How to Pull an All-Nighter: Tips from the Special Forces

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 5, 2013 · 54 comments

in Health & Sports, Wellness


The all-nighter. It’s kind of a rite of passage for college students, especially during finals. But even older adults sometimes need to pull one — finishing up a work project or driving through the night. Even I’ve pulled a good number of all-nighters these last six years, writing up a blog post for the next day. Given the fact that I’m my own boss and don’t technically have any set “deadlines,” I don’t know if this makes me crazy, or dedicated, or maybe crazy dedicated. Probably just crazy.

Pulling an all-nighter isn’t the most healthy or desirable thing in the world (although it can actually produce feelings of euphoria), and doing so should be avoided whenever possible. But even the most organized student sometimes comes face-to-face with the fact that their paper is going to require more hours to complete than there are hours left in the day.

To get a unique perspective on the ins and outs of pulling a successful all-nighter, we asked a group of former Soldiers, Marines, and Special Forces veterans to share the methods that got them through combat and a host of night-ops. These men – who are all currently on staff at the BluCore Shooting Center in Denver, CO — served in the Navy SEALS, Green Berets, and the Army and Marine Infantries. (They’ve asked that we only use their first names for purposes of anonymity). For these vets, staying awake through the night was a matter of life and death, but their tips apply equally well to the civilian who needs to plow through a work or school project. In addition to their advice, we’ve provided tips from sleep experts and researchers.

All-Nighters: Avoid Them Whenever Possible

The first tip in pulling an all-nighter is actually to avoid doing it whenever you can! Depriving yourself of sleep has all sorts of deleterious effects on your body and mind, including:

  • Decreases concentration. Sleep deprivation slows down the area of the brain responsible for concentration. Not good for focused study sessions.
  • Hurts working and long-term memory. Your working memory is called upon for complex tasks where you have to pay attention to one thing while holding a bunch of other things at the forefront of your mind. Not only does sleep-deprivation impair this mental “scratchpad,” it diminishes your long-term memory as well. It’s during sleep that our recent memories are transferred to the neocortex to be solidified and stored. So all those facts you memorized through the night might not even be there come test time in the morning.
  • Weakens immune system. While pulling an all-nighter may help you get that term paper done, you do so at the risk of getting sick right before your American History final later in the week.
  • Cortisol increases. Pulling an all-nighter will probably make you feel stressed and on edge. That’s because your body’s level of cortisol (a hormone released in reaction to stress) increases whenever you’re sleep deprived. Elevated stress levels are no bueno for Spanish exams.
  • Testosterone decreases. As we discussed in our series on increasing testosterone, our bodies make nearly all the testosterone they need for the day while we’re sleeping. Add the increased cortisol levels (another testosterone killer) and you’ve got a recipe for feeling like less of a man. Keep in mind, testosterone isn’t just for building huge muscles. Men with optimal levels of T have sharper minds and are more confident than their low-T brethren, two things that come in handy for all sorts of tasks.

Due to these mind-melting effects, my suggestion for students is to not pull an all-nighter when you can avoid it, and when you can’t, try to reserve it for writing papers. If you’re cramming for an exam, you’re probably better off putting in several hours of intense study, and then getting some shut-eye — maybe you won’t cover as much material, but you’ll have a better chance of remembering what you did study. With a paper, sleep deprivation will still cause your writing to suffer, but there’s no getting around the fact that finishing it will require a certain number of hours — your paper won’t magically finish itself if you leave it half-done to hit the sack.

How to Pull an All-Nighter When You Must

Alright, so pulling an all-nighter isn’t an effective or sustainable study or work strategy. But sometimes our best-laid plans go awry and an all-nighter becomes necessary. When it does, here’s how to stay awake for the duration and get the most out of your round-the-clock push.

Get Some Sleep in the Tank

“Make sure you don’t get behind on sleep. When you know an all-nighter is coming, see if you can bank a few extra hours in advance. That makes the well deeper when you have to dip into sleep reserves. This really works.” –Eric, former Navy SEAL

If you know in advance you’ll be pulling all-nighter, try to go to bed earlier and/or wake up later in the days leading up to it.

If you didn’t see your all-nighter coming, you can still fill up your sleep tank with what researchers call the “prophylactic nap.” Taking a nap of any kind boosts your memory, creativity, mood, alertness, and cognitive performance, and preventive naps have been found to be more effective at staving off the negative effects of sleep deprivation than multiple doses of caffeine.

When it comes to naps, longer is usually better, but in the short-term, a 180-minute nap (which gives you two cycles that include all the valuable stages of sleep) has been found to be no more effective in increasing cognitive performance than a 90-minute nap (just one full cycle). According to nap expert Dr. Sara C. Mednick, an hour and a half is the preventive nap sweet spot because “it will take you through a full cycle of sleep and bring you out in REM or Stage 2 Sleep, allowing you to avoid sleep inertia” (the grogginess you experience when waking up from a deep slumber). Mednick recommends taking your nap between 1-3 pm or 1-3 am, as these are “’perfect nap’ zones, where nap cycles will be ideally balanced between REM and SWS” (Slow Wave Sleep).

Keep in mind that the effects of a prophylactic nap have an expiration date — they only last 8-10 hours.

