How to Do an All-Nighter

When I was a mechanical engineering student, I did all-nighters regularly. You’ve either done a few all-nighters already or you will. There’s a lot of things I did wrong, and through trial and error, I’ve learned how to do an all-nighter.


Here’s what I’ve learned:

(Disclaimer: This article is meant for informational purposes only. This is NOT medical advice. Refer to our Disclaimer page above for more information)


Here are some of my mistakes:

  • Drank coffee throughout the day prior to an all-nighter, which made me extremely tired at night
  • Never PLANNED my all-nighters properly
  • Watched way too many internet videos throughout the night to take the edge off and completely killed my energy and motivation
    • More on this topic in a future blog post
  • Made all-nighters a habit


Decide If You Need to Do An All-Nighter

An all-nighter is an all-out, last ditch effort to complete something before a looming deadline. You must sacrifice an entire night of sleep and risk your health to an extent to finish up what you need to get done.


This should never be something that you do regularly.


Is the situation desperate enough to warrant it?


An all-nighter should be done once every 2 weeks, at the most. Even this is too often and is an indication of overall poor planning and time mismanagement.


Plan The All-Nighter: All-Nighter Foods, How to Use Caffeine, and Daylight Exposure

An all-nighter requires planning to be very effective. In particular, don’t consume any caffeine the day of an all-nighter. Caffeine puts you in a stimulated, energized state. You will eventually have to rest when the caffeine wears off. Even if you try to take another shot of caffeine at night, it won’t have nearly as much effectiveness, will wear off quickly, and will make you feel even more tired.


All-Nighter Foods

Here are the best foods for staying awake during an all-nighter: all-nighter foods. Make sure you have at least some of them available to you at the start of an all-nighter:

  1. Whole wheat or whole grain breads. Slow digesting carbs. They won’t cause an energy crash and can help maintain energy throughout the night.
    • Oatmeal
  2. Trail mix. Same rationale as #1
    • Raisins
    • Peanuts, almonds, cashews, etc.
  3. Protein and fat. Same rationale as #1 and #2.
    • Meat
    • Beans
    • Protein powder
    • Creatine
    • Olive oil. Just drink a tablespoon of it.
  4. Fruits and vegetables
    • Beets will make you more clear-headed and allow for sharper thinking.
  5. Plenty of water. Same rationale as #4.

I eat food during planned rest sessions. Don’t eat large meals. Stick with light snacks spread out throughout the night.


Eat light snacks spread throughout the night.


This is the same reason people eat 6 small meals throughout their day instead of 3 square meals; it helps maintain their energy.


How to Use Caffeine for an All-Nighter

Contrary to popular belief, caffeine can benefit an all-nighter, if used correctly.


First, don’t drink any caffeine the day of an all-nighter.


Caffeine puts you in a stimulated, energized state. You will eventually have to rest when the caffeine wears off. Even if you try to take another shot of caffeine, it won’t have nearly as much effectiveness, will wear off very quickly, and will make you even more tired after.


Human beings evolved to be idle and at rest most of the time, with brief moments of all-out physical activity like running away from a wild animal or chasing after an animal during a hunt. Being in a heightened state all day from coffee will require a rest period at the end of the day, which you can’t afford.


If possible, don’t take any caffeine days in advance before an all-nighter. The more days you go caffeine-free, the more effective it will be during the all-nighter.


Second, don’t worry about consuming too much. An all-nighter is meant to be an all-out last ditch effort to finish something before a deadline. 3 cups should be more than enough for a single all-nighter. I wouldn’t go over that amount though. I personally only need 2.


Third, coffee is a diuretic; it stimulates urination, and this is believed to dehydrate you, impede blood flow, and make you feel sluggish.


This is a myth for the most part. The water in a cup of coffee is generally enough to balance out the water loss from urination.


You feel sluggish, you get jitters, and you may even get cold hands and feet because of vasoconstriction: your blood vessels constrict and blood is unable to circulate efficiently throughout your body. This becomes especially noticeable after drinking multiple cups of coffee in a short time.


The best way to compensate for this is to eat beets. Beets are vasodilators (expand blood vessels and make blood flow easier). The increased blood flow will stop the jitters and make you more clear-headed and allow for sharper thinking.


However, it’s still generally good practice to drink plenty of water.


Prior Daylight Exposure

People who’ve had significant exposure to natural light in a given 24 hour period show a greater alertness and wakefulness compared with people who’ve been mostly exposed to artificial, indoor light.


Try to spend as much time outside as possible on the day of an all-nighter. The best way to make this happen is to study outdoors, eat outdoors, and/or go on a brief jog outside during the day.


During the All-Nighter: Dress for Success and Setting The Right Temperature

This section will go over setting up your environment to maximize productivity during an all-nighter.


Dress for Success

How you dress can affect your mental state and mood.


Don’t dress in pajamas or clothes you normally sleep in. It sets your mind into preparation for going to sleep.


