All Nighters Are Dangerous Myths

by | Jul 4, 2018 | Careers, College, Life


“You lack the season of all natures, sleep.”

William Shakespeare, Macbeth


College students rarely pull all-nighters.

Those that claim they do are either lying, exaggerating, or grossly mismanaging their time. This is a dangerous narrative that creates unnecessary stress for the average anxious/over-performing student.

Work smarter, not harder.

The Background

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a magnet program in high school (International Baccalaureate Program), and a top-tier university (NYU)—meaning I’ve been surrounded by intelligent, dedicated, and competitive peers for most of my educational experience. 

An environment such as this has its perks. As someone with a naturally stoic demeanor, I enjoy being in high-pressure/stress situations, as they challenge me to elevate my performance without any of the obvious emotional or physical downsides. 

Naturally, the kind of people inclined to pursue positions at these institutions tend to come from similarly minded families—often wealthy, college-educated, cultured backgrounds. Even if they don’t (such as myself), they share common characteristics including: open-mindedness, humility, ambition, etc. 

All that is me trying to say that I strongly enjoy being around these kinds of people, and learning and working alongside them as they’re great to collaborate with, and learn from.

That being said, there are definitely negative aspects of the ambitious college/high school student archetype. This can include: stunted social skills, lack of common sense, warped perception of the “real world,” a sense of superiority, a savior complex, so on and so forth. These can be present in certain students to varying degrees, but by and large everyone happens to have at least one of the aforementioned characteristics.

This post however will be focusing on a very particular mindset, and the resulting myth that  results from having this mindset. Due to the hyper-competitive nature of these students, and their general insecurity, many of them have a tendency to either—underplay the amount of work they do to maintain the high GPAs and test scores they have, OR grossly exaggerate the amount of work they do as some sort of dick-wagging competition.

We’ll concentrate on the latter tendency, and specifically the phenomenon that is: bragging about all-nighters.

The Myth

“I’m not looking forward to this all-nighter tonight.” “I had to pull an all-nighter last night.” “Looks like I’m doing an all-nighter.” “I better get some coffee to keep me up for my all-nighter.”

If you’ve been in environments similar to the ones I’ve described, chances are you’ve heard some variation of the above phrases. I personally cannot begin to recall the amount of times I’ve heard a casual all-nighter sentence in passing, or in direct conversation throughout my three years at college. Even in high school, this was a fairly common phrase.

Just to state the obvious, for those out of the loop or overthinking the phrase—an all nighter, as it is being referred to by these students, is literally describing staying up all night without sleeping (or sleeping at sunrise) in order to complete an assignment or study for a test.

Why would someone have to do this? Let’s take these people at face value, and assume that they were given a large assignment without proper notice and therefore have to scramble to turn it in on the imminent due date. Or their professor has surprised them with a comprehensive test that requires detailed studying of the minute details of large volumes of content.


The Truth

Simply put—these people are lying/exaggerating, night owls, or grossly mismanaging their time. In this section we’ll discuss the different perpetuators of this myth, and why they engage in this practice.

1. Liars/Exaggerators

  • These people may still stay up late to study, past midnight, but are still getting a few hours of sleep (perhaps more if they don’t have a morning class).
  • Some may actually have studied far in advance but want to make it seem like they’re performing a superhuman feat and pulling off good grades with only an intense night of studying.
  • Some of these people may make the genuine attempt, but end up passing out. (Have you tried to will your body to sit down for hours at a time and engage in low-energy activities until the wee hours of the morning? Even with coffee it is difficult).
  • Why would anyone lie? In a world where hard work is the only currency, it’s no surprise some people try to counterfeit their riches. These students see lack of sleep as a badge of honor they are more than happy to wear.
  • I suppose you can say calling these people out is semantics as they are still spending hours of the night on schoolwork, but I’ll explain later why it is important to stop the replication of this myth (peer pressure being both a cause and result of this).

2. Night Owls

  • There is a rare subsection of the population that either sleeps mostly during the day, or can function at a normal level of a few hours of sleep. There are also people who can’t do either, but for some reason decide to consistently stay up late anyways. To this group I have little to say, if it works for them, more power to them.

