All nighters are a trademark of college life—there’s just no getting around it. Whether you’re caught up in a raucous game of euchre, hitting power chords on Guitar Hero till the wee hours, or finishing an essay, you’re bound to find yourself watching the sun come up while wondering if you’ll actually make it to class.
All-nighters spent with friends—playing games, talking, hanging out—require little concentration. The moment itself can propel you to sunrise. But when your grades are on the line, when you have a big test bearing down, or a research paper to finish, concentration is essential.
The best way to survive an all-nighter is simply to avoid it by staying on top of your workload. However, this is not always possible. A time will come when you have to do it.
In college, it’s easy to feel indestructible, and to think that staying up late is no big deal. Studies have shown, however, that teenagers need roughly 9.25 hours of sleep to function properly. Insufficient sleep, over time, can have dramatic effects on your emotional balance, thinking, and behavior. It can also cause irritability, anxiety, decreased creativity, moodiness, and daytime sleepiness. Not a good recipe for achieving good grades, or establishing lasting friendships!
When the time comes to pull an all-nighter—and it will come!—here are a few tips to help you survive and recover properly:
- Avoid stimulants such as Vivarin, which can cause shakiness and, in some cases, an inability to concentrate. Lower doses of caffeine, such as coffee and soda, can help for a time, but eating healthy foods high in energy content, as well as drinking a lot of water, will help you feel better physically come test time.
- Find a well-lit location. Any all-night diner will do. Order a bottomless coffee, spread out your books, and get to work. Studying with friends can help keep you awake, but can also cause added distraction. (see #4) The key is to find an environment with as few distractions as possible.
- Tackle your more challenging assignments first. As the night wears on, you’re likely to lose your capacity to concentrate and do good work. Reserve less important tasks for later in the night, and knock out the hard stuff first.
- Focus and reward. Decide on a span of time to focus your mind and concentrate on the task at hand. This could be 10 or 15 minutes, after which you can reward yourself with 5 minutes to talk or goof around. The important thing is to stick to it. You will find it much easier to focus for shorter amounts of time, rather than feeling overwhelmed by having to study straight through the night.
- Some sleep is better than no sleep. As tempting as it may be to buy time until the cafeteria opens (waffles at 5:00 a.m. after an all-nighter can be almost irresistible!), your mind and body will function better on a small nap than on no sleep at all.
Keep in mind that cramming for tests at the last minute, in the case of an all-nighter for instance, may work in the short term, but many courses require cumulative tests during finals week. It is unlikely the cramming you did during your all-nighter will stick with you until semester’s end. Another reason to avoid all-night cramming sessions if you can.
Most importantly, be aware of what scientists call “sleep debt.” Give yourself time the following day to take a long nap, and plan on an early bedtime. Sleep debt can accrue quicker than you think, and can have dramatic effects on your academic performance. While it may be easier to believe you’re youth and vigor will carry you through, it’s wiser to listen to your body, and give it the catch-up sleep it needs after an all-nighter.