9 Big Tips for Surviving an All-Nighter (When You're Not in College Anymore)
Part of us thinks that all-nighters end when you leave college—but they don’t. They’re just rarer, they come under different circumstances, and adults don’t usually call them “all-nighters.” They just happen whenever someone thinks: tonight, I have to work instead of sleeping.
The problem is that adults, having left college (age) behind, have lost their ability to just “whip out” an all-nighter, for many of the same reasons most have lost the ability to drink hard. You’re older, you’re out of practice, you have fewer people cheering you on, and you’ve forgotten the “common procedure” for doing it right.
That’s what this blog post is here to refresh: nine of the biggest things you need to think about (and plan for) to get through your next all-nighter in one piece.
Planning & Endgame
Why are you staying up all night? What is worth feeling punch-drunk and cranky while the world is dead and dark? What is worth giving up a whole night’s sleep? If you’ve got a convincing answer to those questions, repeat it to yourself throughout the night. You need something to make it worthwhile!
Then, put the pieces in order. Make a plan. Be realistic about what you can accomplish—especially because you’re not gonna have your whole brain by 4:30am. If you’re giving up valuable sleep, make sure each hour is worth the trade.
Mood & Morale
A good mood keeps burning at 4am, but a bad mood only drags the whole effort down. That’s why purpose is so important: nothing kills a working spirit faster than the sense that its work is pointless. During the day, a bad mood is fixable; during the night, a sour mood can bring the entire day to a stop (literally).
A little self-awareness goes a long way. Now, instead of having other (awake) people getting in your way, your tired mind will start getting in the way of itself. You have to be your own captain and commander. If you’re stuck, for example, you can’t just stay stuck—you have to make executive decisions about moving forward somehow.
The factors below will also have direct (if subtle) effects on your mood—so remember that, by controlling them, you can help control your own mood even when you’re tired beyond quick repair.
This might sound weird, but for a quick second, pretend you’re diabetic. What does a diabetic watch? Blood sugar.
Everyone experiences blood sugar swings, even the non-diabetic whose bodies correct it naturally. But at night, those swings hit you twice as hard. Picture the 3pm lull after lunch: that’s a blood sugar crash. If it happens again at 3am, it might suck enough for you to give up all hope and go to bed. Your body can correct whatever you feed it, but not for free—and that crash is one of the costs of junk food.
Without prescribing specific foods, we’ll say this: food is fuel, and your body will need a steady supply throughout the night. (The other way to crash is not to eat enough.) Eat real food, not just midnight snacks; try to include protein so you stay full, and go light on simple sugars (which cause spikes, which are then followed by crashes).
According to most health professionals (which we are not), water is best—but as long as what you’re drinking isn’t loaded with sugar, it should work fine. At different points, we’ve gotten on binges of green tea, Crystal Light, lemonade, and Fresca. The green tea has only marginal caffeine, and the others are caffeine-free; all are light in sugar or sugar-free. But they’re flavor improvements on water if you need something to sip all night.
Like with food, one of the surer ways to sabotage yourself with drink is not to have enough. When you’re dehydrated—at any hour—you start to feel lethargic, sluggish, and tired. Your focus starts to thin. Water keeps all of your body’s systems (most especially your brain) running at 100%. Keep a drink within reach!
Caffeine & Other Stimulants
Soda, coffee, black tea, and energy drinks can give you useful boosts. But however ubiquitous, caffeine is (for most people) not strong enough for preserving energy and focus by itself. Given, too, that energy drinks are often loaded with sugar, they can precipitate sharper crashes when their effects wear off.
If you’re using caffeine or energy drinks, we recommend you treat them as rocket boosters, as the last big push of artificial energy administered at a smart time. Otherwise, just stick to coffee or diet soda, whatever’s low on sugar. We never said a caffeine drip was a great lifestyle choice, but if it helps and you can maintain it evenly, go for it.
Like other animals, we have a circadian rhythm determined, originally, by the light/dark cycle of day and night. For the last 100 years or so, we have had the power to choose when it gets dark for us. Literally—just flip the switch.
Light is one simple way to trick your circadian rhythm and stall the natural sleepiness that comes with nighttime. Very simply: don't turn the lights off. In fact, don't even turn them down. Remember, you're trying to trick your brain into thinking that the daytime isn't ending!
We know that leaving all the lights on might "run against the grain" for you. But isn't that exactly what you're fighting—that the "normal" feeling is to want to turn them down at night? Just don't be a wasteful schmuck; be sure to turn off lights in rooms you're not using.
Temperature & Clothing
Common sense says you should be comfortable while you work... but how comfortable? If you think about it, you want NOT to be super-comfortable because that's how you fall asleep!
Don't get the wrong idea. Making yourself uncomfortable to stay awake (the "ice water" strategy) isn't usually a happy or productive choice. If nothing else, you'll officially hate the all-nighter experience then.
Here's the solution: position yourself at the edge of comfort. Not enough to lull you to sleep, but enough to make you happy. For example: make the room slightly colder so you're a little less drowsy, but put on your favorite hoodie so you're not cold.
Sound & Music
Keep something playing in the background. The point isn't to distract yourself so much as (A) keeping the eerie silence of night at bay and (B) putting some kind of rhythm into your work.
Depending upon what you need, your choice of background noise can serve a variety of purposes. You know your own music selection—but books on tape, radio, or stand-up can provide some social energy as well. You might also consider a noise tool like Noisli, where you can pick a background sound that helps keep the vibe where you want it (coffee shop, anyone?).
Just don't pick something that lulls you to sleep!
As with nearly every factor on this list, it’s double-edged: go without a break and you risk a miniature burnout, but include too many and you might unravel your own momentum.
A few typical events make for natural breaks. Eating is one. Showering is another—and potentially a good way to wake up again, or at least clear your mind some.
Don't feel guilty about needing to take breaks, and don't *not* take them. Everyone needs a breath of fresh air and a step away sometimes. Just be smart about when you place them and what you do with them.
Godspeed and good luck on your next long journey through the night. May your coffee always be warm and your pen always full!
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