makes things worse. But it’s also what our souls do when we refuse to nourish them. They sabotage our most perfect intentions for sleep, because sleep is not the same as leisure. Don’t get me wrong; sleep is great. It can be deeply restorative. But it also requires us to be, well, unconscious.
Lee’s tweet went viral in 2020, and Liang couldn’t find a mention of 報復性熬夜 before 2018, when it popped up on the personal blog of a worker in Guangdong province. But that doesn’t mean psychologists hadn’t been trying to figure out why people engage in this behavior. A 2014 study published in Frontiers in Psychology highlighted the curious twist at the heart of bedtime sleep procrastination: most people procrastinate doing things that they don’t want to do. But people really do want to sleep. We procrastinate on bedtime, then, not because we’re “aversive” to it, but because we don’t want to stop doing the other, non-sleep thing that we’re doing.
This is where I think the psychology gets interesting — and where I haven’t been able to find any related literature — because the activities you do when you’re burnt out (particularly phone scrolling) are a hollow, calorie-free version of the things we actually want to be doing. When I lay down in bed with the intention of giving my phone a quick look before reading my book for 17 minutes…then look at the time and realize 45 minutes has passed scrolling, I haven’t been having fun. Some part of me is seeking a soothing, non-work activity — and, in truth, has been doing so for hours. It wants to turn off the part of the body that needs rest, and let other parts play around.
But at that point in the day, I don’t have the energy, the willpower, the wherewithal, or whatever you want to call it to do the thing it’s been begging me to do. So I give my exhausted self the worst, least appeasing version of what it’s asking for, and the dastardly parts of apps engineered to keep us in them do their work. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and dating apps, of course, but also Netflix and Hulu and HBOMax and 2048 and the billion Candy Crush iterations.
In these situations, “revenge” or “retaliatory” become crucial — and differentiating — descriptors. When you stay up late talking with friends of dancing or playing D&D, you are procrastinating going to bed, but you are also making a pretty good deal with yourself: the fun I’m having now is worth whatever suffering I’ll endure later. But most of the activities performed while revenge procrastinating don’t really compensate for the exhaustion they cause. They might feel essential and non-negotiable in the moment, as some semblance of “alone time,” but they’re really a double fuck you: they kinda suck in the moment, and they really suck in the cascading after-effects. You might feel like you’re soothing yourself, but maybe you’re just….punishing yourself? Refusing to recognize what might actually be soothing, or clarifying, or calming?
There’s an argument that revenge bedtime procrastination is a quiet means of rebellion against your employer: they make you work too many hours, you claw back a few hours to yourself, which in turn affects your ability to function at full capacity on the job. You’re single-handedly doing your part to pull down the all-important productivity rate!
You can see how that logic falls apart for the millions of workers whose primary employer is, well, themselves. Alternately, the employer (or students, or editors, or readers) still gets the best of us. Everyone else? The people we actually care about? Including our actual damn selves? They get the dregs, because so many of us have internalized the need to prioritize the work we do for pay above all else.
This is what happens when you don’t have anywhere to put your rage, your dissatisfaction, your deep sadness that this [waves hands wildly] might be every day, every week, every year for the rest of your life. This is what happens when you’ve been inculcated into the idea that your workplace is your family, that your employer has your best interests in mind, or that a failure in your job is tantamount to a failure in life.
The rage feels unrecognizable or at least unspeakable as rage — it’s just “bitching about our job” or “texting your coworkers” or “unloading on your partner.” Maybe you don’t know where to direct it, because like me and millions of other gig and freelance workers, you are effectively your own boss. It’s difficult to recognize as collective grievance, let alone recognize ourselves as part of a larger class of aggrieved workers. And so we reconcile ourselves to the way things are, because this is just the way work is — and direct that rage, subconsciously and alarmingly, towards our own rest.
At least that’s my theory: we self-sabotage as a shitty substitute for labor awareness and/or collective action. I don’t blame any of us for succumbing to this strategy, because it’s how the system is designed to function. If we feel like shit under capitalism, the fault is not capital’s, but our own lack of self-control. And that posture permits the continued erosion of actual leisure — the sort that doesn’t feel like “stolen” hours — to continue without protest.
I know how hard it is to stop that scroll, to claim time as my own, or to just generally do the things that I actually want to do. Yet I try to remind myself that these personal “failures” do not take place in isolation, and are not actually failures at all.
It’s okay to feel rage at the structure into which you’ve built yourself. That structure might treat you as disposable, and you might live in fear of that disposability. But that’s only true when you conceive of your own labor, your own problems, your own self-sabotage, in isolation. One person revenge sleep procrastinating? That’s a personal problem. Whole swaths of a working population? That’s a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. Poke it a few more times, give it a bit more language to understand itself, and it might, might, begin to understand itself as early, bewildered form of a movement.
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