It’s one of things we need to do merely to survive, but getting decent sleep is something human beings are shockingly terrible at. For some, an inability to sleep well can be attributed to reasons beyond their control. What can you say to a new mother who is awoken three times a night by her infant’s cries? If she’s lucky, she’ll clock two uninterrupted hours of shut-eye at a time, averaging out to a total of six hours before the day starts all over again.
If you have a sleep disorder like insomnia, you know how painful it can be to lie awake, tossing and turning. Minutes crawl by and hours melt away, and before you know it—it’s bright outside and you haven’t slept a wink despite your best efforts. Night shift or remote workers on a time difference, on the other hand, are up from dusk to dawn while the rest of the world sleeps. Yes, they can rest during the day, but how well does that really compare to a full night’s sleep?
These are conditions for poor sleep that may be easy to sympathise with, but there are other reasons that are harder to justify. Revenge bedtime procrastination, anyone? The term, originating on Chinese forums, refers to a growing phenomenon where folks regularly postpone their bedtimes to, essentially, play.
Why staying up sparks joy
It may sound silly and self-indulgent, but chances are that you’re partaking in revenge bedtime procrastination without realising it. If you have ever ‘accidentally’ left Netflix on auto-play for three episodes too many, or watched TikTok videos till your eyes burned against the harsh glare of your phone, or even just stayed up reading a book way past an hour that would be reasonable based on the time you have to get up the next morning, then, yes—you’ve procrastinated your bedtime on purpose.
You may ask, where does the ‘revenge’ component come in? The truth is that no one sacrifices essential sleep for purely no reason. For many, this extra time at night becomes a sacred sanctuary—and perhaps, the only time alone they have gotten all day—to unwind and do things that relax them or spark joy. Yes, it may feel like you’re wasting time, but in a way, you are enacting revenge on all the things that keep you stuck in a cycle of endless productivity by stealing back time for recreation. For those precious few hours, there are no urgent emails to answer and no one to tell you what to do. There is just you, your device of choice, and a boundless expanse of time until your body forces you to fall asleep.
“While it might feel good in the moment to snooze your alarm, the idea that it helps you get extra rest is a myth”
As neat as this explanation for my poor sleeping habits is, it still doesn’t render them consequence-free. In fact, the connection sleep has with mental health is complex and undeniable, says Singaporean psychiatrist Dr Kamini Rajaratnam. “The relationship between sleep and mental health is best summed up as being bidirectional, in which sleep disturbances are both a contributory factor and consequence of mental health problems,” she explains.
“Sleep disturbances are a symptom of a lot of psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But the resulting sleep disturbance ends up worsening the symptoms patients face in the daytime like lethargy, irritability, an inability to focus, and difficulty coping with daily life.” In other cases, sleep is the starting point for patients’ problems, adds Rajaratnam. “Some patients have chronic sleep deprivation due to their work, lifestyle and sleep disorders. This can eventually snowball into symptoms of depression and anxiety in the day.”
To prove her point and as an experiment, I stayed up late for one week while writing this story. Just kidding—actually, I did it because I’m a terrible sleeper and usually clock in either three hours or 12, with no in-between. While both durations seem far from ideal, New York-based psychologist and board-certified sleep specialist Dr Shelby Harris asserts that there isn’t necessarily a set number to aim for.
“There is no one foolproof answer to how long you need to sleep for—eight hours a night as the perfect number is a myth. Eight hours is just easy to say, and it is simply the average between seven and nine, which is the range a majority of adults fall within, with some people needing a little more or a bit less.”
Still, waking up bleary-eyed and exhausted every morning told me that I was doing something wrong. Tired of being tired, I finally decided that my love-hate relationship with sleep was wreaking havoc on my life and needed to be brought under control once and for all. The first step? Asking the experts to reveal what was truly key for getting good sleep.
The science behind the snooze button
Learning this might upset you, but hitting your snooze button is one of the worst things you can do in the morning. The illusion of extra rest is usually false, especially if you need to wake up in a few minutes anyway. According to Harris, the issue here is that while snoozing allows you to increase your quantity of sleep by a little bit, quality almost certainly suffers.
“While it might feel good in the moment to snooze your alarm, the idea that it helps you get important extra sleep is a myth. In reality, you are not usually allowing enough time to complete a full sleep cycle. Instead, your body gets more confused, wondering if it is actually going back to sleep or not, frequently leading to feeling more groggy in the morning. This grogginess can last as long as four hours after awakening.”
If you’re a frequent snoozer like me, this may come as a rude shock. Instead of snoozing, what can you do for damage control if you haven’t gotten enough rest at night? Rajaratnam suggests a midday nap. “An ideal nap only takes about 20 to 45 minutes. If you can grab that afternoon siesta, go for it.
