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How to Work Effectively for 24 Consecutive Hours

Photo by afsilva

In my line of work, having to stay at the office through the night in order to meet a deadline is a reality (albeit an occasional one for most of us). Well, my number has come up a couple times in recent weeks. A work project fell behind and required a borderline-unreal amount of work be completed in an extremely short time frame (as is usually the circumstance surrounding the “all-nighter”).

So, after having plowed this road yet again, I’ve had some time to reflect on what I had to do in order to not only stay awake, but crank out code of reasonable quality. While such circumstances aren’t ideal for “knowledge work”, sometimes you simply have no choice but to buckle down and not raise your head until the job is done.

Here are a few tips for making the most of your 24-hour shift:

  • Limit Caffeine – though this is normally the first place a person will turn when faced with an extended shift at the office, it’s important to regulate how much caffeine you ingest, especially near the end. Take it from me – I’m one of the biggest fans (and abusers, arguably) of caffeine that I know. Overuse of caffeine will result in the in ability to concentrate, as well as a bad case of the jitters.
  • Snack Regularly (and Sensibly) – one of the most common stops among the third-shifters will be the vending machine in the break room. And because said vending machine rarely offers a variety of healthy snacks, the buyer will typically end up with a candy bar or bag of chips or crackers. While I’m certainly not a health nut or anything (and I’m pretty sure the development of Twix took place under divine supervision), you really ought to go out of your way to find things like fruit and nuts to snack on. You won’t experience the sudden surge of energy provided by a sugary snack, it will help you stay alert and generally on a more even-keel than the alternatives. (It’s worth noting that I have no physiological data or research to support the above claim, just personal experience).
  • Avoid Sleep at All Costs – probably the biggest mistake I made during one of my recent all-nighters was taking a 2-hour nap about 3/4 of the way through. Admittedly, I was nearing the end of my rope when I did it, but in an effort to try to “re-animate” a little by catching some shuteye I all but doomed myself to poor work and general crankiness once I awoke. If you get to the point where you simply cannot keep your eyes open any longer, it may be time to admit defeat and stop working until you can get a full night’s sleep.
  • If You Must Sleep… – if the previous tip won’t work for you and you absolutely must sleep (probably because admitting defeat isn’t an option), try to do so in 15-20 minute increments. Also, I’ve found it helpful to sleep on less-than ideal equipment. Your desk chair is a good example of what I mean. The reason is that if you’re sleeping on a big overstuffed sofa or something, you’re going to have that much more trouble waking and getting back to work. Again, no empirical data in support of this claim, I’ve just found that I work better (and wake more easily) if I nap at my desk instead of on my boss’ plush leather sofa.
  • Music, Music, Music – probably the best way to counteract fatigue (which is all but assured in situations like this) is to keep your toes tapping. Find music that is upbeat, energetic and conducive to the environment you’re trying to create. This will obviously mean different things to different people, but this is the time when having an iPod is absolutely wonderful. Oh, and if you have the means, having an iPhone (which I received for Christmas and absolutely love – more on that later) and the ability to buy new music directly from it is absolutely wonderful (and will probably put me in the poor house, but I digress…). Just as an example, I probably listened to “Infinity on High” by Fall Out Boy and “Elect the Dead” by Serj Tankian about 10-15 times each during the last couple of weeks.
  • Map Out Objectives Before Starting Work – a very GTD-ish notion, but worth pointing out. If it’s 8:00pm and you know you’ll be watching the sunrise from your desk, it’s best to plot out exactly what needs to be done on a sheet of paper and check things off as you complete them. You don’t want to have to count on your barely-functioning brain to tell you what to do next, especially after you’ve been at it for several hours.

Hopefully these shifts are something you don’t have to endure very often, but being able to really nail a project that’s due will make you look like a rock star. Not to mention the priceless look on the faces of those showing up to work in the morning when they realize you’ve been there since *yesterday*. :)

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