The All-Nighter Experiment: What Worked and What Didn't

Alistair-Clark's picture
Rank: King Kong | banana points 1,057

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.)
 

What worked

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:

  1. Choose a task to work on.
  2. Set your timer to 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task until the timer goes off.
  4. Take a 5 minute break.
  5. 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OGJRx76zLY.
 

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.

Comments (70)

Oct 25, 2015

Interesting post - I'll definitely try out the Pomodoro technique.

Funniest
Oct 25, 2015

Out of everything in this post I want to try the bucking bronco the most

    • 31
Oct 28, 2015

ha don't die plz

WSO's COO (Chief Operating Orangutan) | My Linkedin

    • 2
Oct 25, 2015

Ha I've been practicing "caffeine naps" for years without ever knowing it had a name....or that anybody else did it. Personally I do find them quite effective.

Great write up though! I'll have to give the pomodoro technique a try next time.

Still remember my first IB all-nighter. It was as an SA. We had a call in the morning at 7am. The analyst and I finished our stuff up around 6:30am just as the VP came in. I hoped to grab 30 mins of sleep. Instead he had me go get him breakfast...

    • 6
Oct 26, 2015

Interested to know how doing push-ups and jumping jacks in a BB/EB bullpen would be perceived.

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Oct 26, 2015
realjackryan:

Interested to know how doing push-ups and jumping jacks in a BB/EB bullpen would be perceived.

At 4am I doubt there would be many people there to judge you

    • 7
Best Response
Oct 26, 2015

I look at a picture of my now dead grand-parents. Illiterate, broke, miserable peasants who were born in the 1910's. Then I can go on for 3 days without sleep no problem.

    • 26
Oct 26, 2015

interested in doing the bucking bronco..

Oct 26, 2015

Lipo 6 is a fat burner haha. I know the reasoning behind it as it has a long lasting effect, but still.

Oct 27, 2015

I looked it up and its description makes it sound like over the counter adderall

Oct 30, 2015

So you know what Lipo 6 is? Interesting...

Oct 26, 2015

Have you ever been to gnc? Very common for body builders who want to cut.

Oct 26, 2015

I would also recommend "batching" to go along with the Pomodoro Technique. Depending on the project or projects, try to combine all like tasks into each 25-minute work session. For example all emails during one, excel updates during another, and so on. I realize this isn't always possible, but batching similar tasks by type instead of project or client can help you work faster because you're not constantly changing gears in your thinking process.

I'll add that it's very hard to do this if you don't take the time to plan ahead like @Alistair-Clark recommends.

    • 3
Nov 3, 2015

+1. Task grouping is something I do a lot too.

Metal. Music. Life. www.headofmetal.com

Oct 26, 2015

Interesting post. Until I was in banking I had never pulled an all nighter, and while they weren't that common, they definitely sucked my life force...learning how to deal with them and still be productive is an uncomfortable, yet valuable skill. Love the idea of the Pomodoro technique.

One other trick that I've had massive success with is breathing exercises. I'm personally really curious about training this idea of "mental toughness/resilience" and have done some pretty extreme things just to see how far my body and mind could go and still perform, and it's a lot further that most people think. I learned a bunch of breathing techniques designed to hyperoxgenate your blood from a former SEAL and a coach to Laird Hamilton (think deep but fast breathing), and it's one of the strongest pick me ups I've ever experienced. It won't keep you going forever, but if you couple it with intense bursts of activity, you can be very productive even if you're extremely sleep deprived, without the crash you get with caffeine.

    • 2
Oct 26, 2015

Nice - bookmarked [email protected]. May try the Pomodoro technique for CFA studying...may need to increase the 'study block' times from 25 mins though.

    • 1
Oct 28, 2015

Good strategy for studying. My personal technique is 1 hour study with 10 minute break cycle for more theory based subjects, 90 minute study 15 minute break for calculation/application topics.