For more on what these sleep terms mean, the amazing benefits of napping, and how to optimize your naps for different situations, check out this post.

The All-Nighter Classic: Caffeine

“Caffeine works best when you are not already abusing it. If you drink only a couple cups a day you don’t need to worry. If you drink a LOT of coffee throughout the day, don’t expect the coffee at night to work quite as well.” -Eric

All of the SPEC-OPS guys we talked to unsurprisingly recommended consuming some sort of caffeine throughout the night. The trick, according to all of them, is to lay off the caffeine the day before and the day leading up to your all-nighter. Your body and mind build up a tolerance to caffeine, so if you’ve been ceaselessly pounding back the coffee all week long, it won’t have as strong of an effect during your round-the-clock vigil.

Eric also recommended mixing some sort of fat into your coffee, like grass-fed butter (which contains more healthy Omega-3 fatty acids than the grain-fed variety) or coconut oil. He says it “helps prolong the caffeine buzz.” When you add some sort of fat to your coffee, you’re adding in medium-chain triglycerides, or MCT. MCT may provide an extra shot of lasting energy. This coffee + butter concoction can also satisfy your hunger for a few hours without having to eat anything else.

Besides coffee, there are of course a wide variety of energy shots and drinks available. Whichever you choose, go sugar-free to avoid a crash. Hunter, a former Marine infantryman, recommended Rip Its — “a sort of energy drink that was ALL over, over there!”

I’ve used Military Energy Gum (formerly Stay Alert Gum) with success. Designed by Wrigley for the U.S. military, each piece of gum contains 100 mg of caffeine (for comparison, a 12 oz Starbucks coffee is about 260 mg), and through oral absorption it gets into your system faster than pills or liquids. It starts working right away and keeps you going through the long night.

No matter what caffeine-delivery system you choose, employ it discriminately. Instead of ingesting one big dose less often, which will lead to energy crashes, take smaller doses more frequently. Shoot for about 100-150 milligrams every 2-3 hours.

Not Surgeon General Approved: Nicotine

“Is it healthy? No. But neither is pulling an all-nighter. Nicotine has been used by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines for DECADES. It keeps you busy and keeps you awake, to a degree. But, as with coffee, if you are used to dipping a can a day, then that late night dip won’t have much of an effect on you. If you are only an occasional ‘dipper’ and have a dip or two during the night to finish a project by a deadline, it can really help.” –Jeff, former Green Beret

The dip tip came up a lot from the Spec-Ops guys we talked to and I’m passing it along simply because it’s interesting. If you’re staying awake to potentially dodge a bullet, than nicotine might be the lesser of two evils. But if the only danger you’re facing is getting a C in Calculus, then I’d personally avoid the dip and cigarettes. Sleep experts and doctors would agree.

Eat Light and Lay Off the Carbs

A large, carb-heavy meal leads to a crash. Sometimes, even eating at all leads to a crash. You need to fuel for combat operations, so missing meals isn’t a great option. But, pulling an all-nighter to finish a project at work or to drive through the night really doesn’t require any ‘fuel.’” -Eric

Sleep experts concur with this advice. When staying up all night, avoid carbs and focus on eating protein and fats (nuts, beef jerky, etc.). Keeps you full and provides sustained energy without the crash.

Get Moving

“Work out, walking or even working while standing. There is a proven physiological response that follows a workout. Just don’t work out too hard right before your all-nighter as this could make you tired.” –Jeff

“If I was on some type of outdoor guard duty — TCP, gate guard, fire guard, or motor pool guard — I would walk around. If I couldn’t walk around I did push-ups, sit-ups, squats or some other quick exercise. The ability to keep the blood flowing was the easiest way to stay awake for long periods of time.” –Rob, former Army Infantry

I’ve found physical activity to be one of the most effective ways of getting through an all-nighter. I typically try to take breaks every 30 minutes to get up and walk. And I alternate sitting with using a standing desk.

Make Yourself Uncomfortable

Jeff recommends pinching your thigh: “A little bit of stimulation to the pain receptors!” Matt, a former Air Force mechanic and Army infantryman, prefers to pinch his eyebrow.

Besides pinching, another way you can give yourself a dose of discomfort is to use cold water. When you’re feeling drowsy, go to the bathroom and splash some on your face. If you really need a pick-me-up, you can even take a cold shower. Try turning down the thermostat too – keeping your car or study area chilly will help you stay alert.

Misery Loves Company

It can also be very helpful to have some company. In the military, you could find yourself in a situation that required you to be ‘on-watch’ while others were sleeping. Often, this would happen after a strenuous day’s work. If you did the watch alone, it could get boring. This could lead to sleep if you were not careful. Sometimes staying awake with someone else really helps.” -Eric

Having someone else around to occasionally chat and joke with can do wonders in waking up your brain. They can also keep you accountable about not dozing off.

Over-the-Counter “Speed”

“We were once given some form of legal/militarized ‘speed’ but it was only used in testing. They gave it to us on base (while in Iraq I believe) and then monitored our vitals throughout the evening. We never were actually issued it for an op. I know the Air Force has been giving this to pilots on long flights for a long time (or used to). The funniest part about being on the ‘legal speed’ — EVERYONE had a PR (personal record) of one form or another while working out that night!” -Eric

File this one was under the “really interesting if not (yet) practical for the civilian” category.

