How many times have you heard someone say that long hours and late nights are "just part of the job"?

These days it's perfectly normal to eat dinner at your desk and leave the office after dark.

The truth is, if you can't survive late night work marathons, you're going to burnout and either quit or get fired within a few years. Tough, but true.

I learned this the hard way while working as a management consultant. I traded in my social life for 60-100 hour weeks and even a few all-nighters.

I approached late-night work marathons like most people: load up on coffee and sugar, then put my head down and work until I was finished.

The problem? My energy would spike and crash, my work was sloppy, and I couldn't think straight the next day.

Enter: "The All-Nighter Experiment".

I was sick of letting late nights kill my performance, so I decided to find a better approach. I spent a week collecting advice from seasoned investment bankers, "hackathon" sleep doctors, and hardened Navy SEALs.

Then I stayed up all-night and experimented on myself to figure out what worked and what didn't.

3 things that worked

1. The Pomodoro Technique. This time management technique from the late '80s has had a recent resurgence in popularity. It involves cycling 25-minutes of highly focused work followed by 5-minute breaks to refresh and recharge.

Most people approach work like a slow and steady marathon, plodding along until they're done. But Pomodoro's are like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for the office -- short 100% focused sprints followed by a brief recovery.

The benefit? During the all-nighter I completed 20 individual 25-minute Pomodoro's between 8PM and 8AM. That's 8 hours and 20 minutes of extremely productive work, and I felt fresh and sharp the entire time.

2. Exercise. When you're falling asleep, one strategy guaranteed to wake you up is exercise. Experts agree that it doesn't matter what you do, just move.

"The secret lies in "a basic physiological response to thousands of years of evolution: if prehistoric humans fell asleep while running from danger, chances are they wouldn't live very long. When your body is exerting physical energy, it signals to your brain that now is the time to be alert and focused, not to drift off to dreamland." (SOURCE)

Now whenever my eyes start to droop, I hop out of my chair and go for a walk, do some squats or pushups, or just dance around like a crazy person.

3. Music. It gets lonely in the office when you're working late, so I always listen to music. Recently, I've been experimenting with music designed to increase your focus from companies Brain.fm and focus@will. Here's how focus@will describes themselves:

"focus@will is a new neuroscience based web tool that uses specially sequenced instrumental music to increase your attention span up to 400% when working and studying. Our tool helps extend your productivity cycle and effortlessly zones out distraction."

I don't know whether the underlying science is legit, but I can say that I like the music and get into the zone when I listen to it.

3 things that didn't work

1. Caffeine Naps. Around 4AM of my all-nighter, I took a "caffeine nap". What is that? Basically, it's when you down a coffee and then take a 15-20 minute nap. Supposedly, the effect of the caffeine kicks in around the same time you are waking up, giving you a double whammy of energy.

The result? I hated it, and felt way worse after the nap. Caffeine naps are incredibly popular, so I'm not ready to call it complete b.s. just yet. Give it a try and see what you think.

2. Eating. There is endless debate online about what to eat to boost your energy -- carbs for the quick hit? Fats for the slow-burn? Or protein for keeping you feeling full?

During my all-nighter, I found a better solution -- I just didn't eat. Dinner was at 7PM, and breakfast was at 8AM, with nothing in-between.

This isn't groundbreaking when you think about it, but many people get tempted by late-night stacks and pay for it with energy spikes and crashes.

3. Working "hard". Tell me if this has happened to you before -- you're in the zone, working hard and feeling good. But then you stop and realize you've been tweaking the alignment on your PowerPoint for the last 2 hours when it should have taken 20 minutes!

You've been working hard, but not smart.

The solution? Every hour, step back and ask yourself these two questions from Tim Ferriss' book, The 4-Hour Workweek.

  1. "Am I being productive or just active?"
  2. "Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important?"

These will usually get you back on track in a hurry.

Published on: Apr 27, 2017