“If you do end up binge-watching Netflix on one or two nights, that’s not the end of the world”
For those with office jobs or other responsibilities that eradicate any possibility of some daytime shut-eye, what you can instead focus on during the day is setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep. “A healthy diet and some movement in the day helps to improve sleep quality at night. Try and limit eating too late at night by having an earlier dinner. If you don’t have time for a workout, movement can be as simple as climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift, or bringing the baby out for short walk in a pram,” says Rajaratnam.
And if all fails, don’t panic. The good news is that sleep debt is cumulative—so a few bad nights are relatively easy to recover from. Rajaratnam adds: “If you do end up binge-watching Netflix on one or two nights, that’s not the end of the world. It is still possible to recoup some of the sleep deprivation from the week by getting one or two nights of good sleep. Try and schedule your weekend in a way that allows you to catch up on sleep.”
The problem about trying to optimise your time in bed, however, is that there are a few falsehoods about sleep that we have accepted as fact. The circadian rhythm is one of them. Many of us operate on the fundamental misunderstanding that human beings have a specific window of time during the night in which we have to sleep if we truly want quality rest.
As Harris points out, this may not be true for everyone. “The idea that you have to keep to a 10pm to 6am schedule is a myth. Some people have circadian rhythms that are earlier, others lean later. It isn’t a problem to keep whatever schedule you want, unless it causes an issue in your life like preventing you from making it to work or school on time.”
For self-proclaimed night owls, this is good news. Better news yet? According to Harris, your ‘body clock’ can be adjusted if need be. “It isn’t always easy to do, but if necessary, it can be done for many people with the help of a sleep specialist.”
Does sleep need to be perfect to be good?
As it turns out, nothing about sleep is as straightforward as we have been led to believe. Still, the bones of what leads to a healthy night of rest are hardly unfamiliar. Doctors and sleep specialists continue to recommend sleep routines and habits that we have known for years. Their top advice? Pulling more focus to your sleep hygiene, a term that refers to all behaviours and habits surrounding bedtime.
“Sleep hygiene doesn’t have to be perfect, but try to keep it as on-point as you can, as often as possible,” Harris advises. Among her more obvious recommendations are limiting caffeine within eight hours and alcohol within three hours of bedtime, along with avoiding screens and bright lights in the 30-minute period before bed. “A consistent sleep schedule across the week is also important— especially for shift workers. If you work odd hours, make sure no one calls you during your scheduled sleep time.”
“If you use a baby monitor, keep the volume low enough that you can hear baby crying, but not every little sound they make”
Rajaratnam advocates for a solid wind-down routine with a roster of relaxation activities that get you in the mood to snooze. To her, the key to consistency lies in designing a routine that you genuinely enjoy, rather than one that feels like a chore. “Have a couple of night-time rituals that work to de-stress you after a long day. These could be a warm bath, curling up with a good book or a quick foot rub. Think of quick, easy things you actually want to do. Your night-time routine should be something you look forward to.”
When it comes to sleep technology, Harris believes less is more. “Sometimes I think we try to ‘over-tech’ our sleep. While some of it is useful, I’m a fan of keeping it simple. I love to use sundown or sunrise alarms such as the Hatch clock because they have wind-down music and meditations. I also love cooling bed technology [sheets, pyjamas or mattress coolers] since many of us—especially women—have hot flashes that can wake us up.” For mothers of young infants looking to get better sleep, Harris has this important tip: “If you use a baby monitor, keep the volume low enough that you can hear baby crying, but not every little sound they make. Babies naturally make noise when asleep, and most of it does not need your intervention.”
Rajaratnam advises mothers to try different sleeping arrangements with their babies to see what works best. “For some mums, co-sleeping and nursing baby through the night gives them the most sleep. For others, baby sleeping in a crib separately works best. There is no one right answer.”
Her final statement sums up the general consensus on sleep science to date—while there are potential solutions to every sleep problem, not all of them work for everyone. Neither are there any quick-fix hacks that guarantee good sleep with no extra effort. The simple—and perhaps, inconvenient—truth is that like most things, good sleep comes hand in hand with discipline.
This may mean shutting off your television an hour early even though it’s the only time you have all day to relax, or skipping a glass of wine at dinners that run late. What is comforting, however, is the fact that it’s never all or nothing. If you want to have an occasional late night of fun while maintaining a decent sleep schedule most of the time, you likely won’t do much damage. So go right ahead and procrastinate your bedtime once in a while—I won’t tell.
Illustration Paulina Almira
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