I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been settling back into college, and it messed up my posting schedule and threw off my habit of maintaining this blog but I’m back!
In the spirit of school starting again, I want to discuss something that comes up way too often at college (especially at Carnegie Mellon): pulling “all-nighters.” Essentially students become overwhelmed with work, don’t get enough done during the day, and turn to the twilight hours to finish what’s due the next day.
It’s disturbingly common. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has done it at least once, and the majority of students I know do it with some regularity. It’s become in some ways accepted, but in some even more disturbing ways encouraged and deified. I hear daily “competitions” between peers that go along the lines of “I only got 4.5 hours of sleep last night…” “Yeah? Well I only got 3 hours… and only 6 hours the night before!” It’s become a competition where everyone loses.
When I challenge this bad habit the general response that I get is that students “have no choice” and that pulling all-nighters is “the only way to get work done” and I call bullshit. Here’s why.
Why All Nighters Don’t Help
Parkinson’s Law is a Cruel Master
I’ve mentioned Parkinson’s Law a few times, but here’s the gist of it: The perceived complexity/difficulty of a task swells to fit the time you allot to it. Essentially, if you have a task that you can do in 30 minutes, and you assign 1 hour to it, you’ll dilly dally and work inefficiently in such a way that the 30 minute task takes the full hour.
What does this have to do with all nighters? Well, you’re essentially assigning an extra 4-8 hours to whatever task you had originally only alloted your daylight hours to. So while before you had 1-2 hours of tasks left, now you have 5-10 hours of tasks left, but the tasks are the same. Intuitively this makes no sense, but it’s just a factor of our psychology that we have to accept.
As soon as you decide to pull an all-nighter, you immediately stop being as productive. You have all this time to get your work done, and you start working much slower and less efficiently. Combine that with how tired and unfocused you’re going to be while skipping out on sleep, and your all-nighters are bound to be highly unproductive.
There are No Free Lunches
Milton Friedman said it about economics, and I’m going to say it about sleep: there are no free lunches. We can’t expect to skip a night or half a night of sleep without repercussions, but those thoughts rarely enter our heads when we’re debating pulling an all nighter. Faced with the problem of having to get a large amount of work done, we heavily discount our future happiness and productivity in the pursuit of a few extra hours.
Unfortunately, sleep debt is real, and sometimes you have to pay interest. Here are just a few things you can expect from skipping even half a night of sleep:
- Microsleep, which is where you brain slips in and out of sleep throughout the day to conserve mental energy. Scary part? You don’t know they’re happening.
- Coldness. This happens while you’re staying up and the next day as well–deprived of energy, your body can’t regulate its temperature properly and you’ll be chilled all day.
- Grumpiness. This shouldn’t surprise anyone that no one wants to hang out with you when you haven’t been sleeping.
- Hunger. This is part of the reason that poor sleep makes you fat–you have to eat more because you have less energy from not sleeping.
- Unproductivity. This is the worst one. Skipping a night of sleep for a few more hours of productivity actually makes you significantly less productive for the next 16 hours. In this sense, there’s no way to argue that staying up helps you get work done.
And after all of these fun effects, you’ll need a few extra hours of sleep the next night to catch up. But if you’re someone who pulls all-nighters, then it’s unlikely you’re going to sleep for 10-12 hours. This causes the effects to continue for another day, and your productivity/health to be shot for two days just so you could get a few extra hours in.
It Becomes a Habit
The mentality of being okay with pulling all-nighters and doing them in response to large amounts of work quickly becomes a habit. As does leaving work until the last minute forcing you to pull an all-nighter just to avoid failing. For a long time, my mindset was “If I don’t finish my work, it’s fine, I can just pull an all-nighter” and going back to Parkinson’s law you know that even if you have the thought of that extra time in the back of your head, you’ll fill it.
Pulling all-nighters, or just disrespecting sleep in general, is also in my opinion a negative-keystone habit. I’ve mentioned sleep as a keystone habit in my article on waking up early, and the term comes from the book The Power of Habit. Essentially a keystone habit is one where if you change it, all of your other habits will be affected positively as well. People who start running tend to eat better, stop smoking, sleep better, etc. I’m going to coin the term negative-keystone habit to mean a bad habit where once you start it, many other bad habits crop up as well.
I don’t know anyone who pulls all nighters and consistently eats healthily. I don’t know anyone who pulls all nighters and consistently exercises. The causal relation is ambiguous, but the correlation is undeniable–when you stop caring about your sleep you’re likely to stop caring about your health in general, because not caring about your sleep means putting your work before your body/mind.
And going back to the point about productivity, not doing these things (exercising, sleeping well, eating well) have been lauded countless times for being the best things you can do for your productivity. If you’re shirking them then you naturally have to pull all nighters because you lack the framework for a healthy productive life.
How to Never Need to Pull an All Nighter
Part of the reason all nighters can be helpful to people is that an all nighter creates a very hard and finite deadline. There’s no extra time to add to your schedule once you take out sleep, you know that you have a very finite amount of time between now and when the assignment is due tomorrow, so you start working on it.
This is “helpful” because we are more productive when we have a deadline to work against. People who procrastinate a lot wait until the deadline is looming over their heads to start work, and that’s what results in needing to stay up all night.
If you want to avoid needing to do this, you have to learn to bracket your work during the day. Luckily, this isn’t hard. The simplest method is to simply schedule everything. Once I do my Rule of Three in the morning, I fill my entire calendar with what I’m going to do that day. I don’t fill it with appointments though, I fill it with outcomes. That makes it look something like: 7-8am: Wakeup, complete PoliPhi assignment, start Science reading. 8am: Go running. 9am-12:00pm: Complete science, psychology, and philosophy assignments.
You get the idea. By doing this I make sure I can easily fit everything into my schedule, and I put artificial deadlines on my work so that I’m more productive and less likely to goof off. Scheduling time to “do schoolwork” is poor planning because it’s not outcomes focused. You could go skim through a textbook for 2 hours while being on Facebook and think you accomplished your goal.
If you want to take it to the next level, add in a system like Pomodoro or Kanban (using something like Trello) to plan your days out even further. I tend to think of assignments in terms of how many Pomodoro’s they’ll take, based on my experience doing similar assignments in the past. From those inferences it’s very easy to figure out how long all of my work will take, and plan my day accordingly.
Once you start doing that, you’ll have no need for all nighters.
There are rare cases where we do in fact have to pull all nighters, from no fault of our own. I’m going to talk about how to do that without hating life in my next post.
For more info on sleeping better, check out my ebook on Sleep Mastery!