I stand by what I said in my last post: all nighters are ruining your life. But, I recognize that sometimes they’re necessary. Even when we avoid them at all costs, there are sometimes incidents that require us to stay up all night or most of the night, especially in college or in certain professions. It could be:
- A sudden project due the next day
- An emergency
- A need to get something done at certain hours during the night
- Procrastination (obviously)
And if you’re in that situation you may as well get through it without hating life. So here’s how you do it.
You need to plan out your all nighter for its three stages: the nighttime when you’re trying to stay awake, the period you sleep for (if you do) and what you do the next day while awake. I’ll break it down by each stage so you have a good idea of how to get through the two days as productively as possible.
The All Nighter
The first and most obvious thing you have to plan out is the all nighter itself. Going into one blindly is a sure recipe for unproductive miserableness, but with the right setup it’s not so bad. The most important thing is to be cognizant of your mental state and how sharp you’re feeling. If you start drifting off then you definitely need to change something. Here are the main things to focus on
Don’t consume Caffeine
This seems counter-intuitive, but hear me out. The stereotypical image of a student wired on caffeine staying up all night is a very true stereotype, but they’re hurting themselves. Caffeine, or any stimulant for that matter, works by expending your mental energy reserves for immediate use in the present. This is the equivalent of running your car at an extremely high speed–sure you’ll go faster, but you’ll run out of fuel much sooner than you otherwise would have and will go a shorter distance as a result. This is critical–if you’re pulling an all-nighter you’re already over-taxing your brain, and if you take caffeine you only make the taxation worse. It’ll help you for an hour or two, but ruin you for the rest of the night.
It also ruins the quality of any sleep you do get. Sometimes an “all nighter” still means 4.5 hours or less of sleep, and in those cases if you’ve been loading up on red bull you’re going to hurt yourself a lot. Caffeine prevents you from getting good restorative sleep, which is what you’ll be in dire need of after being awake for 20-24 hours. This makes you much more tired the next day than you would otherwise be, and less productive as a result.
Don’t worry, it’s perfectly doable without caffeine. Have some green tea, lots of water, and you won’t miss it. You especially wont miss the crash and tunnel vision.
Here’s another problem with the typical image of a student pulling an all-nighter: them being cooped up in a corner of the library. I can’t emphasize this enough: don’t do this. This goes for studying not at night as well, but as a result of your Ultradian rhythm your mind finds it hard to focus for longer than about 90 minutes, so taking a break around that time can do wonders for your concentration.
Combine this with some form of movement and exercise and you’ll have an easier time keeping your energy up through the night. Just going for a walk is fine, and a really easy way to do this is to just change where you’re working every 90 minutes. It will give you a break to clear your head, get your blood flowing, and make it easier to stay on task when you sit back down.
This is a tricky one. Naps are an amazing way to keep your mind sharp and help you get through the night, but an intended nap can quickly turn into a full night of unintended sleep if you’re not careful. If you want to use naps to your advantage, it’s necessary to have someone with you who can wake you up on time. Don’t pick an overly kind and compassionate friend either–you need someone who will pour water on you if it comes to that.
You also want to be careful about how long of naps you take. In general, 20 minute naps are your best bet, and you can think of it like sleeping polyphasically for one night. Schedule a 20 minute nap every few hours and you’ll have a much better time with the all nighter
An all nighter is not the time to worry about your diet. When you go for a long period without sleep, your body has a harder time using its energy properly and starts to run out of energy in general. In response to this, it will start spending less energy on things like keeping you warm, and you’ll start to get pretty chilly as the night goes on. The easiest way to counter this is to eat regularly throughout the night. What type of food? Anything goes, but with how quickly carbohydrates are metabolized into energy (compared to fats and protein) they are your best choice.
Different people have different definitions of what qualifies as an “all nighter.” To many people, if you got 4.5 hours of sleep or less then you pulled an all nighter, so working with that definition it’s worth discussing what to do about the small amount of sleep you do get.
This small amount of sleep has to keep you going for the next day, so it’s important that you make the most of it. Here are a couple ways to do that.
90 Minute Intervals
Whatever amount of sleep you get, try to get a multiple of 90 minutes. Our natural REM cycles are 90 minutes long, and we’re most comfortable waking up right at the end of one. This means that it’s easiest to wake up at the end of every 90 minute period, so you should structure your sleep accordingly. It also means that if you wake up during a period (such as if you actually slept 8 hours) you’d be groggy and less well rested than if you’d slept 30 minutes less (for 7.5 hours, or 5 REM cycles).
If you’re not sure when to set your alarm for, you can use this website to help you: sleepyti.me. It will tell you when to go to sleep to get up at your desired time with the least grogginess and the most energy.
Just like with napping, having a buddy to wake you up can really help. Your body will not really want to wake up after 4.5 or fewer hours, and having someone around to make sure that you actually do it will go a long way. Again, you want someone you trust to be sufficiently aggressive with waking you up.
The Next Day
You’ve survived the all nighter and maybe gotten a bit of sleep. Now you have to get through the next day. This is actually the area where people usually hurt themselves the most–they don’t account for the recovery that’s necessary after getting a detrimentally small amount of sleep. If you don’t let yourself recover, you’re bound to feel pretty out of it for days. Most of these things are continuations of what you did the night before, since you’re still trying to keep your mind sharp while sleep deprived.
I can’t stress this enough: 20 minute naps are your best friend. Use them liberally and whenever you feel like you’re going to crash. Just make sure you have your buddy.
Again, not sleeping properly is going to deprive you of some energy you would have otherwise had. Be sure to eat more the next day than you might have otherwise in order to make up for the deficit. Since you don’t need the immediate energy, try to eat a bit healthier than the carb binge you likely did the night before.
You can’t skip a night and then get 8 hours and expect everything to be fine. If you do this you’ll usually feel even worse the next day from two nights of insufficient sleep than you did the first day, and you’ll have effectively lost two days of happiness/productivity for one night of work. Try to allot at least an extra 2 hours to catch up on your sleep debt if you want to avoid this issue.
Ultimately, I don’t think it’s worth it. With an all nighter you’re essentially saying that future unhappiness and unproductivity is worth productivity now, which is the same bad argument that justifies Adderall and even Cocaine usage. We tend to discount our future selves and give them more work/stress than they can handle, and end up kicking ourselves for it. The only way to avoid that is to cut out things like all nighters all together.
For more info on sleeping better, check out my eBook Sleep Mastery!