Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that you’re behind. Maybe very behind. So behind that there’s a very good chance you’re going to lose this gig if you don’t get it done soon.
Let’s also say that you have ignored all sage advice to the contrary and have left this particular task until the last minute and now you don’t have enough time to get it done. Your only choice is to pull an all nighter. (Obviously we’re talking about you now and not me because I’ve never been in this situation in my life.)
(That was sarcasm.)
When I Googled the phrase “How To Pull An All Nighter” I got a lot of tips that sounded like absolute garbage to me, but when I talked to the resident test market, he said some of the stuff would really work well for him. This led me to a groundbreaking discovery. Maybe, just maybe, we humans aren’t all identical. Maybe different things work for different people. Maybe the reason all the advice you’ve been reading isn’t working is because the guy writing it wouldn’t know you if he woke up in bed beside you.
So how do YOU pull an all nighter and minimize the impact? Here is my patent-not-pending know-thyself method to doing it without being totally useless the next day.
Give yourself as much notice as you can.
Obviously, you’re not going to know a week in advance. But if 4 o’clock in the afternoon rolls around and you know there’s a good chance you’re going to have to work through the night, start preparing yourself as early as you can. Deciding to stay up all night sucks. It sucks even more if you make your decision at midnight.
Figure out if caffeine helps you or hurts you.
Some very smart people say not to use caffeine as a stimulant because it always precedes a crash. I’m sure there’s solid science to back that up, but I couldn’t do it without tea. I drink coffee in the day time, but if I have to stay up late or stay up all night, I drink several cups of tea. For a friend of mine, it’s chocolate. Chocolate wires him up like a monkey on speed, so that should be his drug of choice.
Keep yourself fed, but try and eat in small doses throughout the night. If you’re staying up, it’s because you need to focus and get something done. You can’t focus if you’re starving. You can’t stay up if you’re stuffed and sluggish. Eat lots of small snacks.
Front-end load your protein.
Carbohydrates are not your friend in this situation. They’ll make you sleepy now or they’ll make you sleepy later. Either way, not a good idea. I’m not saying you have to go all Atkins on me, but try to keep your snacks protein heavy. Yogurt, nuts, berries, and veggies are all good choices.
Get good light.
By good light, I mean good for you. Some people do the obvious, which is light up their office like a Christmas tree to eliminate any associations with sleep. For me, dimmer light works a little better because I associate the time when everyone’s in bed with productivity. I use a lamp and candles.
Think about noise.
If I’m working I usually prefer silence, but I can sometimes handle music that’s instrumental or not in English. I get too distracted otherwise. (Andrea Bocelli works for me, but that’s largely because Andrea Bocelli and I are sleeping together. Shh.) Some like a lot of classical. The sound of my mother’s computer puts her to sleep, so she has to figure that into the equation. I know some people react well to music with a strong or jagged beat so they don’t get lulled into sleeping. I hear hiphop is good for this. You’ll probably want to stay away from anything too calming like jazz or ambient since their whole purpose in life is to relax you.
Think about naps.
An entire profession of doctors operate very effectively taking cat naps throughout the night. I happen to know that if one gentleman I know took a catnap, he wouldn’t get up for three days. Think about yourself in this situation – are you the type of person who wakes up from a nap refreshed, or do you get disoriented and stupid? Listen to your experience.
Ideally, you’d have thought about all of these things before you found yourself in this situation. (Well, ideally you wouldn’t be in this situation, but you’re the one who sat on your ass watching CSI reruns all day yesterday and didn’t get a damn thing done.) However, no matter how much of a time crunch you’re in, taking half an hour or so to mess around with your environment at the beginning of the night can dramatically increase your productivity later.
Play with your light, your music, your food and see what keeps you up. Bear in mind, whatever it is that gets you going in the day will probably get you going at night too, so consider employing some of your daytime tactics as well.
I don’t know how long you’ve been on this Earth, but it’s probably been at least seventeen years. In that long or longer, you’ve figured out what circumstances are most conducive to you getting things done. Each specific trick isn’t going to work for everyone, but figure out what works for you instead of just going by what you read in some blog once.
In completely unrelated news, this little blog went live two weeks ago today. Thank you for your support and your emails and your comments and your Stumbles. Today we came in over 1500 pageviews, which is pretty exciting for a blog so young that if it was a kitten, it’d barely have its eyes open. Thank you very, very much. I’m grateful.
Originally published October 17, 2007.