    • 1
Oct 26, 2015

As far the health shakes go, I've found Myoplex to work for me. It's more of a building than a leaning out drink, so maybe there's more in it to help you keep going. Go for a few hours, when I start to feel any sort of tiredness creep up on me, or just get hungry, I drink one of those and I'm good to go.

I've never had to pull an all-nighter at the office (never had a job that warranted it), but I do have to drive for 10ish hours from NYC to Detroit after the wife gets off work, usually around 6-7 PM, putting us in Detroit around 5 am.

Driving is where things get tricky, because you can't do most of the techniques you could otherwise do because you can't just stop and pull over every 30 minutes, especially when driving through PA... not as bad as Montana, but pretty close. And you can't just be partially 'there', because otherwise you're off the side of the road in rural PA and no one is going to know you're there for a month.

Aside from music, and conversation, one thing that helps me stay awake that the wife hates... cold temperatures. I try to keep the inside cold enough to where I'd want to wear a sweater, but don't. Whenever it's warm, it feels all cozy and makes me want to sleep, especially when the heaters are blowing on your eyes, that's one quick way to dry them out and not want them to be open.

I hate doing that drive, and I can't wait until I never have to do it again.
(also, can't fly because of two dogs)

Oct 26, 2015

Tried that hour and a half nap thing from your website. Bodybagged myself and slept for 7 hours smh. Everything else is pretty awesome though.

mbavsmfin:

I don't wear watches bro. Because it's always MBA BALLER time!

Oct 26, 2015

Bucking Bronco doesn't even sound that bad outside of the Addy. 120mg? That's a ridiculous dose, and I'd be skeptical if it'd make much of a difference over 40mg unless you have a tolerance.

    • 1
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Oct 26, 2015

Bookmarked and SB-ed. Will share this to my fellows too. Kudos.

    • 1
Oct 27, 2015

What helps is having a short nap during the day. It gives me the power boost I needed when writing my thesis. :)

Oct 27, 2015

Done it before in a previous job(not finance, bankers don't have a monopoly on that) In addition to what's mentioned, I've found the best way to deal with it is preparation. Sleep as much as you can, when you can. I would disappear and catch 15-30 minute naps using lunch times,dinner, etc. Also don't use caffeine unless you absolutely need it. Like any other drug your body will adjust to it. You'll get less benefit when you do use it, and even see a drop in energy/focus if you aren't on it.

Oct 28, 2015

I did pull maybe 10 true all-nighters in my career. All I can say, looking back at it, is that for the most part they were useless... They are generally generated by MDs who have poor / little management skills or just do not care about juniors (that trend is fading, thankfully).

I don't believe that the quality of the analysis / research is there either - there will be mistakes and the materials will lack necessary iterations to make it valuable.

I didn't hate the experience actually - All night-nighters gave me a sense of achievement / importance at the time and definitely makes for good stories between fellow Analysts that we still talk about almost 10 years later...

    • 3
Oct 29, 2015

Anyone else feel they are most productive at night? Not in the sense of an all-nighter after being awake all day, but let's say you slept in during the day and even got an afternoon nap in. I love working at night, especially in the summer where I can work outside and the breeze alone keeps you alert

Oct 29, 2015

Is your website on Weebly? The pics look familiar...

Oct 30, 2015

Pound coffee in a short span of time - like, 3 stiff cups in 20 minutes. Gives you the shakes, and you can't fall asleep when you try.
Try to make it so you don't notice passage of time - like in a crappy casino, all the lights up, no clocks, no windows, white noise.

Two crappiest things about all-nighters weren't sleep dep - it was being successful meant you got more of them, and the next day there usually wasn't anything pressing so you wasted the day feeling like crap and eating everything in sight

    • 1
Oct 30, 2015
  1. Caffeine + L-Theanine: alert without the jitters.
  2. Racetam: I prefer Oxi, but Ani or Phenyl will work here. May want to work in some Choline for this to avoid a headache.
  3. Theacrine: better than caffeine. Less jittery, smoother, longer focus. Also, no tolerance buildup despite working on same receptors.
  4. Frequent breaks: keeps the mind sharp.
    • 1
Oct 30, 2015

Posts like these are why I'm still on WSO... +1

I've used caffeine naps extensively to great success, though I do have to overcome a slight initial brain fog after I wake up.

