A Writer's Guide to Pulling a Successful All-Nighter

Ah, the dreaded all-nighter. They're gobs of fun, aren't they?

When you work as a freelance writer, they're occasionally a necessary evil if you get behind on a project and you're on a deadline. Thankfully I haven't had one of those kinds of all-nighters in quite some time.

In my case it's usually somewhere between insomnia (due to stress or evil kitties conspiring against me) and wanting to pull an all-nighter because I'm passionate about a project. Let's leave the evil kitties for another post.

If you want to put in extra hours on a freelance project, your blog, or your next book, can you pull a successful all-nighter? And by "successful" I mean productive and without your face firmly planted on your desk when the sun comes up.

Sure you can!

I do this more often than I'd like to admit. I've got this all-nighter thing down.

(Except last night that is, when I was legitimately lying in bed for seven hours trying to sleep. I wish I'd made an all-nighter out of it, because then I'd be sleeping now instead of still writing this post. But we'll call it inspiration.)

When I want to pull an all-nighter and somehow manage to get sh*t done without crashing or losing focus, here's what works.

5 Tips for Successful All-Night Writing Sessions

Remember, these tips are only for times when you really want or need to work all night. Otherwise, drag your ass to bed, rest up so you're fresh in the morning, and grab a few zzzs for me while you're at it.

1. Caffeine.

I'd love to tell you to suck down all the sweet, sweet java you can if you need to pull an all-nighter. But, in my case at least, that's been counterproductive. (And if you do, don't literally make it "sweet." On an all-nighter, sugar is not the friend it pretends to be. Unless it's chocolate-covered espresso beans. Then it's a miracle.)

The issue with too much coffee is that the resulting crash can derail your efforts before you're ready to call it quits. If you want to have coffee as a starter, go for it. It might be just the jolt you need.

Beyond that, however, I focus on tea. I keep an electric kettle right on my desk, fill it up, and keep a constant flow of tea going as long as I need to stay awake. It still keeps me caffeinated, alert, and focused, but the ups and downs are much less extreme.

(This is the electric kettle I currently use. It took me three years to find one I was happy with. I'm in love. And play with your tea choices if one doesn't work for you. Different types of tea have different levels of caffeine. Go as light or as hardcore as you please.)

2. Water.

Caffeine might be the obvious choice, but really, nothing beats water if you want to stay up working all night.

Drink a lot of water. No, I mean a lot of it. Like a lot, a lot.

I go through at least two liters of water a night during a true all-nighter. That's on top of any coffee or tea I consume. And I consume a lot of that too -- at least one full kettle of tea, so around another two liters.

Water makes all the difference. And if you're trying to avoid caffeine, a good intake of water alone might do the trick. (Update: It totally did the trick for me. I was up for nearly three days straight after writing this post, with six hours of naps being my only rest in that time. No caffeine. Just a lot of water. And I've never felt so good, even during a typical all-nighter. I was more alert, didn't get very drowsy, tended to get another wind much quicker, and actually had to force myself to eventually go to sleep because I didn't feel the slightest bit tired. Your mileage may vary. But water-only was even better than a caffeine-filled night for me -- not that it'll cause me to give up coffee.)

If you get absolutely nothing else from this post, remember to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. It's the most important thing.

(Besides, even if drinking a lot of water doesn't wake you up right away, it certainly will when the urge to run to the restroom starts hitting you every hour or so.)

3. Food.

If you're going to pull an all-nighter, you're probably going to be up at least a good six to eight extra hours (and that's assuming you can crash as soon as you finish your project). If you're going to be up that long, eat something.

Don't eat crap foods either. Keep it high in protein, low on carbs (carbs will just make you want to crash before too long).

