The all-nighter. It’s kind of a rite of passage for college students, especially during finals. But even older adults sometimes need to pull one — finishing up a work project or driving through the night. Even I’ve pulled a good number of all-nighters these last six years, writing up a blog post for the next day. Given the fact that I’m my own boss and don’t technically have any set “deadlines,” I don’t know if this makes me crazy, or dedicated, or maybe crazy dedicated. Probably just crazy.
Pulling an all-nighter isn’t the most healthy or desirable thing in the world (although it can actually produce feelings of euphoria), and doing so should be avoided whenever possible. But even the most organized student sometimes comes face-to-face with the fact that their paper is going to require more hours to complete than there are hours left in the day.
To get a unique perspective on the ins and outs of pulling a successful all-nighter, we asked a group of former Soldiers, Marines, and Special Forces veterans to share the methods that got them through combat and a host of night-ops. These men – who are all currently on staff at the BluCore Shooting Center in Denver, CO — served in the Navy SEALS, Green Berets, and the Army and Marine Infantries. (They’ve asked that we only use their first names for purposes of anonymity). For these vets, staying awake through the night was a matter of life and death, but their tips apply equally well to the civilian who needs to plow through a work or school project. In addition to their advice, we’ve provided tips from sleep experts and researchers.
All-Nighters: Avoid Them Whenever Possible
The first tip in pulling an all-nighter is actually to avoid doing it whenever you can! Depriving yourself of sleep has all sorts of deleterious effects on your body and mind, including:
- Decreases concentration. Sleep deprivation slows down the area of the brain responsible for concentration. Not good for focused study sessions.
- Hurts working and long-term memory. Your working memory is called upon for complex tasks where you have to pay attention to one thing while holding a bunch of other things at the forefront of your mind. Not only does sleep-deprivation impair this mental “scratchpad,” it diminishes your long-term memory as well. It’s during sleep that our recent memories are transferred to the neocortex to be solidified and stored. So all those facts you memorized through the night might not even be there come test time in the morning.
- Weakens immune system. While pulling an all-nighter may help you get that term paper done, you do so at the risk of getting sick right before your American History final later in the week.
- Cortisol increases. Pulling an all-nighter will probably make you feel stressed and on edge. That’s because your body’s level of cortisol (a hormone released in reaction to stress) increases whenever you’re sleep deprived. Elevated stress levels are no bueno for Spanish exams.
- Testosterone decreases. As we discussed in our series on increasing testosterone, our bodies make nearly all the testosterone they need for the day while we’re sleeping. Add the increased cortisol levels (another testosterone killer) and you’ve got a recipe for feeling like less of a man. Keep in mind, testosterone isn’t just for building huge muscles. Men with optimal levels of T have sharper minds and are more confident than their low-T brethren, two things that come in handy for all sorts of tasks.
Due to these mind-melting effects, my suggestion for students is to not pull an all-nighter when you can avoid it, and when you can’t, try to reserve it for writing papers. If you’re cramming for an exam, you’re probably better off putting in several hours of intense study, and then getting some shut-eye — maybe you won’t cover as much material, but you’ll have a better chance of remembering what you did study. With a paper, sleep deprivation will still cause your writing to suffer, but there’s no getting around the fact that finishing it will require a certain number of hours — your paper won’t magically finish itself if you leave it half-done to hit the sack.
How to Pull an All-Nighter When You Must
Alright, so pulling an all-nighter isn’t an effective or sustainable study or work strategy. But sometimes our best-laid plans go awry and an all-nighter becomes necessary. When it does, here’s how to stay awake for the duration and get the most out of your round-the-clock push.
Get Some Sleep in the Tank
“Make sure you don’t get behind on sleep. When you know an all-nighter is coming, see if you can bank a few extra hours in advance. That makes the well deeper when you have to dip into sleep reserves. This really works.” –Eric, former Navy SEAL
If you know in advance you’ll be pulling all-nighter, try to go to bed earlier and/or wake up later in the days leading up to it.
If you didn’t see your all-nighter coming, you can still fill up your sleep tank with what researchers call the “prophylactic nap.” Taking a nap of any kind boosts your memory, creativity, mood, alertness, and cognitive performance, and preventive naps have been found to be more effective at staving off the negative effects of sleep deprivation than multiple doses of caffeine.