Side note: For the nights that you aren't up all night but have less-than-ideal time to sleep, I'd recommend waking on your sleep cycle (~90 min). I heard many things about this, experimented with it, and have since always planned my sleep. I find it's much better to wake up after 3 hours vs. 4 hours. I usually budget in an additional 10 minutes into my alarm for the time to fall asleep.

  • Anonymous Monkey
  •  Oct 30, 2015

My advice would be to bank your money and get out when you can, because it's bullshit and puts you on track to burnout.

    • 1
Oct 30, 2015

or just sit at your desk and do the work

    • 1
Oct 31, 2015

I've never tried a caffeine nap, but I've done quite a lot of all-nighters whilst I've been writing up my thesis - you never know when your muse will strike!

The best strategy I've found has been to mix the energy drink with something else like Irn-bru and finish it over a longer period of time. If I'm already exhausted pre all-nighter then I have lucozade as well.

I certainly feel a lot more tired when I don't listen to music, but it can't be too exciting so I like soft classical or jazz, but like breaks where I'll have a listen to anything from cool and the gang to the prodigy!

Mentally speaking, surviving an all-nighter is mostly a case of stop feeling sorry for yourself and JFDI !!

I should add, I appear to be the only adult human alive that doesn't like coffee so mainlining espresso isn't an option for me.

Oct 30, 2015

Theacrine.

Oct 31, 2015

not sure that's available in the UK . .

Nov 1, 2015

Amazing post, big props for self-experimentation. Have only done all-nighters at uni and during the International Baccalaureate days. All great tips, I would add that making sure your vitamin B intake is appropriate during your everyday life is critical if you have an intense lifestyle and work. I know a lot of people that have burnt out at varying stages since high school up until now at work, and you will be way better off if you do it in moderation preemptively rather than as an emergency measure. Will try out that 1980s technique.

    • 1
Nov 2, 2015

How prevalent would you say Adderal is in consulting?

Oct 30, 2015

It's definitely around. But nonprescription compounds are much better for daily use.

Nov 2, 2015

Thanks for sharing some of your field experiments with us. I've typically relied on generous amounts of coffee but still run into a wall after a few hours. I'll be using the Focus @ Will channel and Pomodoro Technique for CFA studying.

Nov 2, 2015

LOL! im going to wheel in my bowflex. If im going to workout at the office I want to hit all compound lifts

    • 1
Jan 4, 2016

I'll bring the free weights, barbell, and squat rack....... got to use those stabilizer muscles

As long as I am doing better then I am feeling and I do it to prove them wrong.

Nov 5, 2015

From experience with military service in a combat arms high tempo environment/unit , there is no substitute for sleep.

I rarely if ever will do an all nighter. I will sleep for very short periods, turn my phone into a bomb of alarms etc but rarely go entire day without sleep. The judgement, quality of work and cognitive loss are just too great. You can do maybe one day of this before you are exponentially degraded then you become useless.

In finance I try to mimic same habits. We had an executive officer come over from 1st Ranger BN and tried to do 2 days of no sleep, after day one it was noticeable. In a high tempo field problem he just crapped the bed and made terrible calls, it was to point I would disregard his transmissions over the radio. He crashed mid day 2 and was relieved.

Ideal sleep amount is 4 hours but you can operate for extended period of slight degraded abilities with 2 daily. Without REM sleep you just become a cluster because you brain can't decompress and any analytical skills will go down the tubes.

