Being productive on less sleep is something most of us want to pull off. Engineers, software developers, entrepreneurs, business executives, students, researchers, new parents, and anyone else who needs to do more on less sleep. That’s what I’ll go over now:
You’re a new parent. Your kid is balling their eyes out and shrieking loud enough to wake the dead. You have a project due in less than 24 hours and you have at least 48 hours of work left to do. You’re a graduate or PhD student with a thesis to write.
Sometimes, sleep becomes a cardinal sin. You have a galaxy-spanning mountain of shit to do in a fraction of the time you need to do it remotely well. I’ve been there. The obvious answer is less sleep and greater work output, whether that’s a single all-nighter or an extended period of less sleep.
I’ve written another blog post about doing all-nighters, so check that out too.
What if a single all-nighter isn’t enough? What if there’s just THAT much work to do? You’re up shit creek without a paddle. The only solution is to adapt your body for less sleep for the next few days while still maintaining optimal performance and productivity.
This is something you should do when you aren’t forced to sleep less, an investment. Prepare for when shit hits the fan. Like stock piling food, supplies and weapons in a nuclear fallout shelter Doomsday Prepper-style.
If you’re a college student, prepare for the inevitable all-nighter. You’re planning on having kids? Prepare for the nights when your newborn kid is balling their eyes out and needs you to be awake. If you’re a gamer, prepare for those marathon Call of Duty sessions on Friday night, and you’ll be tea-bagging and getting headshots all night.
Less sleep and more work for an extended period of time is essentially a high endurance exercise. Fighting through sleepiness, exhaustion, and stress to continue moving forward. That’s an accurate description of a marathon runner, a long-distance cyclist, and working for an extended period on less sleep. Developing high physical endurance is very useful for maintaining productivity and performance in these situations.
Human beings ARE capable of going about a week of very little sleep while maintaining productivity. Navy SEALS go through a “Hell Week” during their training, which involves 5 and a half days of continuous physical training and only 4 TOTAL hours of sleep. I know that’s an extreme and seemingly unrelated example, but it does show that high performance on very little sleep is in the realm of human capability.
Also, good physical endurance overall makes you healthier and less likely to get sick, and less sleep makes you more likely to get sick.
To extend on this point, do moderately low intensity cardio, like jumping jacks or knee raises, every hour or so during your no-sleep campaign to keep your heart pumping and your brain relatively functional.
In contrast to my all-nighter advice, you SHOULD NOT drink coffee during an extended period of less sleep. Reason? Coffee stimulates and energizes you, but it also burns you out. This doesn’t matter in normal situations since you’re able to sleep regularly. During several consecutive days of less sleep, coffee will give you a brief, minor energy boost followed by an epic energy crash that will make staying awake even harder.
You could just keep drinking coffee whenever you’re feeling tired or lethargic, but it’s not a good idea. First reason, drinking a lot of coffee causes jitters, anxiety, and impedes clear-headed thinking. Since you’re already running on less sleep, more hits to your thinking ability may as well turn you into a lobotomized monkey on ecstasy during a foggy day.
Second reason, lots of coffee will give you a stomach ache from the acidity, and make you have to piss a lot. Coffee is a diuretic, so it makes you piss like a race horse. Since coffee is 90% water, you won’t be dehydrated, but you will be taking lots of bathroom breaks. Getting up to piss every 30 minutes doesn’t help boost productivity.
Third, coffee generally puts you in a state of stress to energize you. Drinking lots of coffee for an extended period of time with less sleep means that you’ll be in stress state all the time. The human body can’t handle prolonged stress like this, and you’re heading down a disastrous road of adrenal fatigue and damage to your overall bodily function. At best, you’ll just have a massive energy crash and have to sleep for 12+ hours a day for a week. And nothing is worth causing damage to your health.
You’re mindset has a surprisingly high influence on how you feel. How you feel strongly influences your ability to maintain productivity in the face of stress and exhaustion. So by extension, your mindset influences your ability to get shit done on less sleep.
