How To Survive On As Little Sleep Possible

Confession: I am both an insomniac and a procrastinator. I don't fall asleep and I wait until the last possible moment to get something done. So I've pulled more all-nighters than anyone I know. Is this smart? No. Is this healthy? No. Has it taken years off of my life? Probably.

But there is an upside -- I've gotten very good at going about the next day, functioning on way less sleep than the body requires for optimum performance. I don't recommend making a habit of it, but should you find yourself in a situation where you're underslept, here are some tips that may help you keep functioning.

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(Full disclosure: I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night, but that only seems appropriate for this piece.)


Guys, I am about to blow your minds here. There is this stuff called caffeine, which is in coffee, tea, and energy drinks, and it makes you more alert and helps you stay awake! Why has no one ever talked about this!? Jokes aside, yes, caffeine can boost your alertness, but take it easy. Whether or not it comes out of a bean caffeine is a drug.

There are some potentially serious side effects, which range from jitteriness, irritability, dizziness, muscle twitches, and insomnia, all the way up to vomiting, seizures, extreme weight loss, dehydration, and heart failure. It's also majorly addictive. Caffeine is just one tool in your shed -- don't rely on it too heavily. In fact, the less you use this one, and the more you use the others on this list, the better off you'll be.


Eyelids starting to sag? Let's get animalistic. Put your running shoes on and take a fast lap or two around the block. Exercises releases a ton of endorphins, which will make you shaper and more alert, naturally. Running in particular is good at triggered these thanks to evolutionary biology. If you just had to sprint a half-mile to get away from a puma, you probably wouldn't feel like sleeping for a while either. Gotta make sure there are no more pumas around. Just don't overdo the exercise, which can exhaust you, making you even more sleepy. Remember, you're already working with limited energy reserves, don't burn through them.

Eat Up

Like a car, your needs fuel to make it go. At the same time, you don't want to fill a Formula One's gas tank with kerosine -- got gotta use the right fuel. If you're starting to fade, grab yourself an apple. An average apple contains about 10 grams of sugar. Half of it is from glucose and sucrose, which the body can break down quickly to give you an immediate boost. The other half is fructose, which burns cleanly for an extended time.

Translation: apples give you energy without a major crash. The crunchiness will also help wake you up. Fruit in general is good for this. What you don't want to do is eat a big meal full of proteins, fats, and starches. Those take a lot of energy to digest, which will put you into a food coma.

Cool Out

Every actor knows the "Warm for drama, cool for comedy" rule. If you want your audience to be alert, engaged, and laughing, keep the theatre a few degrees cooler. The same principle will help you get through the slog.

Light It Up

You know how they say you should muck around on your computer or have the lights up high before bed because it will make it tougher to fall asleep? It's true, and you can use this to your advantage. Your eyes have some specialised light receptors that try to keep you awake when it's light out, and help you go to sleep when it's dark. Again, this is evolutionary biology -- we humans are built to be up and about when the sun is. Our bodies have not yet evolved to tell the difference between sunlight and artificial light (a relatively new invention), so keeping the lights on (the higher the better) will help fool your body into thinking it's supposed to be awake.

Break It Down

Variety is the spice of life. If you've been monotasking for a while and your brain is starting to melt, take a break and do something else for a little while. Your brain craves novelty. Taking a break, and then coming back to what you were working on will make it seem fresher. Ideally, get the hell away from your computer. Try to engage your other senses. Go smells some smells, then return to the task at hand.

Video Games

Like you needed another excuse. Pocket Sudoku isn't going to cut it here. You need some blood-pumping action. A first-person shooter, or even something scary and unnerving like Bioshock will probably work best. A good platformer like Mario or Sonic will probably be fine. Even a high-paced, challenging phone on your phone will work. Just set a time-limit and stick to it.

Keep Moving

Old Man Sleep is throwing his "mallets of tiredness" at you. Well, it's much harder to hit a moving target. If your head starts nodding, get up, move around, shake it out. In ye olde caveman days, you know when we were completely motionless? When we were going to sleep (or when we were dead). Stilling more or less completely still in front of a computer for hours upon hours is going to make you feel like sleeping eventually. Get up and move around to remind your body that you're not allowed to go to sleep yet.

Power Naps

So sleepy brain no worky so good? The best thing to do may actually be sacrifice 20-30 minutes and take a power nap. As we posted last month, timing is everything. If you keep your nap under 30 minutes (I do 28, just to be safe) you will generally stay in the first two stages of sleep, which can boost cognitive function and make you feel more rested. Your will must be strong and your alarm must be loud, though, because over 30 minutes and you'll start to feel the effects of "sleep inertia," with decreased cognitive function, decreased dexterity, and a strong desire to keep sleeping.

