How to pull an all-nighter without crashing

Students cramming for exams, managers putting the finishing touches to a major project and writers and journalists chasing tight deadlines battle against the need for sleep, trading what we usually know is mental alertness and efficiency for the need to finish something by a specific time. Worse still, each of them know that the moment the sun breaks in the horizon they shall have to focus their brains, take a deep breath and get through the day functioning like the night before was spent chasing ZZZZZs.

Studies have shown that a sleepless night elevates the dopamine levels in the brain leading to a heightened sense of euphoria. But, at the same time sleep deprivation shuts down the brain’s key planning and decision-making regions (the prefrontal cortex) while activating more primal neural functions such as the fight or flight reflex in the amygdala region of the brain.

While this may suggest that it is impossible to go through an all-nighter and still function adequately the next day, it clearly isn’t. Vietnam sniper, Carlos Hathcock did it in his legendary three-day crawl through the jungle to complete his mission. Special Forces operatives in the military who go through Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE ) have to learn how to manage it, so it can most definitely be done, without impairing efficiency.

The smart money is on having the forethought and planning time to not have to do anything like that, but should you have no choice there are four things you can do that will temporarily allow you to brush off the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation:

One numberStock up your sleep reserves – It may not always be possible to plan this in advance, but sleeping enough the nights that lead up to a sleepless night makes it easier to pull it off when you have to because your brain has that extra capacity to absorb the stress it undergoes.

Ronnie, an active sniper serving with the Marine sniper platoon advised being smart “If you don’t have to, you should always try to avoid becoming sleep deprived. The one thing we all learn at SERE is that sleep deprivation unmans you. Your sense of orientation goes. Your sense of time disappears. Your memory becomes faulty. You can no longer trust your gut instinct. So always make sure you are operating with enough sleep hours in the tank, so you can pull it off at short notice.”

At a pinch, as part of our personal survival strategy sleep experts suggest grabbing what they call a “prophylactic nap”. At the Dayton VA Medical Center, Wyoming, researchers associated with the Wright State University have carried out studies to determine the best protocol for weathering a sleepless night without suffering ill-effects in terms of performance. In a study titled “The use of prophylactic naps and caffeine to maintain performance during a continuous operation” they detailed how their group of 24 young adult males, being put through a sleepless 24-hour period where their mental alertness and performance was monitored against baseline readings and a control group, managed to maintain near-optimum efficiency through a regime of strategic napping and caffeine intake.

The “power nap” and a strong espresso strategy were found to be most effective when the nap was no more than 90 minutes long and the coffee intake was spaced out to help boost alertness when the effects of the nap were beginning to wane. Sara Mednick, an assistant professor at the University of California, who’s been studying the ability of naps to restore the brain to near-normal baseline performance cites how her studies show that napping produces the same sleep-stage-specific enhancements as an overnight sleep.

This ties in with anecdotal evidence from the account of serving soldiers who always try to get some sleep where and when they can. “I trained myself to switch off whenever I got the chance,” Wrote Mike, who’s with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “Things happen fast when you’re on the ground. You do not always know when you will be called up to leave base and when you are you can never be sure that you will get back on time. That’s not the best time to find yourself short of sleep and with your head not in the game.” His habit of catching naps any time things on base got slow allowed him to operate on the battlefield without exhausting his capacity to deal with stress and prolonged periods of concentration.

Have some stimulant ready – Wars may be won by bravery and they may require weaponry but they run on coffee. There is no nine-to-five in battle. And, just like when a crisis hits in a business environment, when things break all hands are called to the task irrespective of the time of day or the kind of week they may have had. Snipers report having a strategic relationship with coffee. “If you need to stay up all night and are on lookout, you need to have coffee on hand. But that also means you can’t go on drinking coffee all day, every day like water. Keep it in reserve. Come off it if you need a day before your all-nighter. Then it will work best for you.”

Stay off the carbs – If you’re preparing for an all-nighter and want your brain to function at peak then you should know that a large, carb-heavy meal will most probably lead to a crash as its “good mood” feeling kicks in. Snipers know that you need to fuel for combat operations so they need to pile in some calories to keep them going. “Since coming out of the army I have had a couple of occasions to pull all-nighters,” this from Tim, who works as a marketing manager for an international cargo transportation company. “I make sure that I have nothing to eat beforehand. The hunger keeps me alert and on form even at the end of a very long day. Plus I know I really earned my food afterwards.”

Stay active – Snipers on active duty have an active lifestyle as part of their everyday work. Although they constantly have to work on their fitness they do not have to specifically schedule in physical activity before they go on a mission. It’s not quite the same for the rest of us who sit behind desks looking at screens all day, drive everywhere and try to fit in exercise once or twice a week. “Try to get some exercise in before an all-nighter. Nothing that would exhaust you so stay away from all the heavy stuff but a workout that makes you sweat a bit and lights up your brain makes you feel energized and ready for anything. Plus, when you are actually pulling an all-nighter try to be active. I do a few push-ups or stand up and walk about. All of this stimulates my body and keeps my mind alert.”

Do these four and your chances of getting through the next 24 hours without missing a beat are high. The moment your stint is over, of course, let your body shutdown. Get to bed as soon as you can and try and sleep until your sleep reserves are restocked.

Adopted from: The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal With Uncertainty and Make Better Decisions

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