I unintentionally did this back in high school. I was generally a nervous, uptight, high-strung kid with social anxiety back then. On days when I was very sleep-deprived, 4 or less hours of sleep, I was extremely calm and relaxed at all times. No social anxiety. No nervousness during tests. I was ironically chill at a time when most people are crotchety and develop volcanic tempers. Also, my mom wouldn’t let me drink coffee back then, so this was the ONLY solution I had for sleep deprivation.
It’s like a part of me knew that I had no energy and that getting more nervous, uptight and high-strung would be the equivalent to redlining an airboat engine in the middle of a swamp.
It’s going to take some effort, but it makes a huge difference to your productivity.
I know that all sounds like a bunch of New Age, self-help book-style bullshit, but it does genuinely work in this case. And doesn’t make sense? You’re drowning in an ocean of cortisol and stress hormones from the lack of sleep. Becoming consciously negative, crotchety, and otherwise temperamental is only adding fuel to the raging wild fire of agony and unyielding irritation that is your current existence. Even if changing your mindset does jack shit for you, it certainly won’t make things worse.
Even putting your head down and dosing off for 15 to 30 minutes can give you enough energy to keep grinding away at work. Military personnel go through long periods of severe sleep deprivation during their training, like the US Army Rangers. By severe sleep deprivation, I mean they were able to fall asleep WHILE STANDING UP. To survive this ordeal, the ranger trainees would take intermittent naps whenever possible for as long as possible.
Take naps, however brief, whenever and wherever you can. It’s as simple as putting your head down on your arms when sitting at a desk. Nap for 20-30 minutes if you can, but no longer than that. Longer, and you’ll start entering the deeper stages of sleep. Once you wake back up, you won’t feel rested. Brief “power naps” of 20-30 minutes actually make you feel rested.
This isn’t meant to be a health plan, just a few general tips for working on less sleep. There’s already a million diet plans out there. Eat this, don’t eat that, eat six small meals a day, eat only one meal a day. None of that is all that important. There are two main tenants to maintain productivity during times of less sleep.
First, don’t eat too much or too little. Both extremes will distract you, lower your energy, and keep you from being productive. A good way to avoid either extreme is to eat slowly and stop just before becoming full. Don’t feel the need to continue eating just to finish everything in front of you. And have a light snack whenever hunger is too distracting.
Second, eat foods that are low on the glycemic index. The glycemic index is a measure of foods based on how much they raise your blood sugar levels. A high glycemic index means it raises your blood sugar level high, which leads to a massive energy increase followed by an equally massive energy crash. Anything with a lot of sugar (candy, ice cream, cake) and white-colored carbs like bread, rice, pasta, etc. is high on the glycemic index.
A low glycemic index doesn’t significantly raise blood sugar levels, and maintains a consistent level of energy. Fruits, vegetables, proteins, dairy, and brown-colored rice, bread, pasta, etc. are low on the glycemic index.
We want to avoid either extreme by sticking with foods that are low on the glycemic index. (Link)
I have a bunch of blog posts on nofap and beating porn addiction. This shit drains your energy and kills your productivity and drive even when you aren’t running on less sleep. It’s going to all but cripple your ability to function if you are sleep deprived.
Think about it. What happens after you bust a nut? You usually go through a drop in energy, and you feel sleepy. When you’re tense, hyper, or nervous, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But during a time like this, it’ll make you even more tired and sluggish, which defeats the whole purpose of doing more on less sleep.
Splash some cold water on your face from a sink. It doesn’t make a huge difference by any means, but the rush of cold is always handy to clear your head and wake you up a little. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, so it’s handy to do this every few hours.
That’s how you do more on less sleep. Again, you should only pull this off for a few days, a week tops. But I know shit happens, and you may need to go a lot longer. If that’s the case, good luck, and I hope this is useful to you.
Moving forward, I want to go over ways of “hacking” your sleep, so that you sleep less than 8 hours a day and still be refreshed and energized without having to guzzle down coffee. There’s definitely ways of doing this, and I’m excited to explore these methods with you.
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All the best,