How to properly pull an all-nighter

It’s not ideal, but here are some tips to help you make the most out of your late-night studying

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A person face down on a desk fallen asleep with notes scattered all across the desk
I would sacrifice my well-being for an A. PHOTO: Allyson Klassen / The Peak

by Jacob Mattie, Peak Associate

University life is remarkably busy. Having to balance several classes which share similar schedules almost guarantees you’ll eventually find yourself pinched between deadlines. This is where the all-nighter comes in. It’s pretty universally accepted that foregoing a night’s sleep for an extra few working hours is a bad time. I’m not going to tell you to not be stressed about it, because it’s a terrible situation. But I am here to tell you there are ways to make the most of it, and things you can do to stop it from ruining the rest of your week. 

 

Sleep is important

The first thing worth mentioning is sleep is important. Sleep deprivation entails a whole host of side effects, including a weakened immune system and increased susceptibility to depression and anxiety. Staying awake for 24 hours is comparable to a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.10% — which is well over the legal driving limit. The only way to recover from sleep deprivation is to sleep. There is no magic path to needing less sleep (I’m looking at you, caffeine). While an all-nighter can provide some extra hours when we need them most, it’s crucial to remember we will need to make up for this sleep soon after. Unlike how muscles adapt to regular exercise, your brain will not adapt to consistent sleep deprivation. This is a loan on wakefulness, not a free pass. 

 

Staying focused

In the absolute simplest terms, the key to a productive all-nighter is sustained focus. The best way to manage this is by taking regular breaks and looking after yourself — taking 20 minutes will help you be more productive over the course of the night than trying to force yourself to work through a foggy brain. Let’s break down how to do this:

Find somewhere well-lit where you can work uninterrupted without too many distractions. I’ve found it’s helpful to go somewhere away from home to study — Breka Cafe (Robson & Bute, Vancouver) and SFU’s Burnaby Campus are both open 24 hours and have all the amenities you should need. Staying home can easily lead to spending more time setting up the perfect study environment than actually studying.

 

Snack Time

One of the main influences on our energy levels is blood sugar. High blood sugar equates to high energy, and low blood sugar implies low energy. When studying, we aim to have blood sugar in the mid-range — high enough to stay focused, but not so high we can’t sit still. Food is a great resource for managing this. 

When choosing snacks, there are a few guidelines to follow. Nutrition is a complex science, but for our purposes, we can reduce it to two terms; glycemic index and glycemic load. The first describes how readily sugars and nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. The latter describes the number of sugars within the food itself. For example, the sugars within a carrot are easily digested, but are relatively sparse, resulting in a lower glycemic load.

Foods like white bread and certain kinds of rice are high in their glycemic indexes and loads. This means they cause a quick increase in blood sugar. This “sugar rush” is good for energy, but is quickly metabolized and the drop in blood sugar leaves feelings of fatigue and hunger. This can cause unwanted interruptions in a study session. Fruits, along with vegetables and proteins (beans, lentils, and nuts) offer more of a balance between their glycemic indexes and loads. This will provide a more sustained sugar release that will keep you feeling energized throughout the night. 

Drinking plenty of water also helps a lot. While dehydration in itself is a cause of fatigue, getting up for washroom breaks also serves as a great way to force you to stretch your legs and get some light exercise — helping keep you awake and focused.

A discussion of nutrition would be incomplete without mentioning caffeine. Found in sources like coffee, tea, and dark chocolate, caffeine is widely used to keep people awake and active. Caffeine works as a competitive inhibitor. In simple terms, this means it gets in the way of the neurological process that lets us know when we’re feeling tired. This is great for when we need to avoid the feeling of fatigue, but it’s important to distinguish between feeling tired and being tired. Caffeine will help us feel awake but does not offer any of the benefits of being well-rested. This includes all of the symptoms of sleep deprivation mentioned earlier, as well some of those not mentioned — not being able to think clearly, focus, and process information. In short, when tired, caffeine will let you write a paper, but most of it will probably suck.

 

Have a plan

Studying is not easy even in the best of circumstances, and with the added challenges of sleep deprivation, it’s important to keep the process as straightforward as possible. It helps to have a set of tasks you want to accomplish by the end of the night — whether that be to finish some readings, write a paper, or complete an assignment, having a concrete goal to work towards will make your all-nighter easier.

Next, have a way to gauge your focus. Although we may wish otherwise, multitasking does not work. Balancing two tasks at once (noting “tasks” include such things as texting friends and watching shows or movies) has been found to reduce productivity by up to 40%. Staying aware of your posture is a great indicator of how engaged you are with the material. If you find yourself slouching more or needing to reread lines, take a break for a few minutes. Many people have found value in the Pomodoro Technique, which involves five-minute breaks between 25-minute work segments, with a longer 15–30 minute rest for every fourth break. 

 

Nap Breaks

Many of us are somewhat familiar with how sleep is divided into phases — at the very least, a term like REM (Rapid Eye Movement) should evoke something beyond the eponymous bands’ single “Everybody Hurts.” By being methodical, we can use these different phases to our advantage. A full sleep cycle will take about 90 minutes, meaning if you want to wake up without feeling groggy, try aiming for a complete series of sleep cycles — 90, 180, 270, etc. minutes. If you find yourself really pressed for time (given this is an all-nighter, we can assume this is the case), we can cut down the necessary sleep a little bit more. 

Between yacht racers, space agencies, the military, and over-caffeinated students, there has been a tremendous amount of research on how to cut back on the amount of sleep needed. We can extract a useful practice from this research: namely, the 20 minute — or stage two — nap. 

Sleeping for 20 minutes is the ideal balance between getting enough sleep to feel refreshed, and still being able to wake up easily. By going through the first two stages of sleep we are able to bolster our energy and alertness, and wake up before the phases of deep sleep relax our muscles and slow our breathing — causing feelings of lethargy that would get in the way of our studying. In practice, this doesn’t often feel like actually sleeping — rather, it feels closer to just being on the cusp of a snooze, but waking up before falling asleep.

Between proper nutrition, sleep management, and a measured work ethic, you should have all the tools you need to not only make it through the night but emerge with a completed chunk of work. While there is something fulfilling about watching the sun rise over your freshest accomplishments, don’t let it get to your head — because sleep deprivation certainly will.