How to Pull an All Nighter

Studying Tips, When You Have to Cram

Pulling an all nighter isn't ideal, but if you have to do it, a little preparation can make it more bearable.
Pulling an all nighter isn't ideal, but if you have to do it, a little preparation can make it more bearable. Sam Diephuis / Getty Images

So you need to pull an all-nighter? Take it from someone who has been there and done that. It's a hard thing to do. Here are tips and tricks to make the most of it, whether you're cramming for a test or have to get that lab report or problem set done before tomorrow.

Key Takeaways: How to Pull an All Nighter

  • Staying up all night long to study or complete a project isn't ideal, but sometimes it just needs to be done.
  • If you know you're going to have to burn the midnight oil, go into it prepared. First, make certain it's necessary. Try to get rest beforehand. Organize in advance.
  • Working when you're tired doesn't usually lead to as good an outcome as if you had done the job when alert. You may want to drink coffee or another caffeinated beverage to keep going.
  • Finally, plan for the time after the all nighter. If you can get sleep, do so. If you're cramming for a test, nap beforehand if you can, but be sure to set a (loud) alarm.

The Disclaimer

First, you probably already know sleep deprivation isn't good for you. Don't pull an all-nighter if you're in grade school or middle school. It's not a good plan in high school either. This advice mainly is intended for college students, grad school students and working stiffs who just have to make it through the night. If you don't have to pull an all-nighter... then don't. If you do, here's how to achieve it and what to avoid.

  1. Make sure it's unavoidable.
    If you're staying up all night to study, keep in mind cramming is terrible in terms of long-term memory retention. If it's to do a job, write a paper or lab or solve problems, expect that the task will take longer than it would if you were well-rested.
  2. Organize beforehand.
    Gather all your materials so that you don't need to go looking for anything later. Don't give yourself any excuses to get off task during the night.
  3. Nap.
    If possible, take a brief nap sometime during the afternoon or early evening. Even 20 minutes may help you. Ideally, you want 2-3 hours. I have had good success catching a nap after drinking one of the sleep-promoting drinks containing valerian or melatonin. If those supplements work for you, fine. If they don't work or you haven't tried them, avoid them. No matter what, try to go into the evening as well-rested as possible.
  4. Enlist help.
    If you can, pull your all-nighter with a friend. This could even be an online friend if that is easier.
  5. Make your environment stimulating.
    Make it difficult to fall asleep. One helpful trick is to make it as cold as you can stand. It may help to listen to upbeat music or have a movie or television program on in the background to keep you entertained. Try either harsh, irritating music or else pick songs with lyrics and sing along out loud. Tap your feet and move around. If you find yourself dozing off, pinch yourself or rub an ice cube on your face.
  6. Avoid caffeine or use it strategically.
    Caffeine is a stimulant and it can help keep you awake, but you need to plan for the "caffeine crash". Caffeine is short-lived in your system. You can expect it to help wake you up somewhere between 10-30 minutes after ingesting it. You'll get between half an hour and 1-1/2 hours of alertness from it. You could drink another cup of coffee or cola, but you'll reach a point where your body either stops responding or else you'll feel sick or jittery. On the plus side, caffeine is a natural diuretic, so you'll need to get up to urinate more often. The activity can help keep you awake, providing you don't allow it to distract you.Nicotine and other stimulants can help keep you awake too, but now is not the time to get experimental. If you smoke or use nicotine, you'll know what to expect. Otherwise, try to avoid drugs. Most stimulants will leave you more tired than if you made it through the night without them.
  7. Exercise
    Take a break for a few minutes every hour. During that break, get up and move around. Maybe do some jumping jacks or pushups. If you raise your heart rate you'll help to wake yourself up.
  8. Keep it bright.
    Your brain is hardwired to be awake during the daytime. Keep your surroundings as bright as possible to help keep yourself awake.
  9. Use fear.
    If you are genuinely frightened by scary movies or paranoid about unlocked doors or windows, then watch that movie or leave the building a little less secure than you'd like. Make fear and paranoia into your allies.
  10. Eat right.
    You need energy to make it through the night, but that doesn't mean you need an all-you-can-eat buffet. On the contrary, some people do better staying awake if they are hungry. Ideally, eat small portions of high protein snacks. Nibbling on fresh fruit also is good. Save the pizza, burgers and fries for another time.

More Tips To Pull an All-Nighter

  • Drink ice water. The cold actually helps. Also, dehydration can make you sleepy.
  • Apply a bit of menthol petrolatum or lip balm. The cold sensation is stimulating.
  • Add spice to any food you eat. Hot peppers are an option.
  • Set an alarm to go off every half an hour. Turning it off will signal a short break for you. If you fall asleep, at least you won't lose the whole night.
  • If you complete your task early, get some sleep! Set your alarm, so you won't miss that important meeting or deadline and also so you can truly relax. Even an hour or two of rest can help recharge you so you'll make it through the day.

Things To Avoid

Some things will sabotage your efforts to stay away or be productive. Avoid them!

  • Don't drink alcohol. It's a central nervous system depressant that will slow you down even if it doesn't put you to sleep.
  • Don't get comfortable. Avoid working in bed or on a comfortable chair or in a warm room. Don't listen to calming, soothing music. Any of these things can lead to an unintentional nap.
  • Don't take a nap at night. It's too easy to stay asleep. If you have to do this, set a time limit and use a strong alarm to wake yourself up.
  • Avoid eyestrain. If you wear contacts, you may want to take them out. If you are using a computer, turn down the brightness a bit.
  • Avoid fatty, high carbohydrate food. You know how you feel after a big meal? Falling into a food coma would not be helpful!

Study Tips and Help

Need more help? Learn how to cram (chemistry, but good for other disciplines) and how to write a lab report.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "How to Pull an All Nighter." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 28). How to Pull an All Nighter. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "How to Pull an All Nighter." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).