How to get through the day when you've had zero sleep.

When this happens after just two hours sleep…






In an ideal world, all of us would get eight or nine hours of sleep. Every single night.

But this isn’t an ideal world. Life is cruel and constantly throws unexpected, sleep-interrupting situations at us.

Youtube wormholes, crazy flight schedules, uni assignments, sick children, addictive TV show marathons, unexpected big drinking nights… they all happen and leave us sleep-deprived and cranky.

Luckily for us, the human body has made it possible to get through a work day even when you’ve barely had any sleep. You just have to play it the right way to avoid everyone else cottoning on to the fact that you’re so tired that your face is pretty much melting off.

Last week, NY Mag did this brilliant thing where they consulted a whole lot of sleep scientists and put together their recommendations for how to get through the day when you’ve had minimal sleep. The full article is here, but if you’d like a summary, here are the most important findings:

– Breakfast and coffee are important. Food and caffeine will clear the fog of sleepiness just enough for you to get your shit together for a few hours – but make it healthy food. According to the article, “anything that causes that sugar spike and insulin spike is followed by a crash, so it’s going to make you more sleepy later.” Also, limit the coffee, because too much of it is actually ineffective. Lame.

Getting outside is also good, because fresh air and sunshine will wake you up (and so will freezing-cold rain, if you’re in the middle of a winter rainstorm).

Get things done early. You have a limited window of opportunity in the morning when you’re most alert, so use it for the tasks that demand the most attention. Save the dull stuff for the afternoon, when you’ll really be battling to focus on anything: “A very sleepy person, in fact, has trouble concentrating for more than ten minutes at a time.”

– Have a nap. If you can sneak away, even into a bathroom cubicle, for even 20 minutes: “Even a 20-minute nap’s restorative powers can last for hours.”

I love all of the above tips. I really do. And they’re backed-up by science, so that makes them even better.

But I’ve also done a whole lot of work days off the back of sleepless nights, due to the particularly stupid combination of trying to finish a law degree while also working a lot. And I have some very different and, er, very non-scientific tips for what works for me when I’ve managed to get approximately one hour of shut-eye in an evening…


(Of course, the below only really work when you’re having the odd sleepless night due to odd circumstances – one every few months or so. It won’t work if you’re chronically sleep-deprived. For that, you should really chat to your doctor.)

Sound familiar?

1. Use the Sleepytime Bedtime Calculator to calculate your wake-up time, regardless of how much sleep you’re planning on getting. The calculator measures your sleep cycles and gives you a time to wake up when you’ll be in the lightest stage of sleep. You’ll probably still be groggy, but you’ll feel better than you would if your alarm went off in the middle of a dream.

2. Have a shower and make sure you wet your hair. Have a cold shower if you can manage it. This will make you inevitably feel slightly more refreshed.

3. Be liberal with the make-up, especially the concealer and mascara. Concealer hides the dark circles and mascara opens up your eyes. You don’t want people looking at you and saying, “Oh! You look so tired!” It just makes you feel even more tired. And shitty. And tired.

4. Bail on as many things as humanly possible. This is just not the day to attempt to be a superhuman and get absolutely everything done. Don’t feel obliged to go out to dinner – stay home and sleep on the couch instead. Don’t say yes to the crazy gym workout – promise yourself that you’ll get a decent night’s sleep tonight and go tomorrow instead. You don’t want to lose any of the minimal remaining energy that you still have.


5. After bailing on things, make a to-do list of the remaining things in the day that you still have to get done – and tick them off as you go along. At the end of the list, write “YOU CAN NOW GO HOME AND SLEEP”. It’s a good incentive.

6. Make yourself colder. If you’re in a warm, cosy environment, you’re more likely to get drowsy. Take off your jumper or open a window to get a bit of chill into your veins and keep you awake for longer. Splash cold water on your face or pull out an ice-pack and use liberally on your eyes and cheeks.

7. Stand up as much as possible. It’s harder to fall asleep if you’re standing on the bus, rather than sitting down with your head resting on the window.

8. Yes, sugar will send you on a sugar high and you will inevitably suffer when you crash out from that sugar high. But sometimes, you just have to eat the sugar. There have been life moments where I cannot possibly face oats and a green salad – a red bull and a pack of peanut M&Ms are the only things that are going to get me through.

And yes, sometimes breakfast M&Ms can occasionally be an absolute lifesaver.

What do you do to stay awake when you’ve had absolutely no sleep?