Nov 22, 2015

I would recommend to do breaks after 45 minutes, when concentration really drops. Keeping the 5 minutes breaks, but, instead of 15 or 30 minutes breaks every 1 -2 hours, do sleep 90 minutes in the middle of the night to get through one complete sleep cycle. Taking some caffeine and exercising 5 minutes when waking up allows you to go back to work efficiently.

Needless to say all-nighters are really bad for both physical and mental health.

-- Former Senior Banker -- author of ibeyeopener.blogspot.com

[Author of The Investment Banking Eyeopener Blog on ibeyeopener#blogspot#co#uk]

Jan 3, 2016

You guys should try P5P, loaded with coenzyme B6, can combat depression (if needed) but more importantly helps with brain functions and increases focus, that is the experience I have had with it at least.

Jan 4, 2016

My go to is Alpha Brain and tons of water. Small, high protein meals are the best too.

Jan 4, 2016

Idk if this would work in an office building unless it has a gym/showers but for college students at home or in a dorm try it out. Whenever I get sleepy or distracted during a long study session I hop in the shower and blast cold water. For 3 mins I let the cold water hit my whole body for the last 15 seconds I let the water hit my head (careful not to get a brain freeze) then I get out refreshed and ready to go....yes it is a bitch but for me it works.

As long as I am doing better then I am feeling and I do it to prove them wrong.

Jan 21, 2016

I've recently started taking a break during an all nighter to brush my teeth. Something about the mint and clean taste revitalizes me. I keep a travel bag with a spare toothbrush, toothpaste, and mini mouthwash in my desk. I'm not claiming it will keep you up all night, but it will freshen you up and have you feeling better.

    • 2
Jan 21, 2016

Wow.

I promise, the bloom will come off the rose quickly when it's your 4th in a row...

  • Capt K
Jan 21, 2016

wow....just wow......

Jan 21, 2016

lmao...trust me the thrill wears off after the 2nd day striaght...

Jan 21, 2016

You certainly got the right attitude. Keep it up, only two more years!

Jan 21, 2016

2:23 is an hour and a half before last call at most bars in New York. I hardly considered closing a bar out as an "all nighter." You have about 7 hours to go before you can call it an all nighter, and remember you have to work the whole day (at least until dinner time) for it to qualify. If you go back to sleep or leave early, you lose.

Jan 21, 2016

you people are depraved

Jan 21, 2016

Your very excited, your excitement will fade as you pull more and more all nighters.

Jan 21, 2016

Ah, stay excited and optimistic- you're a rockstar.

Jan 21, 2016

My garbage can is a mess right now, 2 bulls and 1 caramel macchiato. Still 8 hours to go about. But still Ibankin and still lovin it

thanks for the encouragement boys

Jan 21, 2016

just..poor guy.

Jan 21, 2016
Jan 21, 2016
GameTheory:

I just got reminded of this kid.

http://www.bankersball.com/images/too%20good%20loo...

Hahahaha. That's hysterical.

Jan 21, 2016

that motivation and excitement is good, and me and my SAs had the same energy when we started....though we were pretty burned out after 10 weeks haha

Jan 21, 2016

I'm ugly as shit and hungry as hell, aka I would do perfectly in jail. In jail that kid would be my bitch.

My all nighter is coming to an end in about an hour. My MD told me im working too hard and is making me no face it tonight (noice).

Its been fun fellas, the only thing I have to look towards now is my first 2 day straight all nighter, and after that my first 3 day all nighter, and after that my first nervous breakdown. Its all the good stuff from here!

Jan 21, 2016

"its quant as hell, and I love the people. Having a great time, love the analyst life just like I knew I would."

Jan 21, 2016

I hope you become a bitter bitchy analyst soon, or else you are not welcome in the conference room at seamless time
:-)

Jan 21, 2016

Give it till xmas of full time position and he'll be as bitter as everyone else. Wait until your all nighter turns out to be for a pitch that was cancelled a day ago and no one told you. Commendable but somewhat naive zeal for your job tho.

Jan 21, 2016

Do you do that through any prescriptions or not ?