Not Recommended

For all the good advice out there, there's a load of bullcrap, too.

  • B Vitamins. If you believe commercials for 5-Hour Energy and virtually every energy drink and power goo out there then B vitamins are little pods of natural rocket sauce. Not exactly.

    While it's true that B vitamin deficiencies can lead to low energy, chugging a bunch of vitamins isn't going to give you an instant and sustained energy boost. B vitamins are absorbed slowly and it takes weeks to balance out a B deficiency. Also, B vitamin deficiencies are rare give the typical western diet, though vegans sometimes struggle to get enough B12.

  • Drugs. Uppers, prescription or otherwise. Cocaine, speed, aderall, meth. Will they keep you up? Yes. Will they ruin your life? Probably. These are all highly addictive and are likely to open the door to a whole host of problems much worse then struggling to keep your eyes open.
  • Pain. Slapping, pinching, or otherwise abusing yourself is not so good. If you're doing it gently, it will only revive you for a few second. If you're doing anything hard enough to actually induce your fight or flight reaction, you're probably going to be doing some real damage. Not worth it.

There are many other ways, but those are my go-to eye-openers. If you've got some good (safe) ones, we wanna hear 'em.

Image credit: Shutterstock/olly


    Uhh I realize you tired, but I counted like 3 errors in this article. Good idea for an article though.

      Good to see the rule about spelling correction comments always containing at least one error still holds true!

      Realise* (This is an AU website. We tend to use Australian English which does not spell words like realise with a "z")
      You're* (Try to use correct grammar and spelling when picking on someones grammar and spelling.)
      ...Counted 3 errors* (Using "like" in a sentence is just poor English)

        It is an AU website that constantly has posts from the American site. The use of -ize instead of -ise does not affect the spelling of words in British English that end in -yse, such as analyse, paralyse and catalyse, which come from the Greek verb λύω, lyo, not from an -izo verb.

    A glass of water does wonders when you're getting a bit drowsy when working. Also great to wake up faster in the morning. Apparently it forces all your organs to wake up to do their part on digesting the drink, whereas they usually slowly wake up as you start getting up and moving throughout the day.

      Yep, drinking a cup of cool water is much more effective than splashing it on your face.

      hense why you have Breakfast.... breaking the Fasting that your body has been doing for the 8+ hours you have been asleep and not eating/drinking

    I just sleep for 7 hours, works amazingly well.

    Dont worry mate in in the same boat, i've lasted the last 16 years on roughly 2-3 hours sleep a night.
    Im the happy go lucky, light hearted bloke in my office, but im also one of the hardest workers, i hate being bored, so i get lots more done than most.

    When a role gets to repeditive i go about getting myself promoted or moved into a new role so that im always learning something and so my brain is always engaged at work.
    In 6 years, i've done 10 roles throughout my company, i know most peoples jobs better than they do themselves, i get asked to attend meetings above my paygrade due to my overall company knowledge, and my willingness to not hold back when i would like to know something, my boss's usually dont like this at first but grow to know how usefull i can be fairly fast.

    You dont need 8 hours of sleep a day to stay productive or alert, and to top it off i only have 1 coffee a day (cut back about 2 years ago from 8 cups a day).

    I also have a healthy long term relationship and hobbies both indoor and out (no murdering or stalking type stuff) and plenty of friends.

      "You dont need 8 hours of sleep a day to stay productive or alert".

      Sleep needs differ. Some people do need 8 hours. There are people who need more than 8 hours. Then there's you. assuming you're telling the truth. You can't generalize about this kind of thing from a study with an n of 1.

      Sounds like Topper.

        LOL not the first person to make that connection.

      What do you do for work? That's quite something to keep all that up for so long!

    A good attitude goes a long way and some mind over matter, If you don't mind then it doesn't matter
    I've been working shift Work for nealy 30 years and have times when I just can't sleep or bussy periods like 18~20 hour days frequently , the above works well for me and it's important not to worry abou how much sleep your not getting and just get on with it.

    or you know, you can try the Uberman polyphasic sleep - 2hrs sleep a day. Beware hallucinations.

    I find food and water work the best, everything else is just a short term solution that could end up making you even more tired.

    This is really how it's done. Check out the "Uberman" method.

    Probably wise to point out that with these techniques none of them are a substitute for a good nights rest, and you should not drive , operate machinery or anything else that could be more dangerous if you are fatigued.

    Any ideas on how to avoid the feeling of nausea and inability to eat the morning after an allnighter?

    well I also do the "frequent late night not much sleep" tactic.
    My strategy is just to make up for lost sleep on the weekend every fortnight.
    so... that's 2 week small amount of sleep , then I sleep for most of a Saturday.

    You forgot blasting loud music!

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