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It’s 7pm. The .Net programming project you were supposed to be working on all week is due at 8am the next morning. You haven’t even started it. This is when an all-nighter is the only option.

University can be tough, but situations like that described above can also happen to you when you enter the workforce. Deadlines arrive sooner than you expected. Project timelines can push you right to the brink. While it’s not at all healthy to do very often, sometimes pulling an all-nighter to hit those deadlines or to finish that college project is the only option you have left.

Unfortunately, this is more commonly an issue for Computer Science students who have complex programming projects to work on. It’s far too easy at University to get distracted by parties, pizza-deliveries, and romantic pursuits. Many times, those time-intensive programming projects get put off to the last minute. Here are the most effective techniques to push away the cobwebs and awaken your mind for a night of intense coding.

Transform Your Environment

Programming involves intense focus and concentration, which means that you need to have an environment that is conducive to that. Before we get to how you can prepare your body for an all-nighter, it’s important to consider your environment first.

A 1993 study published in the Journal of Obesity & Health found that TV viewing significantly lowered metabolic rate. You may have witnessed this yourself when watching TV for a long time caused you to become groggy. So first, turn off your TV, or trust me – you’ll be drawn into an unfortunate slumber!

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Second, turn up the AC.  Cold air increases your heart rate to improve circulation, and in effect gives you a boost of energy. At the same time, turn up all of the lights in the room and make sure the entire room you’re studying in is fully lit. Studies have found that brightly lit rooms helped peopel feel more alert and energized. This is even more true if you’re exposed to natural light, so if you can afford to buy a full-spectrum light bulb for your desk lamp – do it.

Finally, if you can manage it, work on your programming project with a friend, or work on your individual projects together. It is much more invigorating to study with a friend who you can bounce ideas off of occasionally, rather than working alone in a quiet room. Just make sure to avoid getting distracted by long conversations that make the hours slip away.

Awaken Your Body

The most effective tricks to pull an all-nighter are physical. The key is that you need to make sure your body and your mind are fully alert during the critical hours.  This is especially true for programmers, who need to be able to focus not only on developing complex code, but also need to be alert enough to spot software bugs inside of that code.

Step 1 is to have a very big breakfast. Eat well, have a normal lunch, and then in the lead-up to your all-night session, only eat snacks when you feel hungry – and only enough to curb your appetite. You don’t want to divert any blood flow from your brain or your body to your stomach for digestion as you enter your programming cram-session.

Step 2 is to schedule about an hour during the day of the all-night session to take a nap for roughly 30 minutes. Make sure you schedule it at least 8 hours before you’d normally go to bed.

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This will rejuvenate your mind and body in the lead-up to the all-nighter.

Step 3 – About two hours before the all-nighter, go to the gym and do a light workout session. This should be 30-60 minutes of an aerobic activity that gets your blood flowing and energizes you.  Once you shower up, you should be about an hour away from the start of your study time.

Step 4 – On the way to wherever you’ll be working on your project, pick up fruits to snack on, as well as peppermint gum.  Also make sure you have a good supply of coffee or caffeinated tea, and a good supply of cold water (or a source of cold water where you’ll be working).

Now it’s time to dive into your all-night programming session.

Awaken Your Mind

Anything as tedious as writing software can dull the mind and put you to sleep, so right before diving into a project like this, you need to invigorate the mind. Find a video on YouTube that will get you absolutely inspired to succeed with your project. There are a lot of great motivational videos 8 Inspirational Videos That Will Instantly Pump Up Your Motivation 8 Inspirational Videos That Will Instantly Pump Up Your Motivation How do you feel about motivational videos? You may think that they’re nothing more than glorified, digital pep rallies where overly optimistic people preach empty words of success, victory, and ultimately happiness. And to some... Read More out there – find a good one and watch it roughly 15 minutes before you’re ready to get to work.

One of my favorites was definitely Rocky Balboa’s inspirational speech to his son.

By this point, trust me, you’re going to be well rested, energized from your workout, and completely pumped — ready to take on your project like nothing else. Awesome. Dive into it, but understand that it’s only the beginning of a very long night. There are still things you need to do to maintain this level of energy through the night.

