What Happened When I Went to Work on 2 Hours of Sleep

Let’s get one thing straight: I love sleep.

Every day, at least once a day, I think about how great it would be to just lay down and go to sleep, or even just take a quick nap.  On the weekends I try to sleep in at least one day until 9:00 or so (usually on Saturday, since that’s my no-work day) and go to bed early one night so I can get caught up, since sleep debts can have some pretty nasty effects if you’re not careful.  My favorite time to sleep is on cold winter nights, covered in extra blankets, and I sleep a lot better during those nights too.

For me, functioning on a minimal amount of sleep holds a special place alongside ice skating, parallel parking, and remembering my friends’ birthdays: I’m just not very good at it.

That’s why I got royally screwed last week when I ran up against a deadline for a Secret Project I Can’t Talk About On This Blog Yet, which absolutely, no-exceptions, not-fucking-around had to be done by Friday morning.  I’d estimated that the project would be relatively easy to finish in a few evenings on my usual 8:00 pm to 11:00 am creative work schedule, with maybe an extra hour or so on Thursday night to finish things up.

However, in pretty equal portions, I can chalk what happened up to 1)The project and deadline coming in at the last minute, and 2)My drastically underestimating the amount of time it would take.


Ian’s All Nighter Play-By-Play

By Wednesday night I still had a ways to go and started getting nervous.  This led me to keep working past midnight in hope of making up for lost time, though by 12:30 I felt my work getting sloppy and knew I had to turn in or the next night would be really, really rough.

For me (and others too, I suspect) it’s about a bajillion times easier to stay up super late if I’ve been well-rested for the past several nights.  On the flip side, if I’m working off a bunch of nights with 6 or 7 hours sleep apiece, I might be OK to make it through a regular day, but a super-late night is going to leave me super-wasted and barely functional.

So it was that when Thursday night rolled around I was already tired, and lay down for a half hour of rest (i.e., eyes closed but not actually sleeping) since I knew it was going to be a long night.  This helped get me off to a better start, and for the first two hours I was cruising.  By 11:30, though,  I was getting tired again, so I took another eyes closed break—which then turned into an unplanned, one-hour nap.

That nap actually helped me keep up some pretty good work for the next five hours—mostly focused on the project with the help of that drive that pushes you to finish something under pressure.  (PhD Comics explains the all-nighter working arc pretty well here.)

Every hour or so, though, I caught myself feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or having trouble focusing, so I’d take another brief lie-down break with my eyes closed away from the computer, and I thankfully didn’t fall asleep during any of them.  These breaks lasted about ten minutes, and they were definitely necessary to get me through to the end.

Finally, at long last, I finished everything around 5:00am, crawled into bed, and was immediately struck by that phenomenon where you CAN’T GO TO SLEEP EVEN THOUGH YOU’RE REALLY, REALLY TIRED and lay in bed frustrated for about a half hour, which is pretty much the worst feeling ever.

…until I woke up two hours later to my alarm.

Needless to say, going to work that Friday was not fun (I won’t tell you exactly how not fun it was, since that would break my rules about Day Job-related secrecy).  Suffice it to say that the moment work was over I walked to my car, drove immediately home, closed my shades, and took a four-hour nap.


What We Can Learn From This Experience

The moral of the story is that even though I finished the project in time and it (probably) came out as well as it would have without the super-late night, the whole ordeal left me feeling like absolute garbage for my entire Day Job workday before I napped away the rest of my evening and finished the day with nothing to show for it.

Before that night, in thinking about sleep debt I’d always reasoned that you could pull an all-nighter to get your shit done when necessary, then just sleep an equal amount later to balance out the sleep you lost on the late night, so that in the long run you weren’t really gaining or losing any time at all, just maximizing the amount of time you had available before the deadline.

But was this really the case? I just did some quick math to find out whether the time I spent staying up working on the project balanced out the extra time I spent catching up on my sleep debt after it was over, and here’s what I found:


Extra Time Spent Working on Project Instead of Sleeping


Wed: 1.5 hours (11:00pm to 12:30am)

Thur: ~ 4.5 hours (11:00pm to 5:00am, minus an hourlong nap and 4 ten-minute dozes)

Total: 6 Hours


Extra Time Spent Napping, Eyes-Closed Resting, and Catching Up On Sleep



8:00pm to 8:30pm: 30 minutes

11:30pm to 12:30am: 60 minutes

~1:00am: 10 minutes

~2:00am: 10 minutes

~3:00am: 10 minutes

~4:00am: 10 minutes



~ 1:00pm to 1:30pm (drove to an out-of-the-way parking lot to take a lunchtime doze in my car): 0.5 hours

6:15pm to 10:15pm (after-work nap): 4 hours



9:00am to 10:00am (sleeping later than usual): 1 hour



9:00am to 11:30am (sleeping WAY later than usual): 2.5 hours


Total Time Napping/Catching Up on Sleep: 10 hours


YIKES! I was actually doing OK until Saturday night, when I crashed hard at my usual weekend time (~1:00am) and didn’t wake up until 11:30 because I was still so incredibly tired.  All told, the combination of my marathon series of Thursday night naps and my weekend catchup sessions totaled four more hours spent sleeping than doing actual late-night work, meaning that even though I got the project done, I definitely came out the loser in terms of available time.

Losing four hours to this last-minute project wasn’t cool, but it’s served as a really good reminder of why I shouldn’t do this again, and plus I got an extra blog entry out of it, so that’s a perk ;-)

In general, though, this experience has shown me more than ever how important it is to keep as consistent of a work schedule as you can, ESPECIALLY in terms of sleep and rest, because otherwise your body’s going to fight back and beat you every time.  In contrast, a consistent schedule with adequate time for sleep will help you better use the time that you have, which leaves you with more time you can use to accomplish even more work, do something fun, or enjoy a much-needed break.

Because as we’ve seen, breaks are important too.

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