When it comes to naps, longer is usually better, but in the short-term, a 180-minute nap (which gives you two cycles that include all the valuable stages of sleep) has been found to be no more effective in increasing cognitive performance than a 90-minute nap (just one full cycle). According to nap expert Dr. Sara C. Mednick, an hour and a half is the preventive nap sweet spot because “it will take you through a full cycle of sleep and bring you out in REM or Stage 2 Sleep, allowing you to avoid sleep inertia” (the grogginess you experience when waking up from a deep slumber). Mednick recommends taking your nap between 1-3 pm or 1-3 am, as these are “’perfect nap’ zones, where nap cycles will be ideally balanced between REM and SWS” (Slow Wave Sleep).
Keep in mind that the effects of a prophylactic nap have an expiration date — they only last 8-10 hours.
For more on what these sleep terms mean, the amazing benefits of napping, and how to optimize your naps for different situations, check out this post.
The All-Nighter Classic: Caffeine
“Caffeine works best when you are not already abusing it. If you drink only a couple cups a day you don’t need to worry. If you drink a LOT of coffee throughout the day, don’t expect the coffee at night to work quite as well.” -Eric
All of the SPEC-OPS guys we talked to unsurprisingly recommended consuming some sort of caffeine throughout the night. The trick, according to all of them, is to lay off the caffeine the day before and the day leading up to your all-nighter. Your body and mind build up a tolerance to caffeine, so if you’ve been ceaselessly pounding back the coffee all week long, it won’t have as strong of an effect during your round-the-clock vigil.
Eric also recommended mixing some sort of fat into your coffee, like grass-fed butter (which contains more healthy Omega-3 fatty acids than the grain-fed variety) or coconut oil. He says it “helps prolong the caffeine buzz.” When you add some sort of fat to your coffee, you’re adding in medium-chain triglycerides, or MCT. MCT may provide an extra shot of lasting energy. This coffee + butter concoction can also satisfy your hunger for a few hours without having to eat anything else.
Besides coffee, there are of course a wide variety of energy shots and drinks available. Whichever you choose, go sugar-free to avoid a crash. Hunter, a former Marine infantryman, recommended Rip Its — “a sort of energy drink that was ALL over, over there!”
I’ve used Military Energy Gum (formerly Stay Alert Gum) with success. Designed by Wrigley for the U.S. military, each piece of gum contains 100 mg of caffeine (for comparison, a 12 oz Starbucks coffee is about 260 mg), and through oral absorption it gets into your system faster than pills or liquids. It starts working right away and keeps you going through the long night.
No matter what caffeine-delivery system you choose, employ it discriminately. Instead of ingesting one big dose less often, which will lead to energy crashes, take smaller doses more frequently. Shoot for about 100-150 milligrams every 2-3 hours.
Not Surgeon General Approved: Nicotine
“Is it healthy? No. But neither is pulling an all-nighter. Nicotine has been used by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines for DECADES. It keeps you busy and keeps you awake, to a degree. But, as with coffee, if you are used to dipping a can a day, then that late night dip won’t have much of an effect on you. If you are only an occasional ‘dipper’ and have a dip or two during the night to finish a project by a deadline, it can really help.” –Jeff, former Green Beret
The dip tip came up a lot from the Spec-Ops guys we talked to and I’m passing it along simply because it’s interesting. If you’re staying awake to potentially dodge a bullet, than nicotine might be the lesser of two evils. But if the only danger you’re facing is getting a C in Calculus, then I’d personally avoid the dip and cigarettes. Sleep experts and doctors would agree.
Eat Light and Lay Off the Carbs
“A large, carb-heavy meal leads to a crash. Sometimes, even eating at all leads to a crash. You need to fuel for combat operations, so missing meals isn’t a great option. But, pulling an all-nighter to finish a project at work or to drive through the night really doesn’t require any ‘fuel.’” -Eric
Sleep experts concur with this advice. When staying up all night, avoid carbs and focus on eating protein and fats (nuts, beef jerky, etc.). Keeps you full and provides sustained energy without the crash.
“Work out, walking or even working while standing. There is a proven physiological response that follows a workout. Just don’t work out too hard right before your all-nighter as this could make you tired.” –Jeff
If those trips down to the demos in Westminster have left you behind schedule for your end-of-term assignment, you may well be forced to write in the small hours this week. Here's how to pull it off safely and successfully.
