The Problem with All Nighters

by Sheela Doraiswamy on September 24, 2012

You have that big exam tomorrow at 8:00AM.

You knew this was coming, but for one reason or the other, you’re feeling unprepared. Maybe you procrastinated because you found that Season 4 of Parks and Recreation  is finally on Netflix. Perhaps leveling up again in Skyrim seemed more important last week when you had free time. Or maybe you just couldn’t fit studying in with all those other classes and extracurriculars.

Whatever the reason, you now have no choice but to pull that dreaded All Nighter– a night of cramming and total sleep deprivation. Ok, pulling it off is tough, but in the end all that cramming instead of sleeping will give you a good score, and help you get that high GPA you need, right?

Well…maybe not. As recent studies have shown, the college right-of-passage may be hurting your grade, and affecting your health as well.

If you’re one of the many college students who has pulled an All Nighter, I can bet that most of the next day, you felt kind of like this:

Comic courtesy of Justin Boyd

That’s because a night of sleep loss reduces your cognitive function the next day, making it hard to focus and increasing your tendency to “zone out,” among several other things.  A recent study published in the Journal of Sleep Research entitled, “The Effect of Sleep Loss on Next Day Effort” ,found that after a full night of sleep deprivation, students had slower reaction times, trouble concentrating and decision making, and reduced effort (meaning they were more likely to choose to perform simpler tasks and give up on difficult tasks compared with students who had had a good night’s sleep). It sounds like most of those functions are pretty important come exam time!

Surprisingly, this study also found that sleep-deprived students had the same perceived level of effort as students who had gotten a good night’s sleep. What this means is that, when you pull an All Nighter, you’re not consciously aware that your effort is reduced. That’s why you usually come out of that post-cram session exam thinking, “It wasn’t that bad!”, when in reality, you probably struggled through it, and were not performing to the best of your ability. What’s worse, if you’ve decreased your effort for the day, as the study implies, you’re more likely to procrastinate, and you’re just going to end up pulling yet another All Nighter down the road.

Not only will that All Nighter hurt your grade, it can have negative health effects as well. Unfortunately there has not been much study on physical effects of sleep loss on college-aged students in particular, but studies on slightly older adults have found that sleep deprivation can alter hormone production. A study published by the Journal of Clinical Neurology, “Adverse Effects of 24 Hours of Sleep Deprivation on Cognition and Stress Hormones,”  found that sleep loss increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can weaken the immune system, increasing your likelihood of getting sick.  Sleep loss also slightly decreased production of thyroid hormones, which can lead to tiredness and weight gain.

Now that you have all this info, the next question, of course, is “How do I avoid pulling an All Nighter?”

Unfortunately, that’s a difficult question to answer, since it will vary a lot by your reason for pulling one in the first place. I can tell you from experience, the times that I pulled an All Nighter myself, it was the result of disorganization and procrastination, but I’ve seen other students who would have no choice, because they’re so busy with their job, other classes, and extracurriculars. For those of you in the former group, the best advice I can give is to learn to stay on top of your work. I found this video that has some hopefully useful techniques against procrastinating so you can get the ball rolling.



Margaret Freaney September 24, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Interesting subject matter I like the hook into your post. As anyone who has gone to school can attest, all nighters are a problem. I like that you put in the articles that you got your information from, but some of the information results you said, does not seem to coincide with the results in the article ,”The Effect of Sleep Loss on Next Day Effort” . Though all were results from either experiment 1 or experiment 2, the only result that was significant on both (as I read the information) was the perceived effort result. I really liked all the information you added into this post. It was great to read and informative. Your writing style makes for easy reading. I wonder what education level you are aiming at? Due to the subject, I would assume college level. If so, great job! Oh, and I am going to share your procrastination video you posted.


Sheela Doraiswamy September 24, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Hi Margaret– you’re right. I had read a couple different articles on the subject and I must have mixed up my info a bit. I’ll get the source for that info on loss of concentration and such ASAP. And yes, I am going to mostly aim my posts at college students. Thanks so much for your feedback!

