How to Bank Sleep and Stay Alert for All-night Duty

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

It’s one thing to pull an all-nighter to cram for an exam or write a paper in college. It’s another thing altogether to be on all-night duty in the military: Alertness, focus, vigilance, and quick reactions are essential in that scenario. There’s no margin for error. The following proven strategies will help you stay sharp for the night shift.

When you know that all-night duty is coming your way, try to bank some extra hours of sleep in advance to deepen your reserves; this will help you feel and function better while you’re on duty. You can do this by going to sleep earlier and/or waking up later in the days leading up to your all-nighter. Or, you can sneak in a 90-minute preventive nap, ideally between the hours of 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm, so that you get one full cycle of sleep. Wearing an eye mask can simulate darkness and earplugs can drown out unwanted daytime sounds.

Exercising strategically also can help you stay alert on duty. Before your night shift starts, spend 30 to 45 minutes performing calisthenics, lifting weights, and/or doing cardio exercise (think walking, jogging, or biking) and then take a shower. This will rev up your alertness for a while and boost your metabolic rate. While you’re on duty, try to get up and walk around every 30 minutes or do push-ups, squats, or other quick exercises to keep your blood flowing.

Eat wisely before and during all-night duty. Have a balanced meal before the shift starts, followed by a snack three to four hours into it. Avoid starchy carbs and stick with lean protein, healthy fats, and other energy-boosting foods to help you stay full and have sustained energy. Be sure to stay well-hydrated, too: Drinking cold water, in particular, can boost your alertness through the night shift.

Consider laying off caffeine the day before so you can get the biggest bang from it when you really need it. While you’re on duty, have caffeine—whether it’s from coffee, soda, or caffeine gum—during only the first half of your shift. If you have it during the second half, you may reduce your chances of sleeping when you get off duty. The last thing you want to do is set yourself up for long-term sleep deprivation.