As much as we try to avoid it, every now and then we come up against a looming deadline that simply requires us to pull an all-nighter. They’re by no means healthy, and shouldn’t be sought out, but when the rare one does come up, you want to be prepared for it. By using these six tips based on sleep science and psychology, you can significantly mitigate the negative effects of an all-nighter and make it as productive as possible.
1. Don’t have caffeine.
What? Don’t have caffeine? Isn’t that part of the all-nighter image? Being hyped up on energy drinks and coffee? It may be part of the image, but it’s actually not the best thing to do. There’s a major problem with having caffeine this late at night in order to stay up: the fact that there are no free lunches.
Let’s assume that the main reason you’re pulling an all-nighter is to finish some big assignment or project that you’re in crunch time on. If that’s the case, then you want to be as productive as possible throughout the night. Caffeine is frequently touted as a wonder drug for productivity, but there’s one big problem with it: we tend to only think about productivity in the short term and not the long term. In the short term with a high dose of caffeine, we get hyped up and super focused, but that lasts 1-2 hours tops and then we hit a wall for the next ~4 hours. There are no free lunches: when you burn up your mental energy quicker than normal, you always lose some later, and frequently, you lose more than you gained.
While this is true during the day, it’s especially true at night when you’re already tired and weakened. Your body simply won’t handle the crash well and you’ll spend much of your all-nighter groggy and lethargic from the earlier caffeine buzz, and lose a lot of your potential productivity. Instead of high-caffeine drinks, try substituting in green tea and water to keep you hydrated. You’ll find that as long as you’re drinking something it’s not that hard to stay awake, especially with the other 6 tips on this list.
2. Move around.
The worst thing you can do for an all-nighter is sit in the same spot in front of a computer or textbook for eight hours. This is a bad habit during the day, but it’s especially bad at night when your mental energy will be diminished and you’ll be more prone to zoning out or losing focus.
Our minds naturally go through cycles called an “ultradian rhythm,” which hits a peak and a trough in around 90 minute intervals. That means that every 90 minutes or so your mental energy will feel depleted and you’ll be in a bad state to try to get any work done. Trying to push through this wall actually burns up more willpower than normal work does, so the best thing to do is take a break.
Just any break won’t do though: it’s the perfect time to get up and get some light exercise. The simplest way to do this is to simply walk to a new workplace, at least 10 minutes away, every 85 minutes or so. Not only does this make sure you’re letting your mind get back in shape at the end of each ultradian cycle, the light exercise will pick you up better than caffeine. In addition, you can set goals for each work place like “I’ll finish reading through my history notes when I’m at the library, and outline the essay when I’m at the undergraduate business lounge,” which will force you to put time constraints on your work and leverage Parkinson’s Law to be more efficient.
3. Drink a lot of water.
I hope you like water or tea, because you’re going to want to drink it like it’s your job. If you’ve never experienced the productivity and energy boost from massive water consumption then you’re missing out—it’s my single favorite beverage for enhanced productivity out there.
We spend a lot of our lives dehydrated without really knowing it. Coffee/soda/alcohol/anything with sugar/caffeine actually dehydrates our bodies. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, a deficit of attention, jitteriness, grogginess, trouble getting out of bed in the morning, poor sleep, low productivity, low motivation, and a host of other issues.
Luckily you can solve all of this just by drinking water. To be clear, I don’t mean a couple glasses a day—I mean at least one gallon and ideally closer to two. That’s a lot of water, but once you try it you’ll never go back. When you’re trying to stay up all night, every glass of water will give you renewed energy to push through the evening, and keep you hydrated as your body burns more water/food than usual in order to keep you going.
If you don’t do it, expect headaches, brain fog, and general unhappiness.
4. Take naps.
This can be a double edged sword, and having a buddy (like we’ll discuss in the next tip) is just about necessary. If you’re pulling an all-nighter or semi all-nighter, you’re not planning on sleeping very much if at all, and that can start to take its toll on your mental effectiveness and physical energy.
The one good thing about staying up so late is that you get your body into a state of extreme exhaustion. When you’re exhausted, you slip very quickly into REM sleep, the most restorative part of sleep. Since you can get immediately into REM, naps while exhausted are very refreshing and can give you hours more of fuel that you might not have otherwise had.
There is a risk of course. When you’re that tired, it will likely be very difficult to wake back up, and that nap might turn into an 8 hour siesta. Having a buddy is almost necessary in my experience since you will not want to wake up after those 20 minutes. Having someone who can make sure you’re up and pour water on you if necessary will save you a lot of worry.
Ideally, don’t have them more often than every 90 minutes. If you do then you’re not spending enough time awake and you’ll slip into a pseudo-awake-pseudo-asleep zombie state where you won’t get anything done.
5. Keep eating.
Here’s the fun part of pulling an all-nighter. To make it as successful as possible, eat anything and everything you feel like eating. This addresses two problems: your quickly depleting energy from the day, and your limited willpower.
We eat the 1500-2500 calories we need in a given day to sustain us for the 16 hours we should be awake. When you get in to all-nighter territory though, you’re going well beyond those normal 16 hours and you’ll likely not have eaten enough to keep yourself energized. If you try to keep to a strict diet while pulling an all-nighter you’re gonna have a bad time—you need more food than you’d usually have in a day, and it’s easier to eat things that are quick and cheap than to stress about being healthy.
The other reason you want to just eat whatever’s tasty and available is that as humans, we have a finite amount of willpower to apply towards any task at hand. Willpower lets us push through work we don’t enjoy, and resist tasty treats, but spending willpower on a diet leaves us with less to use towards studying and you don’t want to get into that bad situation. Don’t waste your mental energy resisting the bad food that you have easy access to; just eat it so you have the energy to focus on studying or finishing your project.
6. Have a buddy.
Having a buddy is the last and most crucial trick in getting away with an all-nighter. Staying up all night is lonely, and going at it alone can not only become boring but challenging as the night progresses. You’ll want to have someone to talk to, someone to get food with, someone to walk to new places with, and someone to make sure you didn’t pass out as you test your mental and physical limits by staying up all night.
Now don’t get me wrong. Pulling an all nighter is hard and you won’t have an awesome time doing it. But if you can follow these tips, you’ll mitigate a lot of the negatives and not have such a hard time the next day. Just don’t do it too often!
Featured photo credit: Sleepy, SXC via SXC