Ten Tips For Coping With Lots Of Rough Nights

My namesake and fellow educational technologist Doug Belshaw has some handy tips for remaining productive after a rough night. There’s a big difference between coping with a single bad night’s sleep, and coping with chronic sleep deprivation. As Doug B says,

Whether it’s being woken up several times by our children, the eternal racket of noisy neighbours, or simply going to bed late and sleeping restlessly, we’ve all been in the situation where we need to be productive after a rough night.

But some people have to cope with the situation where where they need to remain productive after a prolonged series of rough nights, with no immediate prospect of improvement. It could be caring responsibilities of some sort, it could be a chronic health condition, it could be really very antisocial neighbours, or numerous other things. As one who is emerging slowly from just such a situation after several years, I can attest that what you need to do is very different. So, for instance, Doug B’s first tip is:

1. Don’t snooze

The likelihood is that if you’re having a rough night you’ll probably wake up half an hour to an hour before your usual waking-up time. Get up! Whilst it’s tempting to stay in bed, snoozing actually has a worse effect on your productivity than getting up and getting on with your day.

You can always go to bed early at the other end!

This is great advice … unless there’s no prospect of you going to bed any earlier at the other end.

So here’s my – fairly unscientific – set of ten tips for anyone facing a similar situation.

1. Sleep whenever you can

The best advice I’ve ever come across was from a sleep researcher who was looking in to the effect of sleep patterns and concentration in groups like pilots and drivers, and he was unequivocal that the effects of timing of sleep (afternoon naps, caffeine naps, early/late rising, etc – he had some interesting findings that I can now remember) are negligible if you’re chronically sleep deprived, in which case the best advice is to sleep whenever you can. If you’re always short of sleep, an extra half an hour to an hour a day is worth grabbing whenever it happens.

Parents of infants are often advised to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’. This sounds Ok, but can be very bad advice when the baby will only sleep when you’re driving at a steady 70mph. ‘Sleep whenever you can’ is much better.

The driving issue leads on to what should’ve been the first thing:

2. Safety first

Sleep deprivation kills. At the extremes, lab rats die if kept awake for a couple of weeks, and humans with very rare conditions like fatal familial insomnia die after going without sleep at all for three months.

But it can kill you or others without going that far.

Sleep deprivation leaves you clumsy and with poor concentration, prone to ‘microsleeps’ where your brain goes to sleep while your eyes stay open.  Those helpful warnings on bottles of medicine say that if they cause drowsiness you should not drive or operate heavy machinery. That’s not always possible in a prolonged sleep situation, but do be careful if you have to drive.

Airline pilots have a good principle for prioritisation: “Aviate, navigate, communicate”, also expressed as “First, fly the plane.” Getting there on time is not as important as staying alive.

3. Prioritise fixing the problem

The thing that’s stopping you sleeping properly is fairly intractable, or you wouldn’t be chronically sleep-deprived. And dealing with big, difficult problems is particularly hard when you’re short of sleep. You can develop coping mechanisms so you can get most things that really have to get done done. But don’t forget to try to work on improving things.

4. Know your limits

Sleep deprivation causes all sorts of bad things for the knowledge worker: memory lapses, lack of creativity, lack of focus, poor concentration, cognitive impairment, impaired judgement, memory lapses, thinking that tired old jokes are worth repeating, and memory lapses.

That’s not good. You need to bear that in mind and manage accordingly. It’s hard.

Sleep is also associated with all sorts of very serious physical and mental troubles, which are largely supported by strong evidence that I don’t have time to go in to. (But I do have to point out his classic piece of recent science reporting – the University press release is headlined “Short Sleep Increases Risk of Death & Over Long Sleep Can Indicate Serious Illness“, which of course gets reported in the press as Sleeping For Six Hours May Cause Early Death. So far as I can tell, what the researchers actually found through a meta-analysis was a correlation between short duration of sleep and a greater risk of death.)

You will have to push yourself physically, probably beyond points where you would previously have stopped and rested. Try to learn where the hard limits on what your body can do are, and respect those. Going over them loses you more.

Eating well and exercising are also helpful. Of course, they’re also very hard to do when you’re short of sleep and time.

5. Stop trying to remember things

Write it all down.

My ability to remember the things I needed to actually got better when my memory got shot, since I stopped trying to hold anything in my head and always relied on what I’d written down. Now when someone tells me something I need to remember I insist on writing it down because I know I’ll otherwise forget it. This was a change of habit that really paid off. Which leads me to …

6. Develop good routines

It’s hard to change routines when you’re so tired, but it’s worth the effort if it can make your life easier to lead on autopilot. Which leads on to …

7. On good days, don’t work as usual

On those blessed days when you have managed to get a half-decent night’s sleep, or for some reason you’re not feeling it so badly, don’t just do what you’d normally do. Instead, use the time to do all the imaginative, creative and hard-thinking stuff that you can’t do when you’re exhausted.

Something that really works for me – when I can manage to do it – is to transform large, tricky jobs in to a series of smaller, simpler steps that even a shambling zombie could do. But don’t do them when you’re alert! Save those simple steps for when you only have a shambling zombie available for work.

8. Be ruthless

This gets easier when you’re constrained.

It includes being satisfied with a job which isn’t quite as good as you planned but is still good enough. For instance, a blog post with a list of ten tips which only contains nine.

9. Don’t beat yourself up

Any progress is good. You won’t always make the best decisions about prioritisation, even though the pressure to prioritise well is much greater.

If you end up reading blogs not absolutely relevant to the most important thing you’re supposed to be doing right now (or even, heaven help you, writing them) that’s Ok.

But perhaps now is a good time to work on one of those important things.

You do that right away. I’m just going to check email and Twitter quickly first …

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.

Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

6 thoughts on “Ten Tips For Coping With Lots Of Rough Nights”

  1. I have several late, but not always rough, nights, and I find that willpower to cope the next day goes a long way, as long as I do get a good night’s sleep at the other end.


  2. Good advice. For the chronically deprived I’d add:

    – Understand nutrition and sort out your diet.

    I found this out recently. Three years of very broken nights had wrecked my diet, because it’d turned into ‘sugar when I can get it’. Making sure you’re not eating all-carb rubbish is a good way to maintain proper insulin response, balance out your blood sugar and energy. Prevents post-meal crashes.

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