All-Nighters Lead to Great Things (Like This Essay?)

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Stand down, nappers. The all-nighter, not the siesta, unlocks true creativity and success. So argues Columbia Law School adjunct Eric Epstein in his new e-book, The 24-Hour Genius: Unlocking Your Brain’s Potential with Strategic All-Nighters. It’s a seductive idea: Take advantage of your energy and ambition, instead of sleeping it away like you always do. Achieve success, overnight—literally.

My assignment, naturally, was to put the theory to the test: take the book home, read into the wee hours, and write a review before sunrise. Done right, it shouldn’t be too rough. Epstein sets out rules for an ideal all-nighter hour by hour, including coffee breaks, a snack break, and even a one-hour nap, with an end time of 5 a.m. Switch tasks to stay alert, he advises, stay hydrated, keep your work space cool, and breathe deeply.

Like most self-respecting adults, I take pride in the fact that I haven’t pulled an all-nighter since college. First, I love sleeping. Second, while sleep deprivation may be a necessity when it’s time to cram, I take it as a sign of a well-balanced life that I don’t have to cram anymore. On the other hand, Epstein offers many examples of success achieved by working through the night, either out of urgency or inspiration: Paul Revere’s midnight ride, George Washington’s Revolutionary War victories, and landing the Apollo 13 crew back on Earth. Thomas Edison was so prone to working long hours that his employees called themselves the “Insomnia Squad.” Robert Frost and Jack Kerouac pounded out literature before sunrise. “Exercising strength and stamina—mental and physical—leads to success,” Epstein writes.

Sleep deprivation does take a toll on the brain. In particular, when it comes to paying attention and coordination. One study found that, after 24 hours awake, basic hand-eye coordination is about as good as it is when one’s blood-alcohol level hits 0.10 percent, high enough to get you a DUI in all 50 states. (That didn’t seem to bother golfer Phil Mickelson, who, at 43, had his best opening round at the U.S. Open yesterday since 1999, after an overnight flight and just a few hours’ sleep.) As long as you’re not operating heavy machinery, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Epstein argues that it can actually improve problem-solving. Even Steve Jobs believed this. As Bloomberg Businessweek wrote of the late Apple founder: “Curious about the mind-expanding possibilities of sleep deprivation, he’d stay up a couple of nights in a row.”

For those who aren’t geniuses, presidents, or inspired by revolutionary fervor, Epstein points out that Jobs and Bill Gates made important breakthroughs by working all night, too. And Bell Labs research director Mervin Kelly told new engineers, “You get paid for the seven and a half hours a day you put in here, but you get your raises and promotions on what you do in the other 16 and a half hours.” The aim is to be indispensable to your employer.

But many of Epstein’s stories seem to do more with executing great ideas by diligently working day and night, rather than unlocking brilliance by not sleeping. As he points out, Kerouac stayed up all night to type On the Road—but he had already thought about it for years. On a basic level, an all-nighter simply helps people do more—it’s a matter of work quantity, which clearly has its advantages. As Google’s former head of innovation Yoky Matsuoka says: Balancing career, family, and a social life means something’s got to go, and “you can’t be sleeping.”

Work quality, however, is another issue. While sleep deprivation can help the brain generate some truly original ideas, we all know it also leads to some truly terrible ones. As for me: It’s 5:30 a.m., I’m functioning much slower than usual, and my snack stash has been decimated. I haven’t had a Jobsian breakthrough or invented anything during these hours, but I have written a story—which means I’ve gotten a jump on the day. And that means I can now go take a nap.

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