How to Get Through a Workday on No Sleep

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So, you couldn’t sleep last night. You’d like nothing more than to go back to bed, but you’ve got a long day of work staring you in the face. How do you power through? 

Science of Us talked to sleep researchers to figure out how to get through a day after you’ve had a sleepless night. Each of them wanted to be incredibly clear, up front, about this: You really, really need seven to eight hours of sleep to function like a proper human being (unless you’re one of those short sleepers — but look, you aren’t). Still, they acknowledged, sleepless nights happen, and sometimes they happen to busy people who’ve got stuff to do the next day.

Consider this a template: Maybe not all of their advice will directly apply to you, because you work nights, or you work from home, or you work extremely long days. But, very broadly speaking, here’s the best way to structure a very sleepy day so you can make it to the end. 

7 a.m.: Your alarm goes off. You will want to hit the snooze button. Resist this urge. “Oh my God. No snooze,” says Orfeu Buxton, a professor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Don’t insult yourself like that.” It feels good — no, it feels awesome — in the moment, but those seven-minute extra increments of dozing aren’t actually restorative sleep and won’t make you any more alert. You’d do better to set your alarm for the latest possible moment — when you actually have to get out of bed and start getting yourself together — in order to get the most sleep possible.

7:30 a.m.: Eat breakfast. Research suggests that eating within an hour of waking up will boost your mood and cognitive performance for the early part of your day. Like with your snooze button, you’re going to have to exercise some willpower here, too; sleepy people tend to crave simple carbs and sugar, Buxton says, but those are a bad bet for the sleep-deprived. “Anything that causes that sugar spike and insulin spike is followed by a crash, so it’s going to make you more sleepy later,” he said. Stick to whole grains, protein, maybe a little fruit. “The junk will help, but only for about 20 minutes. It’s exactly like the snooze button,” Buxton said.

Also: Have (a little) caffeine. Experts recommend no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. (For reference: One eight-ounce cup of regular coffee has about 100 milligrams of caffeine.) Use it wisely. You’ll be feeling very groggy just after waking up — this is something researchers call sleep inertia — but after 20 or 30 minutes, the fog will clear a bit. “After that sleep inertia phase, there’ll be a rebound period of alertness,” Buxton said. “There’s the least reason to have coffee then. That coffee will be much more helpful midday.” His own personal early a.m. caffeine routine, if you’d like to borrow it, is a small espresso.   

8 a.m.: Get outside. Surrounding yourself with as much bright light, especially natural light, as possible will help you feel more alert, explains Sean Drummond, a psychiatrist at the Laboratory of Sleep and Behavioral Neuroscience at University of California, San Diego. “First thing in the morning is one of the most important times,” he said. “It’ll boost alertness, it’ll up your body temperature, it’ll reset your circadian rhythms.” But don’t wear sunglasses. “If you wear your sunglasses, the right frequency of sunlight can’t get into your eyes,” which means you don’t get as much of the cognitive boost as you could, Drummond said. So within the first hour or so of waking up, get outside and get some natural light, if you can.

And you get bonus points for an a.m. jog, says Lauren Hale, a sleep researcher at Stony Brook University and a spokesperson for the National Sleep Foundation. “The evidence is mixed, but there are theoretical reasons that you should exercise earlier in the morning, especially if you’re going to be outside doing a run,” she said. “You want the light effects, which are the alerting effects.” If that’s not going to happen, though, and you live and work in New York City, your morning walk to the train will suffice.  

9 a.m.: Get your toughest tasks done first. You will want to procrastinate your creative work in favor of your busy work, telling yourself that you’ll get to the thinky stuff after you’ve had some time to wake up. Again: Resist this urge. “That’s the path for despair,” Buxton said.  Because, unfortunately, this is it; it’s the most alert you’ll be all day. Best take advantage of it, because it’s a very small window for the sleep-deprived brain, opening about one hour after waking and closing two hours later. “So get critical tasks out of the way first,” Buxton says. “A different construct would be: I’m almost totally out of gas; I need to use all of that for the most important things, and nothing else.” 

10 a.m.: Have another cup of coffee. A caffeine pro-tip for the sleep-deprived: The attention-boosting and alertness effects of caffeine may not kick in until 30 minutes after you’ve consumed it. So if you’re grabbing a cup of coffee on your way to a morning meeting, you could already be too late.

11 a.m.: Maybe lie low today, as much as you’re able. Okay, this isn’t really a time-specific task. But if you’re really out of it, you might consider rescheduling meetings or phone calls, if possible. “Sometimes, positive interactions with others are rewarding and alerting,” Buxton says. “The problem is the sleep-deprived person in that interaction. It’s been shown that sleep-deprived people are less able to detect others' nonverbal cues, that they are more curmudgeonly, and not the most communicative in team situations.

“So if you’re feeling surly, maybe you should avoid people, and not set yourself up for failure,” he continued. “It’s really best to interact with others when you can be your best.”

Noon: Have a (light) lunch. Again, stick with the healthy stuff: whole grains, veggies, lean protein. Stay away from the simple carbs and sugar. You’ll naturally feel sleepier in the afternoon, anyway, but eating a too-heavy lunch will make it even worse.

1 p.m.: Have some more coffee. Or tea, or whatever your caffeine mode of choice may be. Even when you’re operating on a good night’s sleep, your drowsiest time of the day tends to be six to eight hours after waking. But cut yourself off from the caffeine no later than 3 p.m.; the alertness effects from caffeine can stay in your system up to seven hours, and you don’t want to suffer through one sleep-deprived day only to set yourself up for another tomorrow. 

2 p.m.: Best-case scenario: take a nap. This is usually the part in a sleep story where the writer urges you to take a nap, which always seems a little absurd. Who has time for that? If you can squeeze a quick nap in — maybe behind your closed office door or in your car if you drive one to work — your afternoon will be better for it. “Even a 20-minute nap’s restorative powers can last for hours,” Buxton said.

Second-best scenario: Get back outside. “If you’re feeling really groggy, but can’t take a nap, just go outside for a few minutes,” Drummond said. But, again, leave the sunglasses behind.

3 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.: Power through some busy work. You know the things you’ve been meaning to do but have been putting off forever? Replying to emails, organizing your inbox — that kind of stuff? Do it now. These tasks don’t require as much focused attention, and by the afternoon, you’re not going to have much of that. A very sleepy person, in fact, has trouble concentrating for more than ten minutes at a time, Drummond said. Then, when you’re done, sneak out a little early, if at all possible. Say sleep scientists told you to.