The drug Eric is referring to was most likely something called Modafinil (also known as Provigil). Militaries around the world have been experimenting with it as a way to extend soldiers’ ability to function without sleep. Modafinil was originally developed to treat narcolepsy, but researchers have found that it allows normal folks to go without sleep and not suffer any of the detrimental effects. In fact, many Modafinil users feel it gives them an almost superhuman focus. And unlike other stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, or amphetamines, Modafinil is less addictive, doesn’t interrupt normal sleeping patterns, and doesn’t cause jitters or post-use crashes. For the reasons above, the U.S. Air Force has been giving Modafinil to their flight crews on overnight missions.

There’s a small but growing group of high-achieving civilians (Wall Street bankers, entrepreneurs, athletes) who are turning to Modafinil to give themselves a mental edge and to help them power through their busy schedules.

Modafinil is available by prescription only, so if you wanted to try it, you’d have to talk to your doctor. But because it’s primarily used to treat narcolepsy or to help those who work irregular hours, he or she will probably be leery about writing you a script just so you can sarge through a night of studying.

While the research doesn’t show any short-term detrimental side effects from using the drug, there’s very little research on its effects long-term. Scientists also aren’t exactly sure how Modafinil works. They just know that it does. For those reasons, researchers don’t recommend Modafinil for off-prescription use. But if you’re like me, and find the subject of cognitive enhancing drugs — so-called nootropics — quite fascinating, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the coming research.

Recovering from an All-Nighter and Paying Back Your Sleep Debt

When you accumulate a sleep debt – the deficit created when you sleep fewer hours than your body needs – you get hit with the myriad of negative effects mentioned above. Fortunately, paying back your sleep debt can erase these harmful consequences.

Staying Alert the Day After

Eric said that he and his fellow Navy SEALs would have periods where they’d work every night, and then sleep during the day; he admires the infantrymen “who didn’t have the luxury of sleeping all day like a lot of us SEALs did!”

You won’t always have the luxury of going right into recovery mode after you’ve been up all night either, as in times when you finish a final in the morning, but still have another one slotted for the afternoon. So let’s first talk about how to make it through the day after your all-nighter. In addition to continuing the tips mentioned above – consuming caffeine wisely, keeping moving, avoiding carbs – try these tactics as well:

  • Nap strategically. Even a very short mid-day nap will take some of the edge off your sleep deprivation. But you have to do it strategically. When you’re tired, you’ll enter more quickly into deep, REM sleep once you nod off. If you awaken from this stage you’ll suffer from sleep inertia and feel even more tired than before. So limit your naps to just 20 minutes or less. Consider making it a “caffeine nap” too. You down a cup of coffee or other caffeinated beverage and then immediately hunker down for a 15-20 minute nap. The caffeine clears your body of adenosine, a chemical which makes you sleepy. It takes a while for the caffeine to circulate through your system, so it doesn’t affect the quality of the nap. Instead, it works in tandem with the refreshment you would feel upon awakening from a normal power nap – making it easier to get up and get going.
  • Stay hydrated. Keeping your system flushed with water will make you feel much better.
  • Stay under the lights. Work in the brightest light possible; dim light will make you drowsy. What’s even better is exposing yourself to blue light. Mark’s Daily Apple recently had a great post on how blue light has been proven to “improve our cognitive abilities, including memory, alertness, reaction time, and executive function.” Definitely benefits you’ll need after (or during) an all-nighter!

You’re going to feel your absolute worst about 24 hours after your usual wake-up time. But your body may naturally give you a second-wind around 10 am and again between 6-7 pm, so if you have anything particularly difficult to tackle that day, try to save it for those windows.

Avoid driving the day after an all-nighter; driving sleep deprived is just as bad as driving drunk. And just like being drunk, you usually don’t realize how truly impaired you are.

The Road to Recovery

Once you’re able to knock off for the day, it’s time to start recovering from your all-nighter and recouping your sleep debt so you can get back to being your sharp, healthy, energetic self as quickly as possible.

Fortunately, a one-to-one repayment is not necessary. That is, if you skipped your usual 8 hours of sleep, you don’t need to sleep 16 hours the next night in order to erase your sleep debt. When you’re sleep deprived, a reflex kicks in that allows you to sleep longer and more deeply in order to accelerate the recovery process.

There’s no strict calculator for how much extra sleep you’ll need to make up your deficit, so the best thing to do is to simply let your body tell you what it needs. Go to bed whenever you feel tired (but stay up until at least 9 pm so you don’t awake in the middle of the night), and then allow yourself to wake up naturally – don’t set your alarm clock. Keep this up until you’re back to feeling well-rested. College students often have the luxury of this approach, but if you have more of a regular schedule to keep, the best way to recover is to tack on an extra 1-2 hours of sleep each night until you feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed again.

The most important thing is to return to a regular sleep schedule as soon as possible. One all-nighter won’t kill you, but chronic sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems like obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Bottom line: use the all-nighter only when necessary and don’t make it a habit!


A big thank you to BluCore Shooting Center for rounding up these tips for us from their experienced, veteran staff. BluCore was founded by two Navy SEALs and features a shooting range and training courses. Check out their online store and if you’re in the Denver area, go pay them a visit!

