The All-Nighter Experiment: What Worked and What Didn't
I need this done for tomorrow morning, but don't spend too much time on it. I don't want you to be here all night.
That's what my MD said to me before I pulled my first all-nighter.
I've had other all-nighters since then, but you always remember your first.
I was a lowly analyst in my second year as a management consultant, and I had just been asked to do a week's worth of work by 9:00AM the next day. I spent that night alone in a windowless conference room that smelt like takeout food and stale coffee. From sunset to sunrise I plugged away in Excel doing work that could have been avoided if people had just thought ahead instead of changing their mind at the last minute.
The sun was rising when I sent out the updated analysis. All I got in return for my hard work was, "Thx, I'll look at this later today." ... I almost quit on the spot.
That happened over 4 years ago, and I still remember how much it sucked. If you ask bankers / consultants / lawyers what the worst part of their job is, most will say it's the hours.
No matter how much you like your job, working all the time will wear you down. You'll start wondering if the sacrifice is worth it, and why you even wanted the job in the first place. Is the money really worth it? Am I really ready to sacrifice my social life until I "make it"? How is this affecting my long-term health?
It's too bad, because if you take away the hours, you get to do some pretty interesting work with talented people.
But unfortunately late-nights are part of the deal with these jobs. And if you can't survive late nights at the office, you're going to burnout and either quit or get fired within a few years. Tough, but true.
The All-Nighter Experiment
For a while, my approach to all-nighters was the same as most people's: load up on coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks and then put my head down and work until I was finished. But the problem with this approach is that it wasn't sustainable and I was getting burnt out. My energy would spike and crash, my work was sloppy and I'd make dumb mistakes, and I'd have a killer headache the next day.
The human body is simply not designed to perform without sleep. You can literally die if you go 11 days without sleep.
But this doesn't mean you have to accept feeling like crap either.
If you search "all-nighter" in the the WSO forums you'll find plenty of posts discussing a huge range of tactics for staying awake and energetic.
Some is useful
Drink lots of water...even though you'll have to piss very 5 minutes, it works
some is questionable
Get your ass to a GNC and buy something called LIPO 6 Black.
and some sounds 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.
I was tired of feeling like crap whenever I worked late, so I decided to come up with a better approach.
I spent a week researching the best advice I could find from seasoned bankers, "Hackathon" sleep doctors, and the military elite. Then I stayed up all-night and experimented on myself, trying the techniques and figuring out what worked and what didn't.
Even though I'm self-employed and I set my own "deadlines", I still chose to stay up for 36 hours straight. I don't know if that makes me crazy, or dedicated, or maybe crazy dedicated... probably just crazy.
This post contains the most useful takeaways from the experience, including three things that worked and three things that didn't. (If you're interested in reading more, I also wrote a monster ~10,000 word article on my website called The All-Nighter Survival Guide that contains the best strategies for working late, all in one place for easy reference.)
1. The Pomodoro Technique: This was a game-changer. It's a time-management technique developed in the late 1980s, and it's become really popular in recent years. It involves time-boxing tasks into 25-minute chunks of highly focused work separated by 5-minute breaks to refresh and recharge. After 4 work cycles you take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. Here's the step-by-step flow:
- Choose a task to work on.
- Set your timer to 25 minutes.
- Work on the task until the timer goes off.
- Take a 5 minute break.
- Take a longer break (15-30 minutes) after four work cycles.
My old approach to work used to be to put my head down and work as fast as possible until I finished, but Pomodoro's have changed that completely. The breaks in Pomodoro's help you stay fresh and focused, rather than slowly losing momentum after a few hours of hard work. Instead of only being able to sustain intense work for 60 or 90 minutes, using Pomodoro's allows you to sustain your energy and focus almost perpetually.
During the all-nighter I completed 20 individual 25-minute Pomodoro's between 8PM and 8AM. That's 8h20m of extremely productive work, and I felt fresh and sharp the entire time.
2. Exercise: This was by far the most effective strategy I tested for staying awake. Whenever my eyes started to droop, I'd hop out of my chair and do some push ups, bodyweight squats, or jumping jacks. I'd also do this during the longer 15-30 minute Pomodoro breaks.
Apparently, the secret is that 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."
3. Music: I always listen to music when I'm working, but this time I tried something different called [email protected]. It's a company that creates playlists designed to boost your concentration and focus. Here's the blurb from their YouTube channel.
[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 whether the science behind these claims is legit, but I can say that I like the music and get into the zone when I listen to it.
You have to pay to get all the features, but they have 10ish free playlists on their YouTube channel. They have a range of genres for different tastes-Classical, Acoustic, Ambient, or Uptempo-and also a range of 'Energy Levels' for how fast and aggressive you want to work.
Here is a good one to get you started:
What didn't work
1. Working without a plan: When most people have a lot of work to do, they race to get started and don't stop until they're finished. I used to do the exact same thing, but during the all-nighter I took a different approach. Before I even touched the keyboard I took 30-minutes and planned my work from start to finish on a piece of paper. Throughout the night I would revisit the plan to make sure I stayed on track rather than slowly falling into a pit of distraction and rework.
2. Caffeine Naps: At 4:00AM I tried a technique called a "caffeine nap". It involves downing a cup of coffee and then immediately sleeping for 15–20 minutes. A lot of people love caffeine naps, but I hated it. I finished my coffee and then lay down for a nap, but couldn't fall asleep. I eventually dozed off but was jarred awake by the alarm a few minutes later, well short of the 15 minute goal. I felt way worse than before the nap, and it took a while to shake off the grogginess.
Caffeine naps are so popular that I'm not ready to say that they're complete b.s., so feel free to try it and see if you have a better experience.
3. Eating for energy: There is endless debate about what to eat during an all-nighter, but I found it irrelevant because I just didn't eat. I had a regular dinner at 7:00PM, and then my next meal was breakfast at 8:00AM. Scientists recommend eating protein and healthy fats and avoiding carbs when working late, but I found not eating was a simpler solution. It's not that surprising since there are lots of people talking about the mental benefits of intermittent fasting, which involves going without food for anywhere from 16 to 24+ hours.
Is there anything else you've tried that works or doesn't work?
Let us know in the comments.
Mod Note (Andy) - Throwback Thursday, this was originally posted 11/4/2015.