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How to stay awake for long periods?

No, no, you are not going to read about how to accurately interpret what is happening behind the curtains in global politics. This article is about how to literally stay awake. 

Sometimes our standard waking hours are not enough to fulfill all our commitments, so we have to borrow some of the night hours. 

Sleep deprivation is one of the worst feelings. Menachem Begin, who spent time in a KGB prison wrote in his memoirs:  

“In the head of the interrogated prisoner a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep. Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.”

Sleep deprivation is used in torture and is the core feature in some of the toughest rites of passage, such as the Navy Seal hell week where candidates sleep only about four hours in five days.  

Losing sleep is unhealthy. And we should engineer our lives to lose the least of it, but there are particular situations where sleep is not available.  

Why I had to stay awake? 

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to teach a live online marketing course to students in Latin America once per month. The course was scheduled from 5 pm to 8 pm, a typical and non-threatening hour for an adult education session. I just had a bit of a problem. I live in Europe, which is 8 hours ahead. 

So I had to teach from 1 am to almost 4 am while juggling a full-time job, clients, and all the other commitments that life invariably hands us. I accepted the offer. The money was good and the idea of teaching hundreds of eager students thrilled me. 

However, I was in for a challenge. There are no bridges from 1 am to 4 am, you have to stay up late. It’s not like 5 am to 7 am, which is just an early start. Or 9 pm to 12 pm which means going to bed a bit later. 

At first, I thought I couldn’t pull it off. But then, on perfect timing, I read about Hell Week, and I decided to push myself.  

Here’s how I stayed awake.  

Condition your schedule 

I adjusted my schedule a few days before the course. I generally go to sleep at around 11 pm, so for a few days before the course, I decided to go to sleep and wake up an hour later. I am not sure how much of a difference this made, and probably it is better to make a more aggressive adjustment, but accustoming your body to a new schedule just seems like the reasonable thing to do.  

 Even a little sleep is good

I once had a flight at 5 am and I decided to stay up all night. Watching the Alien trilogy was fantastic, but I felt terrible by the time I had to go to the airport. I regretted the all-nighter.  

So I decided to at least get a few hours of sleep before the course. At about 10 pm I set up an alarm at 12:15 am and dimmed the lights. Even though I was ready to get some sleep — as I usually do at this hour — it was pretty hard. Thinking that I could oversleep sabotaged my sleep. I only slept in intervals but I am sure the few hours of silent darkness helped me get my head in order. Even if you don’t sleep, lying down with your eyes closed can be better than going about your business as usual. 

Move

Let’s say you slept a few hours. Now you have a problem. You woke up feeling 10x worse than before. 

Short naps can drain the life force of even the most vicarious. But there is a simple way to recover from the slump. You just need to do the opposite of napping, something that ignites you with life. As soon as I woke up from the nap, I went for a 15-minute walk. The brisk walk in the cool Northeastern European night brought me back to life.      

Whenever you are feeling tired, moving is the first step you should take. In most cases, it’s the only thing you need. This is the core advice given to navy seals during Hell Week.  

Keep moving. “That is the first rule. If you stop moving you will fall asleep. Doesn’t matter if you’re standing up or laying down. You will fall asleep. Keep moving.

Any type of movement works. A walk, 20 pushups, jumping jacks, shadow boxing. Whenever you are falling asleep (or low energy) motion is the antidote.  Movement pumps oxygen to your veins, brain, and muscles which help you stay awake.

But there’s one thing that can reset you even more suddenly than movement.  

Reset yourself

The best way to reset your mind and body is with deep sleep. But this is precisely what we can’t do right now, so we have to find an alternative.

Before raiding a village, Vikings would go into a trancelike rage. We moderns rarely require preparation for such intense activities, so our rituals are tamer. For us, taking a shower is generally a crucial step in preparation for anything important. Be it for going to work, going out, or preparing for the day.  

 Right after I finish the walk I jump into the shower for a few minutes. Now I am going to plug into my inner self-help guru and suggest you take a cold shower. Cold showers work. They shock your body to increase alertness, clarity, and energy. They are the most expedient way to refresh and recharge. The cold shower doesn’t have to be long, less than a minute is fine.     

The cold shower is the apex of your preparation. Stepping out of the shower you will feel like you can take on any impending challenge that the night will hurl upon you. 

There is only one thing that will wake you up more than a cold shower.    

Caffeine

The most obvious one. If all the above doesn’t get you going then definitely use caffeine. 

It’s tempting to plunge into caffeine right off and skip all the preambles. But caffeine is the last resort. Coffee is great, but drinking coffee at night feels as unnatural as smoking a cigarette before a marathon.   

The first night of teaching I drank a whole Red Bull. Mistake. The session went really well. But I couldn’t sleep afterward. The next day I was wrecked, and I had a full day of work in front of me, and then another session at night.  

Red Bull is like alcohol. You feel great while you are drinking it, and think it’s a great idea. But it wrecks you later. So use caffeine sparingly. If you need tape to avoid your eyelids from shutting then by all means indulge, just keep in mind you will feel even worse tomorrow.   

I usually have one coffee per training session, I only resort to Red Bull if I am absolutely falling asleep and need that energy blast to make it through. 

Other quick hacks are chewing gum, peanut butter, fruit, chocolate, banana, nuts. Some late-nighters swear by alcohol but I didn’t try it. I associate alcohol with friends and celebrations so it felt out of place, and I wanted to be as sharp as possible. I also drink lots of water through the process. 

Right before the course I read a few Psalms or crank Enter Sandman depending on the mood I am in, and I am ready to go. 

You’ll get used to it 

The first session I did was hard, by the third or fourth time I taught at night I already had gotten used to it. Our bodies tend to get used to extremes quite well. 

Finally, you just need to embrace the pain, enjoy the ride, and make every hour you are awake worth it. And then enjoy the most deserved sleep you will  ever have (and hopefully a hefty paycheck as well.) 

 

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