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Vince December 5, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Interesting read. Haven’t had to do an all nighter in a very long time, luckily. I definitely will refer to this article if I had to though!

2 Doug December 5, 2013 at 10:51 pm

I am in the midst of pulling an all-nighter tonight to study for a Physics 2 exam… Coincidence? Hmm… Good tips!

3 Tony Gonzo December 5, 2013 at 11:19 pm

Drink a lot of water. Getting up to pee forces you to get up, move around, get the blood flowing and breaks up the time you’re spending doing whatever it is you’re having to stay up doing. This may not be feasible if you’re in an LP/OP unless you have a couple of widemouth Gatorade bottles handy.

4 DFoltz December 5, 2013 at 11:21 pm

While the warning with regards to the dangers of dip/cigarettes is warranted (being a dangerous an highly addictive drug), it should be noted that most of the harm from tobacco is from the components which aren’t nicotine. I spent some time looking at the research once, and it seems that typical use of straight nicotine is probably comparable to heavy caffeine use, though it can be really hard to tell very much about this type of thing.

Anyone interested in occasionally using nicotine as a drug should seriously check out the various smoking cessation products.

5 Shane December 5, 2013 at 11:38 pm

I work as an RCMP Dispatcher up in British Columbia, and naturally, all-nighters happen multiple times a week. It was during one of these nocturnal shifts that I discovered the Art of Manliness! Brett, I still use your articles to engage my mind when the radios (temporarily) stop chirping at me! Please keep ‘em coming! I think I’ve read nearly everything at this point. Haha.

As far as catching up goes, get as much as you can, whenever you can. It makes all the difference.

6 DD December 5, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Wow this article was almost perfectly timed for me…I’m about to go in for my second full shift today at work. I just wish I had been given notice before today that I was working two shifts so I could implement the advice given. Next time I guess.

Thanks for putting out the great articles – keep it up.


7 RIley December 6, 2013 at 12:13 am

Used to plan on all-nighters once a week. Yerba Matte, cold walks or push ups, and an occasional cigarette (not an endorsement) got me through.

When courting my wife in college, I’d have class and work through the week days. I’d enjoy her company weeknights and Saturdays. Sunday mornings I’d go to church, take a quick nap, and then study on through the night till test time Monday mornings.

The tools/drugs (caffeine, nicotene, etc.) work. But too, I think drive/necessity/want helps you get over the psychological idea of, “whoa, I’m staying up!” As a father and night shift worker now, I’ve thoroughly gotten over that mental hump of a 24+ hour day once every couple weeks. Nicotene’s been nixed; caffeine’s minimal; and now, more than anything, the will power/skill’s what I’d say is my more utilized tool.

8 Wes December 6, 2013 at 12:42 am

Hold your breath.

On late night drives, or after long periods, where physical activity isn’t very viable, I hold my breath.

The first or second time of holding your breath to the limit won’t quite bring you back to full alertness, but the third and fourth time usually do.

I think it has a double effect of triggering your basic survival instincts (breathing being tied to living and all), and giving you something primal to focus on.

Works great, and it’s a good trainer for your self control as well.

9 KFM December 6, 2013 at 1:09 am

This article is spot on.

I work two 24hr shifts a week at an EMS agency and I’m usually up the entire shift due to a heavy call volume and miscellaneous details that need to be completed during the shift. That being said, I’ve become the master of the strategic nap and the master of drinking entire pots of coffee in one sitting.

10 Bo December 6, 2013 at 3:30 am

The longer the wake period needs to be…the more useful drugs are. But, if you can snatch a few Zs here and there….I can go for days with just an hour (90 minutes?) or so nap every 4-5 hours. Sometimes when I work real late and am not done, but very sleepy…even 5 minutes of “meditation” gets enough energy for an hour or two.

11 Gajizmo December 6, 2013 at 3:43 am

Haha, I love that this article came up right before finals week for most college students. Perfect timing! And the headline is definitely an eye-catcher. We’d all love to learn what makes the U.S. Special Forces so awesome. Great articles!

12 JG Repshire December 6, 2013 at 3:48 am

As a US Army Cavalry vet, I often had to fight through sleep deprivation. This was especially true in the 82nd Airborne (yes, there is Cav in the Airborne) where as Paratroopers we often trained to jump into enemy territory at night and continue ops through the next day, likewise in Iraq we usually infiltrated via helicopter at night and patrolled through the next few days.

I swear by the above mentioned “cofffee naps”. As an officer, sometimes all I could get was 20-30 min to myself, so downing a packet of instant coffee before the nap was often the way forward. I recommend ensuring the coffee is cool enough that you can drink it all in 5 minutes or less, if you take too long to drink hot coffee, then the first few sips will already be pushing caffeine through your system before you start the nap.

It works for students as well. I left the army and returned to graduate school for an MA and now PhD, I passed this trick on to some of my fellow students, who greatly appreciated it.

13 IC December 6, 2013 at 3:58 am

Speak of the devil. I decide to take a short mental vacation from my all-night essay writing session and I stumbled across this. Great post with relevant advice for the college student.