Aside from setting up the environment lighting and temperature, you’re also going to want to have something available other than your project that keeps your mind engaged. This will be different for everyone. Some people like to have music in the background for this. Other people will listen to a podcast or a radio talk show. Another idea is to set up frequent breaks every 30 minutes to get on Facebook or Twitter to interact with friends. Or pick up the phone and call a friend who you know is staying up all night too. Play a few minutes of a video game. Just limit these breaks to a few minutes, or you’ll lose track of time and blow your schedule.

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While you’re working, don’t forget to:

  • Drink coffee at the very start of your study session. This should kick in about an hour into your programming binge, and last a couple of hours.
  • After your first coffee, start drinking cold water constantly. Not only does the cold fluid keep your blood vessels hydrated and your circulation up, but it’ll have the fortunate side effect of forcing you to get up and walk to the bathroom every 15 minutes or so. That brief activity will also help you stay awake.
  • Avoid energy drinks. They typically provide a nice initial boost, but the extra ingredients – and usually extra caffeine – will result in an earlier and more dramatic “crash”.
  • Snack on fruits – preferably citrus like oranges – but apples, pears or similar fruits will do. You’re looking for a healthy sugar rush that will also keep your stomach satiated enough so you don’t get hungry.

Once the morning arrives and you’re approaching the end of your programming project, slow down on the fruit, don’t drink any more coffee or water, and slow down on the mental and physical breaks. You want to allow your body to wind down so you can unwind (but don’t fall asleep). Get to class in time to submit your finished project!

Set Up a Recovery Period

Once you’ve accomplished your goal and your project is submitted, you’re obviously going to feel exhausted. You were up all night, and now you’re up all of the next day. Why not just go to bed at 2-3pm?

The reason is that if you do, your entire circadian rhythm is going to be messed up. One trick that I’ve learned from fellow travelers who often have to overcome big time-zone shifts, is a fast method to “reset” your sleep cycle.  This involves forcing yourself to stay up the entire next day (after your all-nighter) and going to bed as close to your normal sleep time as possible.

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Whatever you do, avoid driving during the later part of that second day. Understand that the moment you close your eyes, you’re likely to fall asleep, so avoid any activity that requires your full attention. Just reach your bed time, curl up under the covers, and dive into 8-10 hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep.

You could also try the food-fasting circadian clock reset that Harvard Medical School researchers discovered in 2009. I’ve never tried it myself, but I’ve heard it works wonders.

Finally (and probably most importantly), the fact that you were just forced to pull an all-nighter should serve as an indication that you need to re-think your time management Free Up Your Time With Google Calendar, Blog & Status Updates Free Up Your Time With Google Calendar, Blog & Status Updates Read More skills. Consider techniques and tools like Pomorodo Pomodoro Web App Tomato.es Is Time Management Made Simple Pomodoro Web App Tomato.es Is Time Management Made Simple Can't focus? Get to work, now. Tomato.es is a free Pomodoro timer you can use directly in your browser – and it's possibly the best such app I've ever used. The Pomodoro technique is simple:... Read More or other time management tools Manage Your Life with Free Online Time Management Tools Manage Your Life with Free Online Time Management Tools Read More that will help you avoid this last-resort type of scenario. The last thing you want to do is pull this kind of all-nighter often, or you could end up with serious physical and psychological side-effects over the long term.

Have you ever had to pull off one of these all-night sessions? What other tips and techniques have you used to keep yourself awake? Share some of your advice in the comments section below.

Man sleeping via Maltsev Semion on Shutterstock, Man Playing Video Games via Perig on Shutterstock, College Student Sleeping via Arek Malang on Shutterstock, Student Worn Out via Aceshot1 on Shutterstock

  1. Richard Wad
    May 27, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    This entire article could have been written using but a single word: methamphetamine. It makes all of the tips here superfluous consumers of valuable time which would be better spent GSD.

    I kid... but not really, lol. Save your flames about not wanting to end up a toothless meth whore. I know you don't want to.

  2. Justin P
    May 14, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Everyone listen to what Ryan has to say on this subject, because I'm pretty sure he never sleeps. He's an expert.

    • Saikat B
      May 15, 2014 at 2:38 pm

      True. But I don't see him doing any aerobic activity ;)

      I think steps 3-4 are really valid. Little sleep bouts (10 minutes or so) has got me through the all-nighters. The problem as always is walking around like a zombie the next day.

  3. mickey
    May 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    listening to the right kind of music helps too.

    http://www.musicforprogramming.net - "A series of mixes intended for listening while programming to aid concentration and increase productivity."

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