Every mom will remember the days when her toddler resorted to all sorts of avoidance tactics when bedtime came.
The child was either overstimulated or cranky and exhausted, insisting that they needed something to drink, that they were hungry, that they wanted to look at a book or have something vital to say. Anything not to go to bed and go to sleep.
Now imagine the same situation, but the person in question is 55 years old. She has to get up at 7am, but instead of hiding under the covers, she’s decided to match the cups in her kitchen cupboard at 1am.
That person is me, and only recently did I discover that there is a name for what I’ve been doing for years. It’s been called bedtime delay — although it’s now known on social media as “bedtime revenge.”
Psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith shares advice for overcoming bedtime delay as Claudia Connell (pictured) admits her condition has become more extreme since lockdown
This is a direct translation of the Chinese term for habit. (Research has shown that the problem is particularly prevalent in China, where people are rebelling against their traditional work culture from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. those.)
I hardly ever work in a Chinese sweatshop, but that doesn’t stop me from swearing that I go to bed at 11pm and am still awake two or three hours later.
Need shoelaces bleaching? Cleaning up your sock drawer? Made an inventory of how many teaspoons I have versus how many ‘nice’ forks? There’s nothing I won’t grab instead of doing the sensible thing and getting as much sleep as possible before a busy day ahead.
While my habit has gotten more extreme since the lockdown, I’ve always struggled with regulated bedtimes. Even when I was in my twenties sharing a flat, my roommate, who had woken up to go to the bathroom, said the next day, “Did I dream or were you in the living room painting your toenails at 3 a.m.?” o’clock at night?’
Rather than a sleep disorder (like insomnia), bedtime delay is a self-sabotaging psychological condition. And it doesn’t stop there. Once the procrastinator gets into bed, they may very well experience something else called sleep procrastination, which is avoiding falling asleep.
For this reason, I have banned myself from having phones and tablets in my bedroom (65 percent of us take our phones to bed). I don’t have a TV either. All of that has helped, although I sometimes fall at the last hurdle.
Some nights I get into my pajamas and into my bedroom… and then I get an overwhelming urge to try on clothes I haven’t worn in two years. Just last week, I cleared out a master bedroom for the charity shop—to music at 2am.
Being single and living alone is undoubtedly fueling the problem.
Heather Darwall-Smith said that delaying bedtime is very common because we are designed to seek pleasure in life and for some, going to bed is not necessarily a pleasant thing (file image)
Heather Darwall-Smith is a sleep psychotherapist and author of the book The Science Of Sleep. I am reassured to hear that my problem is one she often encounters at The London Sleep Centre.
“It’s very common,” she says. “We were made to find pleasure in life and for some, going to bed isn’t necessarily a pleasant thing.
“It’s like knowing you should be eating broccoli and not a burger, because the long-term gains from the broccoli will be good health.” But it’s the burger that will bring you all the fun, and people are very fond of having fun.’
Set your alarm — before bedtime
Tips from Heather Darwall-Smith, author of The Science Of Sleep:
1 Make a plan early in the day how you will prepare for bed. Agree on a time — midnight, for example — and set an alarm to stick to it.
2 Pay attention to when you procrastinate. Pause and breathe, then think about your actions. Developing awareness is the first step.
3 Make a to-do list of things to do before going to bed. Then prioritize them and leave everything else for another time.
4 Stop all screen time an hour before bedtime. Turn off messages on your devices and stop looking at social media. Do something relaxing – read a book or try sleep yoga. This will put you in another main room and get you ready for sleep.
5 Make sure you get a lot of light into your body as soon as possible the next morning. Open your blinds and curtains and perhaps drink your morning coffee in the garden. Getting into daylight before 9am sets 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 goal is to sleep well for seven nights and work off those giant weekend late sleepers.
Another factor is that our self-control is weakest at the end of the day, when we are most tired and our brains are less alert. That’s why dieters often fall off the wagon late at night. In my case, I believe a big part of my problem is that I’m an owl and not a lark. Left to my own devices, I would much rather start work at lunchtime and continue until midnight.
I can even remember asking my mother as a child if there were any schools where classes started at 12 noon instead of 9 am.
Unfortunately for me and my fellow owls, life revolves around those pesky larks.
As Heather says, “During the work week, society wants you to get up early, but that doesn’t suit you. There’s a huge study done and about 20 percent of people are natural night owls — they just don’t feel sleepy when others do.
“Your natural biological clock – what’s called your chronotype – doesn’t work with societal demands. It is virtually impossible for you to fall asleep before midnight.
“It sounds to me that you are what I would call an ‘extreme night owl’ and that you will always have trouble going to bed early and early mornings. That’s how you’re built.’
In many cases, it’s tablets and phones that keep procrastinators busy. 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 drop myself down a rabbit hole on YouTube.
For reasons I can’t explain, I recently started watching videos of people on roller coasters: the scariest in the world, the tallest in the world etc. Just when I decide ‘That’s it for tonight’ YouTube suggests another , I get sucked in again and another half hour is killed.
Although I don’t sleep much during the week, I tend to sleep massively on weekends, often 13 hours a night.
This is called, as Heather tells me, “social jet lag,” where I built up a sleep debt by the end of the week. Come Monday, the pattern starts all over again, but of course it’s much better for the body to get an equal amount of quality sleep for seven nights.
Is there any way an extreme night owl like me can stop procrastinating bedtime like a sassy toddler? “You will always struggle, but you can definitely improve your situation,” Heather says.
Claudia (pictured) said she went to bed instead of watching an episode of Friends on Netflix, after reading Heather’s book
“You should make incremental adjustments instead of trying to revolutionize your bedtime all at once.” She tells me to think of a tangible gain that comes from going to bed — something that will give me more pleasure than watching a video of people on a roller coaster atop a Las Vegas skyscraper.
“Telling yourself that you’ll feel better if you sleep more doesn’t work. Maybe if you went to bed earlier, you’d have more time in the morning to meet up with a friend for a cup of coffee? If you could wake up earlier, maybe you could blow dry before you go to 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, as our circadian rhythm (the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle) thrives on routine, keep the same pattern for seven nights. After a while, my body has to gradually adjust to my new timetable.
While I’ll never be one of those people who gets up at 5 a.m. to pick the day, I plan to try and go to bed earlier.
This week I found myself flipping through Netflix and stumbled upon an episode of Friends that I’ve only seen 34 times before. Instead of looking at it, I went to bed. Ok, I quickly reorganized my earring box and sorted it into ‘studs’ and ‘danglies’. But it’s a start.