14 Awakened08 December 6, 2013 at 4:39 am

In the midst of pulling an all-nighter and look what comes into my inbox. Wonderful timing

15 Ma December 6, 2013 at 5:55 am

I once put two all-nighters in a row, or to be exact, worked for 50 hours straight. What helped me achieve this was…green tea. I drinked around 7 cups during that time, it keept me not only awake, but with clear mind too. Actually green tea helps me a lot with my headaches and loss of concentration or sudden sleepiness that results from non-life threatening and no-cancer but still bothersome tumor on my pineal gland. It’s just incredible how well it works, taking into consideration how many specialistic medicines I tried in my life, and surely it’s much better and much safer than any coffe- it gives you all the advantages but none of the disadvantages of it. At least that’s how it works for my body.

But still, it’s better to avoid allnighters completly, Stress steaming from the fear of not accomplyshing given task added to increasing tiredness- because no matter how lively we feel our organisms still wear off dramatically at such times- is not worth sacrificing our nerves, it can even deepen our health conditions, espiecially if we have hearth problems.

That inspires me to ask Art of Manliness, what they think could be done to avoid procrastination, how to discipline ourselfes to be productive on regular basis, how to achievie harmony between work, rest and hobbies, how to manage and take into consideration little time-eating duties that must be done, maybe how to muscle with the distractions, and finally how to train our brains into routine of dividing work into small parts and completing them regulary. As a freelancer artist I find it really hard to achieve as there are times when work goes so well that I can’t stop, I want to use the Flow as much as I can…later followed with days of feeling burn out.
I really like the AoMs approach to solving problems and difficulties as it’s very practical, concentrated on solution and suggesting best emotional and intelectual approach to get through things. Sometimes I know the solutions, but it’s wonderfull to read thoughts articulated by someone else with such clear-minded and organised fashion.

16 Gremlin December 6, 2013 at 6:58 am

In my college days I worked as an RA to pay my room and board. A couple of times I would pull the all nighter. This was almost always because someone on the floor needed a bro, not because of papers.

I noticed an interesting effect after these experiences. If I powered through the whole night (many times without prior notice and no coffee) the next regular day would be fine. I would crash pretty hard the next night, and the next morning (that’s two mornings after the all-nighter) would suck.

By the third morning I would be back to normal, but that second day was where I paid my dues.

Wanted to give some of you guys who may be new to this a heads-up that you may not have the classic (and common) drowsy response Brett and Kay outlined. Good Luck!

17 Aaron M. Renn December 6, 2013 at 7:10 am

If you’re not acclimated to nicotine, it can give you a buzz when you start using it. So that may not be what you want even if it somehow helps you stay up all night.

18 Jerad December 6, 2013 at 7:55 am

Ephedrine (Nasal decongestant) + Caffeine will keep you up all night. Though it has some negative side effects.

19 Nick December 6, 2013 at 8:04 am

Great article. I have been fortunate to not pull an all nighter for quite a while. I do however fail at getting enough sleep quite often. I do recall recently having to drive in a sleep deprived state though. It was really bad too. I fully understand it being like driving drunk, in fact, I felt worse than being drunk. Once I swerved in the lane, I pulled over at the next gas station and downed a 5 hour energy and half bottle of water and was fine. Still not a fun trip though.

20 Kevin December 6, 2013 at 8:07 am

Sleep deprivation has always been my Achilles heel–I’m worthless when I haven’t slept. I pulled a few all-nighters in my college days but I don’t try to do that anymore. Another issue you didn’t mention is sleep deprivation works against efforts to lose weight/fat–it creates unfavorable hormone changes that will make you feel hungry.

21 Matt D December 6, 2013 at 8:57 am

Smoking really isn’t a great option for soldiers on watch. Talking to my Marine brother-in-law, he said that snipers in Fallujah would look for the red glow of the cigarettes (cherries) and aim for them. Talk about hazardous to your health!

22 Orijit December 6, 2013 at 9:12 am

The article mentions Modafinil, which is available by prescription only. A very similar drug called Adrafinil is legal and available online without prescription. Interestingly, Adrafinil is metabolized in the body into Modafinil, although it requires a higher dose and an hour or two to start working.

23 Cameron Corley December 6, 2013 at 9:13 am

Awesome article with incredibly helpful information! I haven’t had to pull an all nighter since college a few years ago, but I remember the freezing shower trick working very well, haha.

As a side note: I know these guys and have taken a majority of their courses at BluCore Shooting Center. Incredible people and if you live in Colorado, I HIGHLY recommended stopping by!

24 Jess December 6, 2013 at 9:38 am

The trick I developed when I was constantly switching shifts and working crazy hours was this: fill your mouth with very cold water and keep it there until it warms up, then swallow and repeat. This works on a number of levels- keeps you hydrated, gives you a stimulating sensation, and if you do a start to nod off, you spit water all over yourself and know that it’s time to get up and walk around!

25 JohnRobert December 6, 2013 at 10:49 am

Great article. Having graduated art center and also working in the design world I am all to familiar with the all nighter… And the multi-day all nighter…

Wanted to mention offsetting caffeine with sugar from fruit like and apple in an alternating schedule helps.

Also hot sauce which covers the uncomfortable category along with a few other great benefits.

Good luck all, and keep on getting it on… Remember we only go home when the work is done.