To maximize productivity, dress as if you’re going out.  


I personally like to dress business casual. The formality associated with dressing this way keeps my mind alert and focused.  Instead of a button-down shirt, a polo shirt tucked in to a pair of slacks or khakis is perfect.


Set The Right Temperature

The ideal sleep temperature for humans to maximize productivity is 70-77 degrees Fahrenheit. Too cold, and you’ll be distracted. Too warm, and you’ll be too relaxed.


As an all-nighter progresses, you’ll find that you feel progressively colder.


This is due to your body’s circadian rhythm, which regulates your overall energy. You feel warm and your body temperature rises during the day when you need to be alert and energized. You feel cold and your body temperature lowers when you can rest. Your body naturally wants to rest during the night, so it lowers your body temperature. Just put on a sweatshirt or jacket and continue working.


Sprinter’s Mentality vs. Marathon Mentality: How to Approach an All-Nighter

Refer to my blog post “Working Smart vs. Working Hard: Mindless Busy Work vs. Productivity” for a detailed overview of both mentalities. Basically, it means either having cycles of focused, intense work and short rest intervals, or working at a steady, consistent pace with no breaks.


For an all-nighter, I would generally recommend the Sprinter’s Mentality with much longer work sessions: at least 1-2 hours, while keeping the rest sessions at 3-5 minutes long.


The rest sessions are perfect times to have light snacks of the all-nighter foods I previously mentioned.


The Marathon Mentality creates the illusion of unlimited time when used during an all-nighter. The illusion of unlimited time will inevitably lead to procrastination.


On an all-nighter, procrastination could very easily lead to failure of completing your work on time.


Benefits of Low-to-Moderate Intensity Exercise

While on a Sprinter’s all-nighter, I also highly recommend incorporating brief exercise into your rest sessions.


Human beings naturally experience greater cognitive activity during physical movement since we evolved to only move during emergencies like running away from a tiger that wants to kill us.


Essentially, movement = wake up.


The exercises should be anything that can be done in a limited open space and have moderate intensity, such as:

  • Jumping jacks: do consistently for the entire rest session
  • Pushups: low reps- no more than 20
  • Bodyweight squats: low reps- no more than 20
  • Lunges: low reps- no more than 20
  • Sit ups: low reps- no more than 20
  • Stretches


Music and Movies during an All-Nighter

These are productivity hacks that I learned from Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans:


Movies and music can be used during work to induce a focused, meditative state.


Instead of playing an entire track of multiple different albums, only listen to 1-3 albums repeatedly. 


During meditation, people say ‘ohm” to themselves repeatedly as a mantra to help focus. This technique with the music has a similar affect.


I listen to:

  1. DragonBall Z Budokai OST- Battle Theme #4: Challengers
  2. Transformers: The Movie- “You’ve Got the Touch” by Stan Bush
  3. “No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper


I create a playlist on YouTube and include videos of the above 3 songs, and repeatedly it.


Additionally, I watch a movie on silent while listening to the music if I’m by myself. The movie will reduce the feeling of isolation. This is especially useful for people who work best in groups.


The movie should be one that you think is interesting, but isn’t one of your favorites. For example, The Dark Knight is one of my favorite movies, so using it would be a bad idea since I’ll be too distracted by watching it.


I personally watch Hot Fuzz. I think it’s interesting, but it’s not one of my favorite movies and doesn’t distract me.


As I’m writing this on my laptop, I have the 3 albums playing in loop on my phone and I play the movie in a separate window on mute.


To maximize focus, ONLY play the same 1-3 albums and 1 movie repeatedly for a single all-nighter. Don’t choose different ones.


The Morning After an All-Nighter…

Don’t drink any coffee at this point.


You just need to get through the rest of the day. To maintain wakefulness for the rest of the day:

  1. Drink water consistently.
  2. Consume fats from whole milk (if you aren’t allergic), olive oil, and/or almonds.
  3. Stay in brightly lit environments as much as possible.

It’s also a given that you should sleep as much as possible throughout the day, whenever you get the chance.


All-Nighter Recovery

Sleep. That’s all…


Just kidding.


But you do need to catch up on sleep.


Ideally, spend the next 1-2 days sleeping whenever you feel even the slightest bit tired. If your schedule doesn’t allow that, extend your daily sleep as much as possible until you feel back to normal.


An all-nighter done once every 2 weeks maximum shouldn’t affect you. More frequently than this, and you’ll start experiencing negative effects from sleep deprivation.


Final Thoughts

So, these are tips for getting the most out of an all-nighter.


I actually wrote this blog post during an all-nighter, and a lot of these tips were implemented as I was writing!


Remember: an all-nighter should be a last resort, a last ditch effort to do what needs to be done before a looming deadline.


Put down your opinions in the Comments section below, and if you haven’t already, subscribe to my free newsletter.


All the best,



Thumbnail image by Matthew Kane

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