“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 of 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.
Whether you end up with no sleep or not is hardly the point. If you’re up working late and only get 2 hours of sleep or even if you still get your name hours of sleep but are just up late, these strategies can help you have a productive session.
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.
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.
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.
I gathered wisdom 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.
Some things worked: the Pomodoro Technique. Some things didn’t: caffeine naps. But the next day? I came out feeling fresh as a daisy.
(Note: RFS readers will be familiar with the concept of broscience and self-experimentation. Nothing here should be confused for scientific evidence but rather is based on my self-experimentation.)
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:
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. It’s kind of like how you’re able to go much harder during HIIT cardio than steady-state.
The Pomodoro technique also helps you retain information because of the learning concept called primacy and recency, which explains that we retain information better at the beginning and end of a work session. By shortening sessions, we create more beginnings and endings.
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.
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, in particular, it activates the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. When we exercise, we flood our body with hormones designed to make us instantly awake and alert. Most notably, adrenaline and cortisol will increase during exercise. This is exactly why we should normally end exercise earlier in the day to maximize our sleep quality.
From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. If prehistoric humans couldn’t wake up when a bear came into their home, they probably wouldn’t live very long.
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.
I also found this help not disrupt my eating habits in the days after the all-nighter. I just kept my same eating schedule.
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. To-do lists really are one of the best productivity hacks.
Working late is inevitable, but if you have to do it, you’re going to want to make the most of it. 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.
You’ve made it through the all-night session and you crushed it. Now, it’s daytime, and you have to make it through that also. Here’s how you can handle the next 16 hours. After all, we can handle short-term sleep-deprivation and still have a great workday even after not sleeping an entire night.
With most of these strategies, the idea is that you want to keep your sympathetic nervous system active the morning after the all-nighter. That’s strategies that will raise your cortisol and adrenaline. This is important for also resetting your sleep cycle because cortisol is meant to be high in the morning during a healthy circadian rhythm. If you keep it raised throughout the morning, then your body will be able to wind down to a parasympathetic response as you get closer to the evening.
I know I didn’t recommend coffee during the evening, but now in the morning you should probably grab a cup of Joe. Caffeine will keep you awake, alert, and raise cortisol. However, as covered in this article on improving sleep quality, caffeine in the afternoon can impact our sleep in the evening, so only have caffeine before noon.
There will be times when drowsiness will kick in you’ll want to sleep. A 20-minute power nap can be your savior here.
However, make sure you don’t extend it past 30 minutes MAX. After 30 minutes, your body will start to go into deeper stages of sleep, and you’re more likely to disrupt your circadian rhythm and wake up from a 4-hour nap drowsy as hell. This will also fuck up your sleep schedule.
You can even, a lá polyphasic sleep, take more than one quick nap. Hell, you can take 3 or 4. Just keep them short.
3. Exercise (again)
If there’s one sure-fire way to keep you up, it’s exercise. Start your day off with something light. Please, don’t do anything insane like 20-rep squats, but feel free to get a quick lift in.
In the morning, get outside and into the sun. This will reset your circadian rhythm as well. Just 5-10 minutes in the sun will be enough. If you’ve been at the office all evening, go for a walk outside.
5. Avoid Screens and Bright Lights
Finally, once you’ve made it through the workday, it’s time to get enough sleep that evening. Avoid screens in the evening (stay away from TikTok) to encourage the production of melatonin. As long as you have a good night of sleep tonight (with hopefully a few extra hours) you should be able to get right back to things the next day without terrible consequences.
Even if you follow this and feel great after an all-nighter, the reality is your performance will have side effects. I’ve tracked my recovery with my HRV, and even if you feel well, you won’t be fully recovered. When it comes to training, if you pull an all-nighter, go easy on yourself for the rest of the week. You can still go to the gym, but generally, I’d recommend keeping them shorter and less intense.
The only way to know your recovery and preparedness for sure would be to measure your recovery with your wearable device.
If you’re always cramming your work and your sleep if suffering from it on a consistent basis, then you have a few options. The first is to stop working so much. If your work is literally killing you, consider whether you really need to be in the office late.
Your problem might also be that you’re just inefficient with your work. If that’s you, we have a few articles on improving productivity here and here. If you’re looking for something in book format, Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek will provide all you need to change your life.
Pending those, if you’re in full-on grind mode and just need more time, 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.
Finally, if you can get to sleep still but need to improve the quality of your sleep, check out this guide to get better sleep (without making it control your life).
Acute sleep deprivation won’t kill you. But a consistent lack of sleep absolutely will if you don’t find a solution for it. Lack of sleep will make you fat, crush your cognitive function, and shorten your life span. So, do what you have to do, but in the long-term, find a way to get so quality shut-eye.