Last night I pulled what was probably the last all-nighter of my college career, which feels bizarre. There are plenty of worthy reasons to stay up all night, but from now on my education will not be included in that category. I’ve had more all-night paper-writing and studying sessions than I care to think about over the past four years, and my general conclusion is that they are to be avoided as much as possible. But sometimes, you don’t have a choice.
If you are prone to procrastination, like I am, you might realize the night before that you have several hours of work ahead and no remaining daylight between you and your due date. Or maybe you simply have a lot of projects coming down to the wire all at the same time, as frequently happens with finals week and sometimes midterms as well. When these situations come up, you have to make the choice as to whether pulling an all-nighter will ultimately help you or harm you.
When debating whether to force my brain to essentially work overtime, there are some important considerations. The first is whether I am currently running a sleep debt already – some weeks I will sleep less than I really should and that loss accumulates. At that point, piling an all-nighter on top runs the very real risk of mutating me into a zombie rather than a functional person. The best time for an all-nighter is when you are well-rested already. The second thing to do is look into the future and check to make sure you won’t be repeating this process every night for the next week. There is no way you will be running at full capacity after staying up for more than 48 hours straight. For an all-night study session, it is best to be well-rested before and well-rested afterward.
If you aren’t facing an overwhelming lack of sleep after considering the past and future, then your attention needs to turn to what you will be doing the night of. All-nighters are good for rote studying and cramming, but not necessarily the best for critical analysis. If you need to apply a lot of intellectual power to an assignment, it is better to do that first and leave any memorization for afterward – avoiding a brain burnout before you even get around to the most mentally challenging requirement. Before you set out on your sleepless, studytastic night, make a schedule. Even if all semester you have avoided budgeting your time, you really do need this. Cram sessions are so crammy because there is a severe time shortage. In addition, abandoning sleep tends to compromise your judgement. It is better to look at your schedule and let your brain follow that than improvise on the fly – that’s a recipe for night-before panic. Scholastic all-nighters require discipline, and the channeling of that anxiety into results instead of hopeless stress.
With all that said, all-nighters are bad for you. Humans sleep an average of eight hours a night for a reason, and denying your brain REM sleep has all sorts of nasty consequences that are still being studied. One of the more interesting results that was recently found was that REM sleep is important to the formation of memories: every sleep session, the brain is cataloging the events of the day before by storing information and making new connections. It is easier to remember what you did last Monday if you had some good rest Monday night. All-nighters short your memory-making circuits. Therefore, while they are practical for getting you through the exam the next day, they are detrimental to retaining knowledge long-term.
There are ways to help mitigate the negative effects of amputating eight hours of brain-healing downtime. If possible, take a short nap the afternoon before. Avoid junk food: you don’t want to make things harder on your body than they already will be. If you need caffeine to help keep you awake, manage your dosage: don’t binge that evening and risk a meltdown at four in the morning. Imbibe small servings throughout the night instead. Eliminate as many distractions as possible because they will divide your already compromised focus. It helps if you have like-minded friends who want to study with you at the same time, because you can police each other and keep yourselves on-task (Important: friends who are not study-brained will not be as helpful for your focus). Once you have passed your deadline, taken your exam, turned in your paper, presented your project: SLEEP. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Your brain will thank you, and hopefully forgive you for abusing it the night before.
My last scholastic all-nighter? Very successful. I completed a 15-page paper, worked on another, and studied for an exam the next morning. The paper got finished, good progress was made on the second, and I felt much more confident for the exam – pretty sure I got a good score! The largest chunk of what I had left to do before semester’s end is gone, and I just have three papers (all in-progress), one class project, and one final exam left to do before I’m home free. And I can finally break off my love-hate relationship with all-night study sessions for good.