BY BEN THOMAS | Original illustration for Ember by Camilo Huinca
In 2020, the Chinese concept of “revenge bedtime procrastination” rocketed to internet fame. Journalist Daphne K. Lee’s tweet about the phenomenon racked up 260,000 Likes on Twitter, sparking coverage on CNN, the BBC, and other leading news outlets. Workers around the world joined the conversation, chiming in with their own stories about “stealing back time” for themselves in the late hours of the night—even when that time cut into their sleep schedules, creating a cycle of ongoing exhaustion.
But while the need to reclaim personal headspace may be universal, late-night internet binges often create more problems than they solve. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to a host of physical and mental health issues, and can even shorten a person’s lifespan. All the same, many workers feel they have no choice but to trade sleep for personal time, regardless of the cost.
What is it, exactly, that we feel is so crucial to reclaim—or to escape—through bedtime procrastination? The answers point to some surprising truths about the nature of modern work, self-identity, and even time itself.
For most of human history, the idea of time “belonging” to anyone would have sounded like nonsense. Even today, for people in non-industrial societies, time is simply an abstract way of dividing the day into different tasks. In rural Madagascar, for example, time can be measured by "a rice-cooking" (about half an hour) or "the frying of a locust" (a moment)—but no one would dream of describing hours as commodities to be owned, saved or stolen.
The modern framework of time ownership first appeared in the 1700s—when European factory managers, frustrated by workers’ unpredictability, adopted the practice of starting and ending each shift with bells synchronized to a clock in the head office. All hours between the bells belonged to the company, and workers who wasted that time could be punished as thieves who’d stolen company property. This crackdown compelled laborers to distinguish “their own time” from “the company’s time”—and to savor every second not controlled by their employers.
But even within this oppressive and exploitative system, workers of the early Industrial Revolution could still take refuge in one vital distinction: the all-important division between work life and personal life. Once the quitting bell rang, laborers were free to head home, or to the tavern, where not even the loudest boss’s voice could reach. Today, however, that longstanding boundary is breaking down—and it’s becoming much less clear who “owns” any hour of the day or night.
Distinctions between work and personal life have gotten noticeably blurrier over the past year. Even in the pre-pandemic days, when work and home were still two separate locations, many of us struggled to stop thinking about work after we’d left the office. In 2020, quarantine shattered the last remaining vestiges of work-life balance, as employers actively invaded the privacy of our homes, demanding we respond to emails and chat messages even during our off hours.
As “normal” as this situation may feel now, it would’ve been inconceivable to even the most miserable 1700s factory workers—who at least had the freedom to leave work behind at quitting time. A generation earlier, in 1681, one London gentleman wrote that sock-makers “have been observed seldom to work on Mondays and Tuesdays, but to spend most of their time at the ale-house or nine-pins… 'tis common with them to be drunk on Monday, have their head-ache on Tuesday, and their tools out of order on Wednesday.”
In 2020, quarantine shattered the last remaining vestiges of work-life balance, as employers actively invaded the privacy of our homes.
The point here isn’t just that people have always “stolen” time from employers—but also that we often feel the need for new experiences more intensely than the need for sleep. One feeling that keeps many of us awake is the dread of awakening to yet another day of the same monotonous grind. “Workers need something to do other than work,” says Heejung Chung, a labour sociologist at the University of Kent and an advocate for more flexibility in the workplace. “It’s risky behaviour to do only one thing.”
Still, healthy work-life boundaries are only one piece of this puzzle. Bedtime procrastination does more than just delay our return to the hamster wheel. Far more importantly, it helps us remember who we are.
Organizations often go to surreal lengths to impose corporate identities on their workers. In the dystopian labyrinth of Amazon, for example, union-busting bosses encourage employees (or “Amazonians”) to sport themed badges featuring cheerful mascot Peccy. In China, meanwhile, many companies start their 12-hour workdays with synchronized morning workouts, which include corporate-themed songs and dances.
Even at less cult-like companies, mandatory holiday parties and team-building exercises enforce the bizarre ideal that we must be friends with the people who set our salaries, sign our performance reviews, and interrupt our downtime with “urgent” Slack alerts. However, workers are now rejecting those expectations in record numbers.
More than 4 million Americans quit their jobs in April 2020 alone—and while most are seeking fairer wages and better working conditions, many say they’re also hoping to rediscover a sense of personal identity apart from the workplace.
Bedtime procrastination does more than just delay our return to the hamster wheel. Far more importantly, it helps us remember who we are.
"I think the pandemic just allowed for time," says Alyssa Casey, a government researcher who’s considering leaving her job. "You just have more time to think about what you really want." At least two-thirds of Americans reported work burnout symptoms during the pandemic, and many say they’re quitting to pursue their own interests, to reconnect with their communities—or simply to rediscover what brings them joy.
For those of us who work 40 hours or more every week, it’s all too easy to forget who we are as individuals, independent of the corny corporate identities imposed on us. And while some of us put off bedtime with mindless social-media scrolling, we also spend our late-night hours chatting with friends, exploring new music, and researching topics that fascinate us—seeking, in other words, to stay in touch with our own passions and personhood.
What we’re ultimately seeking to reclaim, then, isn’t just time, or even healthy work-life boundaries, but something far more fundamental: our uniqueness as human beings. And that’s something no employer can ever define for us—or put a price on.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect.