Losing sleep over work? 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 work. Then, you remember you haven’t completed an important task. 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 – and maybe pull an all-nighter or two.
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 everything in, so you don’t have to take anything off your plate.
In reality, you’ll be surprised by the evidence that all-nighters hurt performance. Even though an all-nighter technically gives you extra time, you may not be as productive during that time.
So what can you do instead of a burnout-inducing all-nighter? Surprisingly, research shows that sleeping might be a smarter approach to getting everything done.
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 be productive, you may be doing more harm than help for your performance. An all nighter can be counterproductive to your success, mental health, and physical well being. Worst of all, all-nighters greatly increase your risk of burnout.
Cognitive and memory issues
Sleep is essential for memory retention, so you’ll actually remember less on less sleep. In fact, studies have found that increasing one’s deep sleep improved memory retention.
All nighters can also impair your concentration and problem solving abilities. Staying up all night also reduces your ability to follow instructions, which can get you into trouble at work.
Another interesting statistic? Staying up all night causes you to act drunk. Research cited by the Sleep Foundation shows that “after 24 hours of sleep deprivation, a person’s mental performance is equivalent to that of someone who has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10%, well over even the highest legal limit for driving in the United States (0.08%).”
So if you’re staying up to cram your work in, think again.
Ever find yourself snacking at 3am trying to finish that assignment? 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!
Mood and social issues
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 and hustle 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.
According to a recent study in the journal Nature, sleep can account for a whopping 25% of your test performance.
This may be more relevant to those in school, but it still has implications for work. Multiple different formal and informal studies and surveys point to a lack of sleep as harming your ability to think. This impairment can be caused by an all nighter, but even just reduced quality or fewer hours of sleep hurt your performance too.
You can look at that like this: if you don’t get enough sleep before an important day at work, you are limiting yourself to 75% of your actual ability!
According to Lauren Whitt, Google’s “Head of Resilience,” getting adequate sleep is one way to reduce the risk for burnout: “Our sleep routines are the best opportunity to reach into our minds and be able to recover from any of the stressors of the day.” Staying up all night eliminates the chance for you to recover from the day’s stress. It follows, then, that all-nighters increase your risk for burnout.
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 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’ve got a lot going on, it can be hard to make time for sleep. You may not anticipate how much time a project needs, 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, so that your body can make the most of the sleep you do get. Instead of staying up all night, try setting an early alarm to finish your work in the morning.
2. Lights off.
Staring at a screen right before bed can impair your ability to fall asleep. And constant stimulation and focusing on work 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 than stay healthy. But if you’re not healthy, can you keep doing well at work or school? 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.