Pushing Through

The Hour-By-Hour Guide To Getting Through Work On No Sleep

How to minimize the misery and keep it together until EOD.

by Theresa Fisher
Originally Published: 
A tired man working on his laptop on no sleep.

So you didn’t sleep at all last night and have to work. Again. Maybe you had to work late; maybe you were kept up all night by an insomniac in footie pajamas. Whatever the reason for your long night of no sleep, a new day has dawned, and you have a full schedule of Zoom presentations, quarterly reports, and one big need: working on no sleep. If you don’t want the next 10 hours to be a delirious waking nightmare, there are steps you can take so that the big question of how to function on no sleep isn’t so…terrible.

With a little planning — and a respectable amount of coffee — you can minimize the misery and keep it together until EOD, when you can either crash or keep it going with another evening of hanging out with that footie pajama monster. Here, according to sleep researchers, is how to get through the day and stay awake if you didn’t sleep at all last night and have work today.

How to Function on No Sleep at Work

7 AM: Open the Window and Drink Water

Natural light signals our brains to be up-and-at-’em, says Deirdre Conroy, Ph.D., clinical director of the behavioral sleep medicine clinic at the University of Michigan. So open the window and soak in the first light to activate your energy. Dehydration seriously compounds fatigue, so be sure to drink a glass of water too.

7:30 AM: Run Out the Door

Exercise might be a hard sell in your current state, but multiple researchers have found that a bout of cardio helps to kick off the day. As Vladyslav Vyadzovskiy, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford, put it: “While running may tire your body out, such exercise might actually reduce your brain’s need for sleep.”

8 AM: Coffee Good, Donuts Bad

Have a cup of coffee. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes for the caffeine to kick in, so you don’t want to wait until you’re at work. If you can handle it, consider having a mini-dose of caffeine immediately after you wake up. Evidence suggests caffeine can boost exercise — but it also works sitting at your kitchen table. If you’re not a big coffee drinker, this isn’t the time to experiment with a jacked-up workout.

Eat breakfast, but steer clear of sugary foods. “Watch your food choices today,” Conroy says. “Studies show that people who are sleep-deprived tend to choose foods that are higher in calories and crave more sugary or salty snacks.”

8:30 AM: Keep Your Conversations Strictly Business

Have tentative plans to chat with a high-maintenance friend over lunch? Bow out now. “Our ability to regulate emotions is impaired without sleep, and we might say or do things we will ultimately regret,” says Eti Ben-Simon, Ph.D., a psychologist and sleep researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “It would be wise to stay clear of people that typically require some energy to be polite to.” That’s a nice way of saying that exhaustion makes you more likely to go bonkers.

9 AM: Tackle the Hard Stuff

It’s not the day to start that Berlitz language tape. “Don’t learn new things [today],” says Ben-Simon. “The brain has not had a chance to process yesterday’s information and is now literally out of memory.”

But if you have mentally taxing work to do, get it done now. Why? Well, your internal clock is still keeping your biological processes on schedule. “There is a surge of cortisol in the morning that helps you start your day, in normal conditions, that could help a bit with the impact of sleep loss,” Ben-Simon says.

10:30 AM: Break Out the Bubble Yum

Studies dating back to 1939 link smacking gum with increased alertness and, in some cases, improved focus and reduced fatigue and stress. The type or flavor of gum doesn’t seem to matter in terms of cognitive benefits — but honestly, nobody chews Big Red anymore.

11 AM: Caffeine, Water, Repeat

Be aware of your caffeine intake, warns Conroy, because you don’t want to exceed 400 mg in one day. But you can go low and slow, and there are caffeinated alternatives to coffee, such as green tea and dark chocolate.

12 PM: Eat a Light Lunch

That never-ending pasta bowl? Skip it. Both Conroy and Ben-Simon say that stuffing your face will leave you susceptible to afternoon sluggishness.

1 PM: Find a Place to Take a Nap

“The tip I’m most passionate about is taking a nap,” Conroy says. Ideally, you want to nap for 15 to 20 minutes in a dark, quiet room. If you have an office, close the door, set an alarm, and make sure to get up when it blares. That probably goes double if you’re catching a quick nap at home. Otherwise, you’ll fall into a deep, hard-to-get-out-of sleep that can leave you feeling disoriented.

And if you don’t have access to private space, head to your car. Download a white noise app and pop on earphones to help you out.

2 PM: Down One Last Cup of Coffee (If You Want)

You might be a sack of yawns at this point, but you can still jeopardize tonight’s sleep by overdoing it on caffeine too late in the day. Researchers recommend cutting off caffeine at least 6 hours before you plan to hit the sack.

3 PM: Find Some Light and Stare Away

The brighter and bluer, the better. Although nighttime blue-light exposure is a recipe for sleep issues, Conroy says that staring at a high-intensity light source for 30 minutes can charge you up during the day. In the afternoon, research suggests, absorbing blue light can help workers ward off post-lunch lethargy.

You can download a blue light therapy app, or buy LED light bulbs (some of which are app-controllable) to use at your desk. If nothing else, get outside and give the Sun a high five.

3:30 PM: Attack Some Mindless Tasks

Your daily window for peak alertness has passed (particularly if you’re a morning person), so run out the clock with easy, low-stakes tasks. Your inbox was due for a cleaning anyway.

5:00 PM: Nap, Again (Before You Leave Work)

This is for your own personal safety, as it will make you less likely to conk out at the wheel if you’re driving home. Give yourself 15 minutes to nod off (or even just rest your eyes) before you clock out. Even if you’re working from home, taking a short nap will be enough to gear you up for dinner, bath time, and everything else that still needs to get done.

And that’s a wrap. Of course, these are tips for desperate occasions. Researchers unanimously discourage working in a sleep-deprived state. In fact, Chris Drake, Ph.D., a professor at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, says there’s one other trick for the fatigued: “Call in sick!”

This article was originally published on