26 Matt December 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Reading this made me tired!

27 JC December 6, 2013 at 4:30 pm

That’s hilarious. I just pulled an all-nighter yesterday/today, and I got this article in the middle of said all-nighter. The timing couldn’t have been better

28 Landon H. December 6, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Large Chestnut

29 Evan Robinson December 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm

A buddy once told me that Leonardo da Vinci would hold a mallet in his right hand just above a brass pot on the floor next to his desk and write with his other hand since he was left-handed. Whenever he started to doze off he would drop the mallet into the brass pot and the subsequent bang would awake him and he could keep working. I’m not sure about the historical accuracy, but my friend is well-studied in world history and it’s interesting regardless.

30 Ryan Speier December 6, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Check out my website,, It can help!

31 Jim December 6, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Speaking of forced discomfort, I am a musician, and often I have to drive home after long gigs/distances. I find plucking nose hairs keeps me nice and awake. :)

32 Tyrel S December 6, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Nice timing, I just might be pulling my first ever all-nighter tonight in order to finish a big paper. I already took the advice on napping to get ready, not its time to get to work. Thanks!

33 Jessica December 7, 2013 at 12:38 am

How interesting and such a coincidence. I actually pulled an all nighter for my animation project and used some of the exact tips above without knowing. :) Definitely will refer back to this next time I do another all nighter.

34 tim December 7, 2013 at 1:12 am

Great article.

For what it’s worth, and I know I’m nitpicking, “Special Forces” should only be used to refer to the Army Special Forces aka Green Berets. “Special Operations forces” is the generic term to refer to Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Rangers, etc.

35 Cohl Trenton December 7, 2013 at 2:22 am

Here are a few other ideas I’ve used, but some of these are more applicable to driving than studying:
-Drop ice down your back under your shirt. The cold and wetness will shock you and cause discomfort enough to wake you up at least for a few moments.
-Eat food that is difficult to eat like really chewy beef jerky. Salty crunch foods are also good. They make you thirsty and the crunch wakes you up.
-Get turned on. If you have a significant other handy, wake her up and ask her for some assistance. If not, just think about something that gets you going. The longer you can drag that out, the more time you’ll buy yourself. Of course it can become a distraction also.
-Hit yourself / cause pain. This has already been mentioned I think, but specifically if you are driving late at night a hard slap to face is less dangerous than falling asleep at the wheel.
-Set time goals for yourself. Tell yourself you get to take a break at 3am or 5am for x minutes and then take the break. Also visualize the finish line and the good feelings you will have when you complete your task.
-Change the setting. Moving your work to another room or the IHop down the road can do wonders for you. Also just giving yourself the mental release of focusing on something else, like driving can help you wake up and refocus.
-Sing and dance, get silly!
-There’s a Simpsons episode where Bart has to get up early so he drinks a lot of water so that the need to pee will wake him up the next day. He says its “an old Indian trick.” Well it does work. Drink a lot and prevent yourself from getting to pee for a while. That will keep you awake and uncomfortable. But of course don’t wait too long b/c you can die from water-poisoning under very extreme circumstances.
-If you are driving, when you stop to pee, if you are in the country find a deserted road and take a wizz in the open air. Its liberating and the cool breeze and fear of someone driving up can really wake you up.
-If you are driving, open the window, sing load, alternate loud music with brief periods of complete silence, call someone on the phone, make up games to play in your head.

Hope some of these help!


36 sam December 7, 2013 at 7:56 am

i saw some very scary stuff here. when i want to know about fatigue i don’t talk to grunts (i were one) i talk to the former surgeon general of the navy. for an example.

37 Hamza December 7, 2013 at 7:00 pm

I know the article said no carbs, but there’s this verry effective tip I used to do in college, whenever I had to pull an all nighter studying I would put a candy in my mouth and leave it there without chewing it as long as it could stay.

Not only this would make me awake, but when I’m going through my test I would put the same flavoured candy which helped me remember the things I studied earlier.

That also works when I am travelling long distance.

38 Joseph O. December 7, 2013 at 11:27 pm

I am a police officer and have worked midnights for four years. There are a lot of great points here, and I will share what works for me. I usually drink one cup of black coffee (12 oz or smaller), and have a bottle of cold water with me to stay hydrated. I also pack a healthy lunch for myself that is rich with vegetables and protein. I keep my physical activity up by incorporating foot patrols. It is not wise to consume fast food/greasy food, and I avoid drinking too much caffeine and pop altogether. Good luck if any of you have an all-nighter coming up!

39 Marios P. December 8, 2013 at 4:36 am

I am in te Army and I find this article very interesting! Yes, it’s true that all-nighters are unhealthy, however many times they are the only way to do your job properly. Right now, I am constantly pulling all-nighters due to the semester exams of the Academy. I am going to apply these advices and see how they work on me.

40 Shane Core December 9, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Good article, but just to clarify…Navy Seals…are NOT Special Forces. Only ARMY Special Forces are Special Forces. They are Special OPERATIONS.. just wanted to throw that out there….

