Confession: I am both an insomniac and a procrastinator. I don't fall asleep and I wait until the last possible moment to get something done. So I've pulled more all-nighters than anyone I know. Is this smart? No. Is this healthy? No. Has it taken years off of my life? Probably.
But there is an upside—I've gotten very good at going about the next day, functioning on way less sleep than the body requires for optimum performance. I don't recommend making a habit of it, but these situations arise. When it happens, here are some tips to stay awake.
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Full disclosure: I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night, but that only seems appropriate for this piece.
Guys, I am about to blow your minds here. Caffeine—in coffee, tea, and energy drinks—makes you more alert and helps you stay awake. Heard of it? Jokes aside, yes, caffeine can boost your alertness, but take it easy. Caffeine is a drug. There are some potentially serious side effects, which range from jitteriness, irritability, dizziness, muscle twitches, and insomnia, all the way up to vomiting, seizures, extreme weight loss, dehydration, and heart failure. It's also majorly addictive. Caffeine is just one tool in your shed—don't rely on it too heavily. In fact, the less you use this one, and the more you use the others on this list, the better off you'll be.
Eyelids starting to sag? Put your running shoes on and take a fast lap or two around the block. Exercises releases a ton of endorphins, which will make you shaper and more alert, naturally. Running in particular is a good endorphin trigger, thanks to evolutionary biology. If you just had to sprint a half-mile to get away from a puma, you probably wouldn't feel like sleeping for a while either. Gotta make sure there are no more pumas around. Just don't overdo the exercise, which can exhaust you, making you even more sleepy. Remember, you're already working with limited energy reserves, don't burn through them.
Like a car, you need fuel to run. If you're starting to fade, grab an apple, with its roughly 10 grams of sugar. Half of it is from glucose and sucrose, which the body can break down quickly to give you an immediate boost. The other half is fructose, which burns cleanly for an extended time. This energy comes without a major crash. The crunchiness will also help wake you up. Fruit in general is good—what you don't want to eat is a big meal full of proteins, fats, and starches. Those take a lot of energy to digest, which will put you into a food coma.
Every actor knows the "Warm for drama, cool for comedy" rule. If you want your audience to be alert, engaged, and laughing, keep the theater a few degrees cooler. The same principle will help you get through the slog.
Turn Up the Lights
Your eyes have specialized light receptors that try to keep you awake when it's light out, and help you go to sleep when it's dark. Again, this is evolutionary biology—humans are built to be up and about with the sun. Our bodies have not yet evolved to tell the difference between sunlight and artificial light (a relatively new invention), so keeping the lights on (the higher the better) will help fool your body into thinking it's supposed to be awake.
Break It Down
Variety is the spice of life. If you've been monotasking for a while and your brain is starting to melt, take a break and do something else for a little while. Your brain craves novelty. Taking a break, and then coming back to what you were working on will make it seem fresher. Ideally, get the hell away from your computer. Try to engage your other senses. Go smells some smells, then return to the task at hand.
Like you needed another excuse. Pocket Sudoku isn't going to cut it here. You need some blood-pumping action. A first-person shooter, or even something scary and unnerving like Bioshock will probably work best. A good platformer like Mario or Sonic will probably be fine. Even a high-paced, challenging game on your phone will work. Just set a time-limit and stick to it.
Old Man Sleep is throwing his "mallets of tiredness" at you. Well, it's much harder to hit a moving target. If your head starts nodding, get up, move around, shake it out. In ye olde caveman(e) days, you know when we were completely motionless? When we were going to sleep (or when we were dead). Sitting more or less completely still in front of a computer for hours upon hours is going to make you feel like sleeping eventually. Get up and move around to remind your body that you're not allowed to go to sleep yet.
So sleepy brain no worky so good? The best thing to do may actually be sacrifice 20-30 minutes and take a power nap. As we posted last month, timing is everything. If you keep your nap under 30 minutes (I do 28, just to be safe) you will generally stay in the first two stages of sleep, which can boost cognitive function and make you feel more rested. Your will must be strong and your alarm must be loud, though, because over 30 minutes and you'll start to feel the effects of "sleep inertia," with decreased cognitive function, decreased dexterity, and a strong desire to keep sleeping.