I try to keep a variety of high protein foods around that I can snack on or make a mini-meal out of. They include:

  • Grilled chicken strips
  • Cheese
  • Nuts
  • Peanut butter (make it a sugar-free one -- only ingredient in mine is organic peanuts, and I usually put it on celery)
  • Hardboiled eggs (I'll often only eat the whites, alongside something else.)
  • Greek yogurt (again, not a sugared-up variety)

How much you should eat depends on how long your all-nighter actually is. If you're simply staying up late for a few hours, a snack will probably be fine. If you'll be up eight or more extra hours for a full all-night writing session, eat enough to make a meal of it. You'll need the energy.

4. Exercise.

I know. You're tired. The last thing you probably want to think about is working out. But bear with me. It doesn't take much.

Ideally, you'll want to squeeze in a cardio workout before your all-nighter. Get your blood pumping.

Go for a walk if you have somewhere safe to do that after dark. Get on an exercise bike. Put on a workout video. Have sex even (no, really -- unless you're the type to fall asleep right after). Just do something physical. It doesn't really matter what.

You don't need to turn into a hot, sweaty mess (though if a cool shower after would perk you up even more, go for it!). Put in even ten minutes and you'll start to feel more alert. And focused. Focused is a good thing.

Need a boost further into your late night? Have another go. Walk around the house. Do whatever. Just get your butt off that chair and move for a few minutes. Even better? If you do Pomodoros to help you stay on-task, here's your formula for success:

One BIC + One AIG = One Pomodoro

  • 25 minutes of focused work = Butt-in-chair (BIC) time
  • 5 minutes of exercise = Ass-in-gear (AIG) time

Do that. Over and over again. You'll stay awake. You're welcome.

5. Planning.

If I hadn't already told you drinking plenty of water was the most important thing when trying to pull an all-nighter, I'd tell you that was planning. Always have a plan before going into an all-night writing session.

Why? Because this is what happens when you don't have a plan:

  • Sit down at your desk.
  • Wonder what to work on first.
  • Open Word / Scrivener / Google Docs (sometimes all three).
  • Stare at a blank screen for a while.
  • Decide to put some music on.
  • Brain (25 minutes later): "Fu*k Jenn! Stop belting out showtunes and get to work!" [Look at clock.] "Oooh. It's time for AIG time." [Get up and dance dramatically to said showtunes.] "Yay Pomodoros!"
  • Repeat.

See? You want a plan. Up front. Before your tired-ass brain spends more time thinking about what you should write (and procrastinating) than actually writing.

Know what project you'll be working on during your all-nighter. Have your file set up and ready to go the moment you sit down. Ideally, get a few lines down before you settle in. Resuming a project can be much easier than staring at a blank page late at night. So let me repeat:

Have. A. Plan.

Bonus Tip: Eye Drops

I forgot about this tip when I originally published this post, so here's a little bonus: stock up on lubricating eye drops (the non-medicated kind; if it says anything about treating red eyes, it's not what you want).

When you're staring at a screen writing for long hours overnight -- especially if you were already writing through most of the day -- chances are good your eyes are going to dry out. They can start to burn or feel scratchy, and it can make you more tempted to get a bit of shut eye instead of finishing your all-nighter.

Non-medicated eye drops go a long way towards keeping me alert because they keep your eyes moist and able to focus on your screen. If one brand doesn't work for you, try others. Their ingredients can vary widely. For example, my usual ones had glycerin in them, and they'd leave my eyes burning for a couple of minutes.

I thought this was just because my eyes were scratchy to begin with. But it wasn't. I recently switched to a different brand without glycerin (though I'm not 100% certain that ingredient was the culprit). No more burning, and the moisture seems to last much longer. So don't give up if one kind doesn't help.

And that's about it folks. When I want to stay up all night writing, working on blog development, or any other work, that's how I do it. It's how I stay alert. It's how I stay focused. It's how I get things done when I probably shouldn't be working on them in the first place. And it's all remarkably simple: Plan. Move. Eat. Drink. Caffeinate.

Oh, and I keep Twitter open on my second monitor. People say hilariously stupid things on Twitter in the middle of the night. And when you're struggling to stay awake, laughter is good.

Now hurry! Get back to work. I wouldn't want you having to pull an all-nighter.

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