The Right Way to Pull an All-Nighter

How, when, and why you should burn the midnight oil.

Me, circa April 2018. (Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash).

I pulled my first all-nighter this year, cramming 200 textbook pages in 14 hours. Afterwards I had a nap, took the exam, went home and slept.

It was so effective, I did it 8 more times (for different things).

Each time, I refined and tweaked the process. I read a dozen articles. I tried out different foods, and exercises, lighting and working positions. I found out Author John Boyne wrote The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in 2.5 days (what?!).

And as I learned how to pull an all-nighter, I also realized why:

Done properly, an All-Nighter is an opportunity to convert 8–12 uninterrupted hours into high-focus, high-performance productivity.

Tech & industry routinely apply this principle. There’s a reason ‘sprints’, ‘hackathons’, and ‘48-hour cases’ are a thing — pressurized, uninterrupted stretches of time give you the unique opportunity to dive deep into a problem and fluidly iterate a solution.

But here’s what you’ve probably been doing.

The Wrong Reasons to Pull an All-Nighter

  • To quickly learn something difficult, or memorize something complex
  • To begin and finish a task you’ve been putting off (starting from scratch)
  • To finish boring, repetitive, detailed, or unpleasant work (EG refining, formatting, or proof-reading vast sums of work)
  • Massive projects (although pulling longer work-sessions using the same principles laid out here should help)
  • Because you ran out of time.

A proper all-nighter shouldn’t be a procrastination ritual, or a sacrifice to a deadline, or a necessity at all — an all-nighter should be a choice. Your choice. A performance accelerator that saves you time and energy.

The secret is this: All-Nighters create the perfect conditions for flow.

  • They enable intensive, engaging work (allow a ‘deep dive’ into the problem at hand)
  • They ensure no distractions (everyone’s either asleep, or pretending to, and you have a great excuse to block all notifications)
  • They create both challenge & autonomy (urgency for high-performance, and the freedom to do it).

Instead of spreading out the “doing” over days, wasting time setting-up and reviewing and re-understanding your previous work, with an all-nighter you can do most of it one night.

As the American Psychological Association explains, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”

In contrast, in an all-nighter, you dive so deep, spend so much time swimming about, that you’ll learn how to breathe the flow and shape the currents; build your own Atlantis. Hours will feel like seconds, seconds like hours, and before you know it you’ll be finished.

The Right Reason to Pull an All-Nighter

There’s just one; to get work done efficiently and effectively on a single project (or essay, or presentation, or subject) while acknowledging the side effects (having to catch up on sleep, and facing reduced cognition until you do).

The All-Nighter should be for the work, the stuff in the middle, not the start or the finish of a project. The start requires space and planning; the finish requires polish. The middle is the work, and the work is the flow (which can be pretty much anything).

  • If you’re writing an essay, do all the research beforehand.
  • If you’re writing a post, have the outline done already.
  • If you’re creating a presentation, have a slide-deck ready and fill it with your main ideas.

Basically, before the big night, figure out your destination and prep a map to get there. The all-nighter is simply the autobahn to wherever you need to go.

How to Properly Pull an All-Nighter

Before

  • Plan it out, by laying out a multi-hour timeline, including where you want to be at certain hours.
  • Prepare, by creating a very bright work space, keeping some healthy snacks nearby (nuts, veggies, a granola bar, fruit), and lots of water. Clear up enough floor space to do some full-body exercise

During

  • Perform, by fully immersing yourself on the task at hand. There should be no distractions. Enjoy the flow.
  • Re-energize. Drink cool/cold water consistently — it keeps you more awake than coffee. Keep health snacks close at hand (nuts, veggies, granola bars) If you’re feeling tired, do twenty pushups and sit-ups, or some other quick, intensive physical activity. Splash water on your face.
  • Prioritize. Keep your eye on the goal — create now, polish later.
  • A word on caffeine. Only hit the coffee once water, food, exercise aren’t enough, and as late as possible — once you start the caffeine high/crash cycle, you’ll be stuck to it for the rest of the night

After

  • Slow down. Take things slow and be aware of your reduced state — time, space, and human interaction will feel a little off today.
  • Rest. Try and sleep for a bit, even if it’s just 30 minutes (make sure your alarms, or someone else, will wake you). Steal naps throughout the day, if you can.
  • Rejuvenate. Eat healthy, eat a lot, and keep drinking lots of water.
  • Polish. After a while, check over and change things as needed (preferably after you’ve slept), and have someone else look it over.

There. You’ve done it. How does it feel? Pretty great, I hope. If you’ve fulfilled the conditions above — if you’ve planned, and prepared, and performed a proper all-nighter — then you will relish the results.

Now enjoy your sleep. You’ll need it before the next one.

Seriously. Sleep. (Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash).

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