12am: Get as far away from your bed as possible
Before you begin, avoid warmth and soft furnishings. Propped up on pillows in the glow of a laptop may feel like savvy ergonomics, but your keyboard will start to look pillow-like by midnight, and 418 pages of the word "gf64444444444444444444" will detract from the force of your argument. You could try the kitchen. Or Krakow. But your industrially lit 24-hour campus library should do the trick.
12:25am: Take a catnap
Thomas Edison used to catnap through the night with a steel ball in his hand. As he relaxed and the ball dropped, he would wake up, usually with fresh ideas. "Caffeine and a short nap make a very effective combination," says Jim Horne, director of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre. "Have the coffee first. This takes about 20 minutes to work, so take a 15-minute nap. Use an alarm to wake up and avoid deep sleep kicking in. Do this twice throughout the night."
12.56am: Reduce your internet options
Temporarily block Twitter, Spotify, Group Hug, YouTube, 4od and anything else that distracts you. Constantly updating your word count on Facebook may feel like fun, but to everyone else you'll look like you're constantly updating your word count on Facebook.
1-3am: Now write your essay. No, really
You've widened your margins, subtly enlarged your font and filled your bibliography with references of such profound obscurity that no one will notice you're missing 3,000 words. It's time to brainstorm, outline, carve words, followed by more words, into that milk-white oblivion that taunts you. Speed-read articles. Key-word Google Books. Remember texts you love and draw comparisons. Reword. Expound. Invent. Neologise. Get excited. Find a problem you can relish and keep writing. While others flit from point to point, your impassioned and meticulous analysis of a single contention is music to a marker's eyes.
3-5am: Get lost in your analysis, your characters, your world Write like you're trying to convince the most stubborn grammarian about truth, or heartless alien invaders about love. Don't overload with examples – be creative with the ones you have. Detail will save your life, but don't waste time perfecting sentences – get the bulk down first and clean up later. "The progress of any writer," said Ted Hughes, "is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system." Outwit your own inner police system. Expect progress. Ted says so.
5:01am: Don't cheat
It's about now that websites such as easyessay.co.uk will start to look tempting. And you may sleep easier knowing that a dubiously accredited Italian yoga instructor is writing about Joyce instead of you. But the guilt will keep you up between now and results day. And you'll toss and turn the night before graduation, job interviews, promotions, dinner parties, children's birthdays, family funerals . . . you get the idea.
5.17am: Don't die
Sounds obvious, but dying at your computer is definitely trending. And however uncool it may seem to "pass on" during a five-day stint at World of Warcraft, it will be much more embarrassing to die explaining perspectivism to no one in particular. So be careful. Stay hydrated. Blink occasionally. And keep writing.
5.45am: Eat something simple
"There are no foods that are particularly good at promoting alertness," says Horne. "But avoid heavy and fatty meals in the small hours. Avoid very sugary drinks that don't contain caffeine, too. Sugar is not very effective in combating sleepiness." Fun fact: an apple provides you with more energy than a cup of coffee. Now stick the kettle on.
5.46am: Delight in being a piece of living research
If you happen to be "fatigue resistant" you should now be enjoying the enhanced concentration, creative upwelling and euphoric oneness that sleep deprivation can bring. If not, try talking yourself into it. "Conversation keeps you awake," says Horne. "So talk to a friend or even to yourself – no one will hear you."
6am: Console yourself with lists of writers who stuck it out
Robert Frost was acquainted with the night. Dumas, Kafka, Dickens, Coleridge, Sartre, Poe and Breton night-walked and trance-wrote their way to literary distinction. John and Paul wrote A Hard Day's Night in the small hours. Herman the Recluse, atoning for broken monastic vows, is said to have written the Codex Gigas on 320 sheets of calfskin during a single night in 1229. True, he'd sold his soul to the Devil, but you're missing out on a live Twitter feed, so it's swings and roundabouts.
7am: Remember – art is never finished, only abandoned
Once you accept there's no more you can do, print it off and get to the submissions office quick. Horne: "You're not fit to drive if you've had less than five hours sleep, so don't risk it. Grab some exercise." Pop it in with the breeziness that comes from being top of your marker's pile. Back home, unblock Facebook and start buffering The Inbetweeners. And then sleep. Get as near to your bed as you can. Euphoric oneness doesn't come close.
Matt Shoard teaches creative writing at the University of Kent.