Losing sleep over classes? Thinking an all nighter might be in your cards? Learn why staying up late decreases success in the long run (according to research!) and how to prioritize sleep for your mental health and productivity.
You wake up, grab a cup of coffee, and head to class. Then, you remember you also have an exam. But you also have a birthday party, a date, and a work meeting coming up. You may have to stay up really late to fit it all in – maybe pull an all nighter or two.
If you don’t get enough sleep before a test, you are limiting yourself to 75% of your actual ability!
After a few cups of caffeine you may think you can power through all of this. But surely you’ve felt the downsides to that approach – jitters, headaches, anxiety.
You may think it’s worth it to stay up a few more hours to cram the material, so you can learn more before an exam.
In reality, you’ll be surprised by the evidence that all nighters hurt test performance, despite the cramming they allow. Sleeping really might be a smarter approach to studying.
So what’s the evidence? And how can we leverage sleep for success?
Is an all-nighter worth it?
If you’re staying up to study, you may be doing more harm than help for your test scores. An all nighter can be counterproductive to your academic success, mental health, and physical well being.
Sleep is essential for memory retention, so you’ll actually learn less on less sleep. In fact, a study found that increasing the quality of deep sleep improved memory retention.
All nighters can also impair your concentration and problem solving abilities. So if you’re staying up to cram for an exam the next day, think again.
Ever find yourself snacking at 3am trying to finish that paper for class? Turns out lack of sleep messes with your hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, to make you more likely to crave starchy fatty foods.
Sleep deprivation also increases the blood level of endocannabinoids, which makes snacking more enjoyable. This can make you feel lethargic and sick, which can make it hard to focus in class. If you’re trying to be health conscious and struggling, sleep may be the answer!
Obliterated mood regulation
Loss of sleep can send you on a rollercoaster of emotions, from irritable to giddy to sad. This can make it hard to stay focused and maintain your emotional wellness – and to perform on test day.
Since burnout culture is so intense, it can also be hard to reach out to peers about how tired and drained you feel. You may feel like the only one who’s drained by lack of sleep, while everyone else can do it all.
Reduced test performance!
Multiple different formal and informal studies and surveys point to a lack of sleep as harming your ability to think. It can be as intense as an all nighter, but even just reduced quality or a few hours less hurt your performance too.
According to a recent study in the journal Nature, sleep can account for a whopping 25% of your test performance.
You can look at that like this: if you don’t get enough sleep before a test, you are limiting yourself to 75% of your actual ability!
How to prioritize sleep
If sleep is so important, how do we get more of it? You know your body needs your help to stay healthy; but in a burnout culture, it’s more tempting to hurt your body with an all nighter for the sake of success.
Here are some ways you can beat the pressure to self-sacrifice and choose to boost your success with sleep:
1. Set a regular schedule.
If you’re not organized it can be hard to make time for sleep. You may not anticipate how much time homework takes, or forget you have something due. In order to catch up, you’ll be tempted to stay up later than you intended. Instead, do your best to keep a firm sleeping time your body can get used to. It’ll become easier to handle more during the day with your higher quality sleep!
2. Lights off.
Staring at a screen right before bed can impair your ability to fall asleep. And constant stimulation and focusing on exam material can make it hard for your brain to hold onto new information.
If you’re having trouble falling asleep, consider putting away electronics before you start washing up. This takes down anxiety, reduces exposure to light, and gives your brain time to process and unwind.
If this is too hard, you can start by putting your electronics in Do Not Disturb mode a few hours before bedtime, and dim your lights at least an hour before bed.
3. Put yourself first.
So many of us lose sleep because we believe it’s more important to do well in school than stay healthy. But what about self care? Part of self care means getting a good night’s rest too! Remember that you’ll be doing yourself a favor, mentally and physically, by getting a good night’s sleep.
4. Minimize caffeine use.
Before you drink it, remember there may be unintended consequences, later. That cup of coffee or energy drink may last longer than you think. Caffeine can take around 6 hours to leave your system, so rethink that 6pm energy boost that might interfere with your sleep later. Stop caffeine before 2 pm, and opt for caffeine free tea, stretch breaks, or a cold splash of water to keep yourself focused.
5. Reach out and be honest.
If you’re suffering from sleep deprivation or need help practicing sleep hygiene, consider relying on a peer community, like at Supportiv! Pressure to succeed at any cost – including sacrificing your wellbeing to an all nighter – can get intense. But talking with peers who also want to prioritize sleep makes it so much easier to take care of yourself.