3. Mismanagers of Time

  • These people are serial procrastinators, who have had well in advance to complete their tasks but leave everything until the last minute. Even then, having been around several of these types, I can assure you they still don’t stay up all night. They either find friends to copy off of, ask for extensions/come up with excuses to not show, or just accept their fates and get bad grades.

The Danger

In case it isn’t obvious as well, here is why all nighters are bad:

1. Rarely are they necessary

  • In all my years of college and high school, rarely have I had an unreasonable instructor that sprung a massive assignment or difficult test on us without at least a few days notice.
  • Plan out your studying/work, and do it piece by piece in advance. You’ll learn the material better this way as you won’t be cramming it at a time when your brain is exhausted, and you’ll have time to review difficult concepts/questions over. It also gives you time to ask questions to your instructors if you’re struggling with completing or understanding something.
  • The next tip is just useful for your career, and life in general: create shortcuts and learn to synthesize. As far as liberal arts majors go (and some quantitative/science ones as well), you do not need to learn your course material in such great depth to succeed. I’m naturally good at this, but it is a skill that anyone can acquire—view things from a high level, look for patterns, and remember very few but key details.
    • To be completely honest, it is far more important to focus on learning the skills and knowledge that will help you in your career—which may have little to do with your major. I do enjoy learning for the sake of learning, but there are many classes where I do the bare minimum to get a good grade, and could not remember an iota of the information I learned after the semester was over.

2. Rarely are these productive ways of studying

  • I’ve observed some of these supposed all-nighters (during the early part of the experience, as I’m in bed by 11pm LATEST every school/work day no matter what), and I can see right away why it takes people so long to actually get their work or studying done—they’re too busy fucking around being distracted on their phone or computer, usually on social media sites.
  • I kid you not I’ve observed people study/work for 30 min intervals, followed by 60 minute Netflix breaks. Interval studying is an effective method of work for some, but dedicating more time to breaks than the actual work is largely inefficient. Right when you get in to a groove you pause your brain and make it focus on a largely vegetative activity. Do you run for 30 min and watch TV for 60 min immediately after, rinse and repeat? The same principle would apply here.
    • Some may say they struggle to concentrate for large blocks of time—to that I really can’t speak. Again, I’ve naturally been good at staying focused for long uninterrupted periods of time. My girlfriend has described me as having a natural adderall that I can turn on and off. To people with genuine ADD/ADHD, I’d suggest being a doctor and/or a therapist, and either taking medication and/or doing behavioral therapy to help you with your temporary obstacle. Yes. temporary. I’m sure you can overcome it.
  • So not only are you grasping less content/doing worse work, but your lack of sleep all but guarantees that you’ll be less sharp during your exam or presentation the following day. At least if it’s an assignment you’re turning in you don’t have to worry about the following day’s performance, but chances are your work will lack the quality that you could give if you used your full potential.

3. They are unhealthy

  • Who knew? Depriving your brain of sleep, one of the four necessities of life (food, water, breathable air) has terrible consequences on your physical and emotional well-being.
  • Doing it a few times won’t have any long term effects. so long as the rest of your health is in check—but a steady pattern of doing so, accumulated over years could literally shave time off your lifespan.
  • The next day you’re guaranteed to feel like dogshit—your mind won’t think clearly, you’ll have low energy, and your exhaustion will result in you sleeping for a longer period of time than you normally do and ruining your sleep schedule.
  • Not getting enough sleep/inconsistent sleep will affect your mood, appetite, sexual drive, hormone levels, memory, immune system, weight, and heart health.

I also want to explore the larger issue here—why lying or exaggerating about all nighters is bad. Perhaps these lies are harmless, and everyone is cognizant of the fact that they’re participating in a community wide lie. Maybe everyone simply lies to keep up appearances, and refrains from calling other people out on the assumption that they won’t be exposed in return.

This still creates undue stress/anxiety, as this myth crafts a race to the bottom. No one wants to be left behind, or risk underperforming. Some naive souls may take the claims literally and end up subjecting themselves to all-nighters to impress/emulate their counterparts.

Most importantly, it is an important life principle to own up to your authentic effort and subsequent results. By all means be competitive, work your ass off, make sacrifices, but like any behavior—don’t take it to the extreme. Find a balance, and avoid trying to fit in for the sake of rivalry.