41 j December 9, 2013 at 5:10 pm

While this might seem odd, I think you should not nap at all, get used to the idea that you’re not going to sleep and just do it. If I nap I lose my motivation and I don’t wanna wake up anymore. While caffeine hasn’t much of an effect on me (even though I don’t drink coffee everyday) , cigarettes do seem to help, because it gives you something to do and it can be a reason to take a small break. Washing your face with cold water too, but only if I’m literally falling down. Also, although again I think it’s only me, if I can make it to the morning, when the darkness vanishes, so does my sleepiness and I feel suddenly energized and don’t want to sleep anymore. I suspect walking in fresh air helps with that. I’ve always spent my following day awake, even if it wasn’t necessary, because while I felt tired I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted to.

42 Jake December 9, 2013 at 7:01 pm

This is a great article. I bartend in a college town and needless to say, I see the sun rise more often than one should. I like to use the method of making short goals and rewarding myself with quick breaks once I reach them.

43 Adam December 10, 2013 at 12:59 am

Wish I had this post available back in the ole college days. I tried a few all-nighters then and they messed me up pretty good. Fantastic advice from the special forces men, that’s a very good source!

I’m also going to have to try the fat in coffee routine in the morning, it’s a nice way to pack in extra healthy fat, something I don’t get enough at first light.

44 Cosmo December 10, 2013 at 2:26 am

As someone who takes Modafinil regularly for working graveyard shift, I can attest to it’s wonderfulness. It keeps you awake and alert with the odd chance of getting hyper-focused. Most doctors that I’ve dealt with will write a script pretty easy once you say you’re working a night shift.

It’s gone generic recently so it costs a lot less than it used to. I haven’t used it to study with but some of my college buddies usually come knocking at exam time and tell me that it works great for pulling an all-night study session.

45 Joshua Jordan, KSC December 10, 2013 at 2:30 am

Some interesting points, but I’m surprised more wasn’t offered. Still, when I worked with LRSD they spent most of their time talking about their Special Forces tabs while we accomplished the mission. It was a stark contrast from my experiences with the NCOs of 1st Group. My point is that what matters in the community about an operator is his rep; the salad on his uniform doesn’t mean much *within the community*. So, you get different guys with different ideas. Of course, you — especially if you’re outside the community — should respect the training and accomplishments of anyone who has the tabs, but I am careful about what operators I heed and I want to pass on that manly advice to enhance the manliness of other men reading this manly post. =) Before I get to the point, you might read “The Men, the Mission, and Me” by Pete Blaber if you want to get a decent book by an operator who talks straight.

Now, onto some point. You need to learn to be able to sleep anywhere. One soldier I know, being motivated to sleep, was forced to ride in a HUMWV turret in -30 degree weather when there was no mission or training that called for it. Essentially, this situation met the elements of proof for an illegal order, conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, and maltreatment of soldiers according to the relevant articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice as prescribed in the Manual For Courts Martial. But, this soldier was not like other regmeisters. This solider liked to hold his administrative wrath in reserve while he pushed the envelope far enough to cause the situation to come to a head and *then* he would mention that he wrote the aforementioned considerations on a Sworn Statement DA FM 2823 with dates and Military Police signatures immediately after the event occurred and this solider and the other party could make an official, Army issue out of the matter if the other party so desired. With that in mind, this soldier shrewdly tied his hand to the turret with a length of 550 cord and arranged his body in such a way that it appear as though he were manning the turret, but presenting a low profile even as the HUMWV hit massive bumps in the road. Though he was not unsuspected, he remained undetected and undisturbed.

Another point to consider is the length of naps. A Special Forces Command Sergeant Major taught me to sleep 2 hours 20 minutes, 4 hours 40 minutes whenever possible. He said that he read some study at some point about the effects of those duration on the brain and the feeling of being rested; he said that he confirmed this through his experience in the field. He spent most of the Cold War on the other side of Checkpoint Charlie and I am intimately familiar with his training as I did a biographical assignment on him when I was in school — he was a teacher, a mentor, a friend, and an instructor to me.

Recovering from all nighters or longer periods is also important. I went 3.5 days without sleep during an emergency mission where I almost died three separate times and didn’t realize it until after; eat it now and taste it later, we say. One infinitely wise NCO taught me that, after a 24 hour CQ shift, I should sleep immediately and wake up at 1200, but no later than 1300. He said that, if I did that, I’d wake up and be groggy a bit, but I could get through the day, have sex with my girlfriend, etc. and nobody would know the difference but me. He said that I should sleep at about 8, but no later than 9 or 10 that night and that PT would be harsh the next day but, again, nobody would know it but me. He was right. And, I’ve used the technique ever since when I accidentally flip onto a nocturnal sleep pattern and I need to reset when it’s no longer convenient.

There is much more that one can do with sleep deprivation, but these are the most universally portable insights I can offer. The rest are very specific and would not arise in civilian situations or they are too personal.

46 Joshua Jordan, KSC December 10, 2013 at 2:43 am

Oh, there is one more point to add, and this comes from various soldiers from various professions including Rangers, Special Forces, CID, and other special occupations. These cat napping & sleep tricks get harder as you get older. The amount that you can cheat your body declines. I don’t get the fatigue that others complain of, but I become prone to infections. I can fight them off before they get severe with my herbal response system I developed while traveling in South East Asia, but that’s just cheating my immune system, isn’t it? There is no such thing as a free lunch; somebody is going to pay for that lunch and when you play reindeer games with sleep that someone who pays will always be you. So, take care in how you apply the matters we’re discussing and consider these contingency or emergency measures; I would not advise incorporating this pattern into your primary or secondary plans.

