The Lost Art of the All-Nighter

I love all-nighters. I don’t know what it is. There’s just something about staying up from dusk to dawn working on a project, burning the midnight oil as I push the limits of what’s possible. I often do my best work and have my best ideas in the middle of the night. Whether that’s because I inherently function better then or it’s just because my all-nighters are when I’m doped up on stimulating chemicals remains to be seen, but either way, there’s a certain magic that happens in those late night hours. It’s like a fire ignites in my brain, powering a prolific machine that will continue running at full throttle until it collapses from sheer exhaustion.

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It’s been said that intelligent people do their best work late at night. I often like to look at the graphic above and think fondly of what it implies. It gives me a smug sense of superiority every time I see it. I’m better than you plebe morning people, you common folk who enjoy sitting in Starbucks and socializing over your lattés during the late AM hours. I’m a true patrician with my lone sleepless nights. It’s not because I’m disorganized and suck at scheduling my day and have no structure in my life. It’s because I’m an Übermensche whose powers are triggered by the soul-devouring twilight. I am a creature of the night.

There’s a certain romantic appeal to those late-night sessions of coding and hacking. There’s a sense of sacrificing some of your health and well-being for a greater cause – the completion of a project, the pursuit of further knowledge and skills, the nurturing of an idea from a mere mental seed into a full reality. It’s certainly not easy, and it can be draining sometimes. I only pull one every now and then, preferably once a week maximum. Staying awake and focused on the task at hand is a challenge in itself, which is why you need a recipe. Here are my ingredients for a successful all-nighter:

  • Caffeine – Lots of it. I used to get it from sodas, but I’m more health-conscious now, so now I get all my caffeine from green and black tea. Though I suppose if I were truly health-conscious I wouldn’t be depriving myself of sleep, since sleep is probably the most important thing to your health. But I figure if I compensate through novel health practices like yoga and intermittent water fasting, it’ll all balance out.
  • Food (or not) – A lot of people in the hacker community have a tendency to pig out when they’re doing their late-night hacks. Pizza, microwaved burritos, and Chinese take-out are among the cult favorites. I’ve tried this approach and for some reason it just doesn’t work for me. I can’t focus on eating a pizza and programming at the same time, and besides, how are you supposed to do that without getting grease all over the keyboard? No, I find that what works best for me is either dry cereal, or nothing at all. So I’ll fuel myself on Earl Gray tea and Apple Jacks, or just tea (fasting mode), and that’s how I get myself through those grueling nights of hyper-productivity.
  • Music – For those all-night hacking runs I like something vibrant and lively to listen to during breaks, or if I’m up for a real challenge, while I’m working. Maybe some drumstep or electro, maybe some Aphex Twin, maybe some Crystal Method. I definitely don’t like to listen to conventional music at a time like this. Although they are trying, my all-nighters are also times of persistent euphoria; I feel as if I’ve entered another world, as the reality of everyday life melts away into the confusion around me. So I prefer to complement that mood with music that’s kinda out there.
  • A million Post-It Notes – Like I said, I have my best ideas in the middle of the night. So I utilize those late hours for brainstorming as well as for coding. Some nights I will literally cover my wall with an army of Post-It notes that have all my ideas on them. These ideas could be anything from ways to implement my programs to marketing strategies for future business ventures.
  • Enough books to fill a small library – Books are my greatest ally whether I’m doing a research project, or building something software-wise, or just casually studying. The wealth and depth of information that’s available in them is far greater than your typical web tutorial. I have four bookcases in my room that are lined with all kinds of manuals, textbooks, etc. Everything I need to build my vision.

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The Jargon File defines Hack Mode as “a Zen-like state of total focus on The Problem that may be achieved when one is hacking”. I am very familiar with this state of mind, as well as with the unpleasant feeling of being yanked out of that state before I’m ready. I find it’s easiest to enter Hack Mode during the late night hours, mainly because there are no distractions. Everyone else is asleep, the house is completely silent and still, and I have the whole world to myself. It is at this time that I’m able to enter that state of superhuman focus, where nothing else matters, and all that is, is the project at hand.

The Jargon File doesn’t mention this, but Hack Mode is actually a special case of a generalized mental state called “flow”, also colloquially known as “The Zone”. It’s a state of mind where time slows down, and in fact your sense of time entirely disappears. It’s a place where all other concerns melt into the background noise and you are left with a complete and undivided focus on what you are trying to accomplish. It’s also a state of sheer euphoria, an endorphin rush that not even heroin can elicit. And there’s actually a formula, a definite way in which you can enter this state. You do it by engaging in an activity that is just slightly beyond your skill level. If you regularly challenge yourself and put yourself in situations where you’re forced to adapt and improve to meet new challenges, you will have mastered the state of flow.

The night is often an ideal time for achieving a state of flow, again, because there are no distractions. Also, our perception of time is impaired during these hours due to the persistent state of darkness outside and the fact that the lighting doesn’t change as it does during the day when the sun is moving from east to west, providing a rough indicator of what part of the day we are in and dividing the waking period into morning, noon, afternoon, and evening depending on the the direction the light is coming from. Days are heterogeneous; nights are homogeneous. Because of this, there is less of a sense of urgency to a task when you have a bigger block of time to work with, and the mind is allowed to wander and experiment, or to fixate on one thing for several hours at a time. I can’t imagine doing the same thing from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM (yeah, I know I just described the traditional workday, and I say fuck that shit), but I would have no problem devoting a huge chunk of time to one thing during the night hours.

Of course you don’t want to overdo it. There comes a point where pulling one all-nighter after another just isn’t worth it, due to the severe impact it can have on your mind and body. I’ve been there, done that. I just recently had to readjust my sleep schedule, because I had been sleeping very irregularly, and my memory and other cognitive functions were severely impaired. It was to the point where I would have trouble remembering something that happened mere seconds ago. We’re not even talking about short-term memory anymore; we’re talking about working memory now. Once working memory starts going south, it’s pretty difficult to function at all. You won’t notice these cognitive impairments from just pulling the occasional all-nighter here and there, but if you make it a habit, it can totally destroy your life.

In the end, it’s all about striking a balance. Don’t pull an all-nighter just for the hell of it. Only do it if there’s something specific you want to work on. There have been times I was a habitual night owl (because my sleep schedule has evolved and fluctuated quite a bit over the years) where sometimes I would stay up all night surfing the web, or doing stupid OCD stuff with files on my computer. There is no greater waste than when you sacrifice your health and well-being for something stupid, when you abuse your mind and body for no reason. The all-nighter is a powerful thing, and with great power comes great responsibility. Use it wisely.

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