Illustration for article titled How to Draw an Effective All-Nighter When You Have toPhoto: Chaay_Tee (Shutterstock)

Finals, due dates, exams and deadlines have one thing in common: They convince us that skipping sleep is a good idea. That’s certainly not true, but sometimes your only option is to pull an all-nighter to get things done. And if you have to go that route, you can get it right too.

First, let’s talk about what we mean by an “all-nighter”. Some people are naturally night owls and tend to have later schedules. If you work the evening shift, go to bed at 4 a.m. and wake up at noon, you don’t pull a night, you just have an atypical schedule. However, if you are planning on getting three hours of sleep tonight so you can meet that deadline, you are an all-nighter candidate. Before you grab this energy drink, ask yourself if it’s really worth it.

When to pull an all-nighter

It is of course unhealthy to deny your body sleep. As such, there is one rule above all for pulling an all night: Don’t. Obviously this isn’t always the most practical solution and some days you just have to work late. However, you should always keep in mind that reducing your sleep puts a strain on your body. If minimizing sleep is part of your typical routine, you will ruin any productivity benefits you would get from those extra hours.

Night owls are also not good for your memory, attention, or focus the next day. Staying up until 4 a.m. to study for a test at 8 a.m. is a bad idea. Just because you’ve spent all night reading words on pages doesn’t mean your brain kept the information. If you have to function the next day, reduce your losses – or at least compromise and get some sleep.

There are still situations where staying up all night may not be of any benefit that you would otherwise get:

  • When your next day’s workload is light. Driving through your job or class is a bad idea, but we all have slower days than others. Staying up late on Thursday to complete a project on Friday isn’t going to be nearly as bad when you only have to work a few hours for the rest of the day.
  • When you have time to take a nap. Sleep loss is a problem that only sleep can solve. Staying up all night getting a project done for the morning can be fine when you can find time to nap in the afternoon. If you stay up all night and can’t sleep for two days, reconsider.
  • If you haven’t pulled another all-nighter lately. Staying up all night means losing sleep. Staying up every night means permanently ruining your sleep schedule. If you’ve skipped a lot of sleep in the past few days, don’t repeat the process until you’re well rested.

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How to approach the big night

Pulling an all-nighter should be treated like any other physically demanding endeavor: you need to make sure you have the right supplies and prepare before you go inside. If you know you will be skipping sleep, follow these guidelines:

If possible, take a nap

When you pull an all-nighter, you are stealing sleep from your future self. Make up for it by filling up your metaphorical tank before you go. The more sleep you can get beforehand, the less you will hurt yourself later. In an interview with how-to blog Art of Manliness, explains a former Navy SEAL Why it’s important to start an all-nighter with a nap:

Make sure you don’t fall behind while sleeping. When you know an all-nighter is coming, see if you can deposit a few extra hours in advance. That makes the well deeper when you need to dive into sleep reserves. It really works.

Taking a nap before going to work will be more good to the world than taking a nap in the middle. If you wait until you are already exhausted to “just take a quick nap,” you may not wake up for hours. The only thing worse than lack of sleep is lack of sleep and nothing to show. This would be a good time to brush up on that too Napping the right length of time for the brain boost you need.

Eat proteins, not carbohydrates

Your body needs something to burn to get through the night, especially when you are focused on a brain-intensive task like writing a paper. So grabbing some snacks or an extra meal is a good idea. However, what you eat is important. Instead of focusing on carbohydrates (potato chips, pizza, and most of the biggest nightly staples), focus on protein consumption. Why? Carbohydrates store energy for later and can even make you sleepier in the short term::

Everyone associates high-carb foods (like bread and pasta) with energy, but what they really do is prepare your body to exert energy. This means that just by exercising, the carbohydrates in your body set your wheels in motion.

According to Dr. Nathan Shier, an Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, professor of nutritional science, consuming high-carbohydrate foods releases high levels of a hormone called serotonin in the brain. Too much serotonin makes you sluggish. Translation? Stay away from high-carbohydrate meals before and during your studies or you will sleep on your keyboard at night.

Proteins will be much more helpful in guiding you through the night. So instead of a bag of Doritos and some cookies, grab some jerk and a protein drink.

Grab some caffeine (but cut it out first)

Caffeine is the obvious staple of staying up late all night. While this isn’t exactly the healthiest option, energy drinks are effective in keeping you updated and even improving focus (although you’ll crash later). The trick, however, is to avoid caffeine, which leads to your protest against sleep. Once again, The art of masculinity explained How drinking caffeine during the day reduces the effectiveness of the drug at night:

Unsurprisingly, all of the SPEC-OPS people we spoke to recommended consuming caffeine all night. According to everyone, the trick is to get off the caffeine the day before and the day before your night. Your body and mind develop a tolerance to caffeine. So if you’ve been knocking back the coffee continuously all week, it won’t have as much of an impact during your 24/7 vigil.

This effect strongly suggests reducing or eliminating the amount of caffeine in your diet in general. Caffeine has a tangible and sometimes useful one Effect on your brainHowever, if you use it all the time, it will be the least helpful when you need it most. It’s also worth noting once again that this scenario is far from ideal. We all know what desperate times take, but using caffeine to avoid sleep regularly kills your productivity, focus, and even memory.

Exercise regularly

The effects of exercise on your brain and productivity cannot be overstated. Just like a quick 20 minute workout can help your brain right before an examExercise can help improve your brain’s ability to learn and store information, as well as improve creative thinking. We call this feature Neuroplasticity.

Of course, you don’t want to exhaust yourself with a full body workout. However, if you go for a walk, do a few push-ups or jumping jacks, or do something that gets your blood flowing, your brain will stay on track. This is a fundamental physiological response to thousands of years of evolution: if prehistoric humans fall asleep while fleeing danger, they are unlikely to live long. When your body is exercising physical energy, it signals to your brain that now is the time to be alert and focused and not drift into dreamland.

When you’re done, rest and regroup

You made it through the night, completed the project, finished the paper, built the combat robot, or whatever you need to do. You met your deadline and the deed is done. Now is the time to get back on track. It will be tempting to rush as soon as you get home – and taking a nap can help you get through the day! – but to get back on your schedule properly, wait for your usual bedtime to collapse. At the very least, you shouldn’t go to bed more than a few hours earlier than you normally would. When you do this, make sure you get a full night of sleep.

The most important recovery technique of all is to stop dragging the night owls as much as possible. Especially if you’re in college or have a demanding job, it can be tempting to work with minimal amounts of sleep and maximal amounts of energy drinks. This will affect your productivity in the long run (not to mention the impact sleep loss can have on the brain). It can also mean developing good sleeping habits Overall, you need less sleep anyway. So when the time for crisis comes and you just need to get this one important project done, do what you have to do. But don’t make a lifestyle out of it.

This story was originally published April 2014 and updated on January 26, 2021 to be in line with Lifehacker style guidelines.