Sadly it doesn’t help that this behavior continues in the professional world (in some career paths), as colleagues compete for positive reviews, bonuses, promotions, etc. I’ve heard that this sort of behavior is especially prominent in the startup world, where founders consistently brag about 14-16 hour days 7 days a week for months or years on end. I’ve also witnessed these stories being shared constantly all over LinkedIn.

Be honest with yourself, and focus on only your own input and output. You’ll likely perform better, and you’ll be more at peace internally.

The Exceptions

I am sure that some people reading this post are just itching to refute my points with anecdotes of their own, but rest assured I am well aware of several exceptions.

1. Students with a job(s) and/or internship(s)

  • There are some students that pay their way through college, or simply want to make a little spending money, so they balance a part-time (sometimes full-time!) job or jobs with a full course load. My hat goes off to these people, as that cannot be easy. All-nighters for these students definitely makes more sense, given that it’s a simple math equation of having less hours in the day to do your work. This is especially true if you have a job that does not have downtime where you can do your work while on the clock.
  • A sizable amount of students also intern during the year, which can arguably be just as vital (if not more) than performing well in your classes. Usually these are part time, and more manageable than a job. I’ve done this for four semesters and have managed my time fairly well so as to avoid missing much sleep.
    • Anecdote time: during my fall semester of sophomore year (fall 2016) I had a full course load of four classes, as well as two internships. They were both campaign related internships: a remote internship with a campaign organization, and an organizing fellowship with HFA (Hillary for America).
    • My typical day (Tuesday to Friday) included waking up at 6:30am to work out before making it to my 9:30am class. I would come back midday to eat lunch and take a power nap (20-30 min). I would also take this time to complete tasks and have meetings for my remote internship. Then I left for my afternoon block of classes, and went straight to the Manhattan Field Office at 4, staying there until 9:30pm and getting home by 10 to go straight to bed unless I had a few small tasks to complete.
    • I did not have either internship or class on Sunday or Monday, and purposely designed my schedule this way to allow me two full days to rest and recover or complete the coming week’s studying/homework (I opened the office Saturday morning to afternoons).
    • I would also skip class when I knew I did not have enough time to complete my workload, or do tasks during lectures that didn’t require paying close attention.
    • There was one instance where it was just impossible to go into the office and have enough time to study for two tests no the same day, so I asked my boss a week in advance to have the day off and they obviously said yes.
    • Just an example to show you how it is possible to manage your time effectively under the right circumstances.

2. Students taking a heavy course load

  • Some students intend to graduate early, or double/triple major, therefore they have to stack their schedule with an extra class or two (rarely three).
  • This is especially difficult if the student is in a notoriously challenging major, and can’t avoid stacking together the intensive classes.

3. Students with learning disabilities or other issues (unexpected or not)

  • As I briefly mentioned before, I have seen how students with ADHD do struggle to complete their work/studying on time especially if they are not taking medication.
  • There are other learning disabilities or general disabilities that could make it difficult for people to manage their time and work effectively.
  • And of course, life has unexpected twists and turns which could affect a student during the semester—the passing of a loved one, a medical illness, etc. These could all put a student behind and force them to work overtime to catch up.

4. The quiet ones

  • This category has overlap with the aforementioned “Night Owls” category—people who stay up late anyways, or just work better at night and it is what has the best results for them personally.
  • The important characteristic of this group is that they keep their mouths shut about it, because they have no desire to encourage others to emulate their behavior.

The Verdict

If you’re in the position to prevent all nighters a.k.a. if you are a professor, teacher, or boss, do so if at all possible. Particularly in the case of bosses (in client-facing work especially), it is regrettably common that a quick turnaround is necessary and the work has to be dumped on subordinates last minute.

If you’re a student or employee, simply manage your time wisely and be efficient in how you carry out your tasks. Plan, plan, plan ahead as best as you can. Keep your free time/leisure time to a minimum if you know you have assignments looming in the near future (or even if they’re a ways away, since you can get a head start and alleviate your workload).

Don’t succumb to the peer pressure that over working is cool. Yes, hard work and dedication are extremely important, but the human body has its limits physically and mentally.

There will come a time in your life where you may truly not be able to avoid all-nighters (definitely for people with goals of owning their own business), so take advantage of the flexible and low responsibility environment of your college and high school years to limit this unpleasant experience.

A night or two here or there won’t hurt you, but it’s best to steer clear of them if you can.


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