47 Patrick December 11, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Brett, as a former Marine (now Olympic Weightlifting coach & personal trainer) I’d love to see if these guys would do a “spec ops fitness” article for you as well. I was a desk pilot / combat microsoft office specialist during my time in the military, so I’d really enjoy learning how these guys get and stay in the physical condition that their crazy jobs require of them.

48 Steve December 12, 2013 at 8:32 am

Thanks for the advice. I’m driving from NJ to VA starting around 7pm, so I won’t get there until about 2am. My 7-month old and wife will most likely be sleeping in the back seat, so that rules out the tip about talking to someone. Looks like it’s caffine and beef jerky for me! Stay manly.

49 Thom December 13, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Most, if not all, of the harm from tobacco comes from all the nasty chemicals added to it, not from the nicotine. Nicotine even occurs naturally in some foods. A few studies even suggest it might be beneficial. With the current anti-tobacco hysteria, don’t expect to find much unbiased info out there, but take if from someone who has been smoking a pipe for awhile and is not addicted. Most pipe tobacco lacks all the chemicals added to cigarettes or dip that make them addictive and also harmful. It should be noted, however, that in larger doses that nicotine can be a depressant. Nothing like a nicotine heavy blend of pipe tobacco to knock you out before bed.

50 Kammes December 14, 2013 at 1:44 am

I returned from a camping trip recently. I didn’t try to pull all nighters but the sleeping conditions taught me a few things. it’s difficult to sleep when (1) you are uncomfortable (rocks in the back, uneven ground, cold, wet; (2) you need to use the bathroom; (3) you are in an environment with unpredictable noises, which might include the sounds of hyenas, falcons, and rodents during the night. Recovery from sleep depravation for me came with naps and a mental preparation for expecting rest until the trek was finished. It’s been 2 days from the event and I feel a fogginess has been lifted. Amazing what a comfortable bed can do

51 Matt S December 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm

I’ve done a fair amount of all-nighters during my 3 years at Uni. I wasn’t happy about it afterward, but it can work – or at least for me it did.

Much of this advice is spot on, but these are my key points for academics writing an essay:

If you’re lacking motivation on the closing days of the deadline; youtube a motivational vid and then at least draft out a plan.

Collect key books (3-5+) you know you’ll need in advance, reference them and ideally take points you’ve learned and any good quotes down in a draft document.

Don’t know the key books? Check your module guide and download all relevant slides for your topic – grab the books and grasp the theories, arguments etc.

Need to start somewhere? Look at the question and the learning objectives, and then start writing/drafting your thesis and introduction, thinking about your answer and how you’ll structure it.

STAY HYDRATED. I get super thirsty during the early hours – it keeps you awake and sharp as you’ll need to fetch it and pee. A lot. It’s good.

Protein bars. I know, above me it said avoid food, but for me it worked. Try and do some research on a good healthy (as possible) product, Ideally containing some oats in the ingredients, and around 20g of protein will do you. Eat 1 only when hungry, you’ll probably eat 2 and maybe something else (really small, snack like) during the stint.

Look at recent news articles relating to your topic (if applicable) and put anything useful into your intro and / or arguments. Sources should be varied (UK here so BBC, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph are fine) and taken into account.

Look at official websites such as government, agencies, charities and so on for guidelines, articles etc. (if applicable)

Search and grab as many recent journals relating to your topic as you can, scan through them and pick out anything actually useful – put it in your draft structure of where to use it or just straight in by now.

Constantly check back with your introduction and thesis, adjust where necessary and write out your argument – drafting it at first if you have to.

Make sure you do your checks before you print – make sure it makes sense, spelling, referencing, print layout and so on.

Print, set up your gear to leave, and sleep well. Hope it helps!

52 K December 15, 2013 at 5:48 pm

I work graveyards and have a few quick tips. When you are trying to stay up during your shift bright lights and plenty of water have been more helpful for me than soda/sugar/coffee/energy drinks.

The Seal’s are right about banking sleep, on my days off I grab extra naps, go to sleep early and wake up later. On the weekends I don’t do this I really start to feel it around 3am.

On Sunday I’ll take a nap around 1-3pm. Then stay up all night, usually until 8am. By doing this I force my body to sleep from 8-4pm, right before I punch in. This seems to set my body clock back to a graveyard mode for the week.

If I’m really struggling late in the work week I will resort to a dip or two. It keeps you busy doing something. It’s not the smartest thing in the world but when you normal duties are dangerous, a little dip may go a long way.

53 DustinB March 31, 2014 at 9:21 pm

I’ve found that Adrafinil helps me pull off long or odd shifts, and all nighters where I am studying something or working on a side project.

Adrafinil is a precursor to Modafinil which is a prescription drug in the USA that is commonly used for treating and assisting 3rd shift workers. There is plenty of information regarding Adrafinil and other potentially useful nootropics available at

54 Half-Man April 2, 2014 at 7:32 pm

This article gives great advice and explains alot.
One again a great post.

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