The All-Nighter Experiment: What I Learned From Working for 36 Hours Straight

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“I need this to be done for tomorrow morning, but don’t spend too much time on it. I don’t want you to pull an all-nighter.”

My boss was overly optimistic. That night I pulled my first all-nighter at work. 

I’ve had a handful all-nighters since then, but you always remember your first time.

From sunset to sunrise, I stared at a computer screen trying to do a week’s worth of work before 9:00 AM. My energy spiked and crashed: my work was sloppy, I made silly mistakes, and the next day, I had a killer headache.

That happened over 4 years ago, and I still remember how much it sucked.

Maybe you’ve never had to pull an all-nighter, but you’ve probably worked your fair share of late nights. If you’re tired of feeling like crap when burning the midnight oil, read on to see what I learned for working for 36 hours straight.

The All-Nighter Experiment

A couple weeks ago, I made the decision to have an all-nighter. I’m self-employed so it wasn’t because of a deadline or last-minute fire drill at work; it was an experiment.

I wanted to figure out the best way to have a productive all-nighter.

A lot of my clients work ridiculous hours in careers like finance and law, and the #1 question I get is, “How do I survive the insane hours?  I needed to provide healthy alternatives to the rampant off-label prescription usage happening on Wall Street, and I needed to make sure those alternatives were both realistic and effective.

And so I turned myself into a guinea pig. I started by searching around the web for advice on working late. There’s actually quite a bit of info. 

Some of it’s useful:Drink lots of water and avoid eating sugar.”

Some of it’s questionable:Get your ass to a GNC and buy something called LIPO 6 Black.”

Some of it’s downright dangerous:The local drink here on campus is what we call a “Bucking Bronco”. It consists of 1 Red Bull Zero, 3 40mg Adderall tablets, one tablet of 220mg naproxen (for the headache you will have), one stick of Arizona sugar-free pomegranate iced-tea (for taste), 2 500mg vitamin C tablets, one B-complex tablet, 2 cups of ice, and 10oz of water. Mix and blend, and there you have it.”

That last “heart-attack special” was courtesy of  an undergrad and reveals just how far sleep-deprived people are willing to go.

At the end of my research, I had a list of the top strategies — from seasoned investment bankers, “hackathon” sleep doctors, and hardened Navy SEALS — ranging from nutrition and exercise to psychology and productivity.Then I stayed up all night to try them out.

Then I stayed up all night to try them out.

Some things worked: the Pomodoro Technique. Some things didn’t: caffeine naps. But the next day? I came out feeling fresh as a daisy.

Here are the top 5 things that worked that worked the best (if you’re interested in reading more, I’ve got a monster 10,000-word article on my website called The All-Nighter Survival Guide.). 

Top 5 Strategies for Surviving an All-Nighter:

1. The Pomodoro Technique. This is the force multiplier. It’s a time management technique developed in the late 1980s by a gentleman named Francesco Cirillo. Here’s how it works:

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  2. Work on a single task until the timer goes off.
  3. Take a 5-minute break.
  4. Do 4 work cycles and then take a longer break (15-30 minutes).
  5. Repeat.

The secret is in the breaks. They’re timed more frequently than you might think you need, and they keep you feeling fresh and focused. They keep you from slowly losing momentum after a few hours of hard work. Instead of only being able to sustain intense work for 60 or 90 minutes, the Pomodoro Technique allowed me to maintain energy and focus almost perpetually.

During the all-nighter, I completed 20 individual 25-minute work-cycles between 8PM and 8AM. That’s 8h20m of extremely productive work, and I felt sharp the entire time.

2. Music: I always listen to music when I’m working, but this time I tried something different. Instead of my usual Fleetwood Mac, I tried something called [email protected]. Here’s how they describe themselves:

[email protected] is a new neuroscience based web tool that uses specially sequenced instrumental music to increase your attention span up to 400% when working and studying. Our tool helps extend your productivity cycle and effortlessly zones out distraction.”

I can’t say how legit the science is behind it, but I will say that it put me in the zone. Their YouTube channel has some free playlists you can try.

3. Exercise: Whenever my eyes started to droop, I’d get up and do some jumping jacks, push ups, or bodyweight squats. I found it most beneficial when timed with the longer 15-30 minute Pomodoro breaks, and it was crazy effective.

It works because exercise wakes up your central nervous system and triggers “a basic physiological response to thousands of years of evolution: if prehistoric humans fell asleep while running from danger, chances are they wouldn’t live very long. When your body is exerting physical energy, it signals to your brain that now is the time to be alert and focused, not to drift off to dreamland.”

4. Fasting: There is tons of debate about what to eat for mental energy, but I found a much simpler solution: I just didn’t eat.

I ate my usual dinner and then fasted until breakfast. If you’ve spent any time on RFS, you’ll know about the benefits of fasting, which involves going without food for anywhere from 16 to 24+ hours. In addition to feeling mentally sharp, I didn’t have to worry about wasting time making or ordering food and then dealing with the subsequent food coma that usually follows.

5. Plan out exactly what you’re going to do before diving in. My usual approach consists of starting ASAP and working non-stop until collapsing. It’s pretty ineffective. I go down pointless rabbit holes, get lost in the weeds, and lose sight of the big picture. During the all-nighter, I took a different approach. Before I even touched my keyboard, I took out a piece of paper and planned out exactly what I was going to accomplish. Anytime I caught myself veering off track or diving into something not on my list, I’d stop, look at the plan I’d created, and refocus on what it was that I actually needed to get done.

Working late is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to ruin your entire life. If you’re smart and apply a few of these simple strategies during your late night marathons, you can go from a half-asleep zombie to a work-crushing machine. 

If you’re working late on a consistent basis, and in full on grind mode, then you might want to consider polyphasic sleep. Depending on the schedule, you basically replace some or all of your nighttime sleep with naps throughout the day. Learn more about polyphasic sleep.

About the Author

Alistair Clark is a former management consultant and current exercise and nutrition coach that runs He’s on a mission to help busy professionals (management consultants, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, etc.) take control of their health and fitness despite demanding careers and hectic lifestyles.

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