Margaret Freaney September 24, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Thanks Sheela! I look forward to those sources as well as the your post next week.

Allie Sterling September 24, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Interesting! Especially that bit about how the perceived level of effort is the same for students who were well rested vs. sleep deprived.

Also, I like the comic :)

Sheela Doraiswamy September 24, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Thanks, Allie! Glad you liked the post, and the comic :-)

Marie Kotenko September 24, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Thank you Netflix for finally getting Season 4 of Parks and Recreation. I have been procrastinating on a daily basis, thanks to you. Also awesome post – I didn’t have high expectations for the video, but it was actually very helpful. This is a great topic – Can you discuss the best evidence based study habits/ways to stay alert/awake while studying maybe in a future post? (Ok back to studying lol) Great post!

Sheela Doraiswamy September 24, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Hi Marie. Thanks for your comment! I think that sounds like a great idea for a post, although I will have to see what kinds of evidence/studies I can find on the subject.

One thing that worked for me when I found myself procrastinating with tv shows on Netflix was to use the show as a reward for doing my work. So, say I had 10 things on my to-do list, I would make myself get through about 5 of those things, then allow myself one or two episodes of a tv show. It was a little tough to switch to that mindset, but once I did I found it works pretty well, for me at least! It’s how I managed to pull up my GPA and get through a season or two of 30 Rock during my junior year 😉

I’ve also been trying the timer method discussed in the video and I think that’s helping as well.

Shara E September 26, 2012 at 11:26 am

Sheela, The “pomodoro method” that is mentioned in the video is really similar to what you’re talking about in terms of small interval/reward schemes. Just with tasks instead of times. I try to use it quite a bit when i’m studying as it really does to wonders for someone with as many ADHD problems as I have. I too would love to hear about what sort of evidence-based tips there are for efficient/effective studying techniques! Procrastination is the enemy, with the power of MTSG we can conquer it! Or something like that, but seriously…great blog post. It was very readable, and had really interesting content!

Sheela Doraiswamy September 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Hi Shara. Yeah, I did realize that my technique is actually pretty similar to the “pomodoro method,” but I should just say that I thought of it way before I saw this video, haha. Thanks for the comment! Hopefully I can find some good info on fighting procrastination!

Shara E September 27, 2012 at 10:25 am

Looking forward to it!

Raji September 24, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Great post, interesting information. Unfortunately not timely enough for me. But it sure is timely enough for your brother who is just starting college and probably doing late nights already…..So make sure you send him the link to this post.

Quintus September 24, 2012 at 10:07 pm

Hi Sheela,
Good post with lots of references and information. Plenty of reading matter there.
Somehow I get the impression you ran an “All Nighter” writing this post. For me the sparkle was not there in the writing. However the subject matter is difficult to bring sparkle into. It reminded me of the times when I was a student, and I spent an hour procrastinating by remembering my old university class. It even prompted me to send two of them an E-mail!

Sheela Doraiswamy September 25, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Hi Quintus. Thanks for the feedback. I must say that I was in fact wide awake when I wrote this 😉 Could you elaborate a little more on what you mean as far as “sparkle” goes? How do you think I could have improved this?

Quintus September 25, 2012 at 2:38 pm

The sparkle is what I would say catches the readers interest and makes them want to continue reading and wanting more.
How can you improve this, well that’s a good question! I suppose it has a lot to do with style and catching the reader’s interest within the first couple of sentences/paragraphs. It’s like a good book, you know within the first couple of pages if you are going to read it to the end in one sitting or put it down and come back to it several times later. I am not an author but I have published many scientific papers. Vital is the introduction. And I have started on blogs as well.
I also have written a couple of chemistry blogs here are the links
If you get time have a look and let me know what you think.

Patricia September 25, 2012 at 10:54 pm


I finished college a time ago, but had to apply some time this. And yes, you really feel awful the next day. Thanks for the info.

Love the way you introduced the comic strip in your post. It makes reading interesting and gives another perspective to just information.

Sheela Doraiswamy September 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm

thanks for your feedback, Patricia. Glad you liked the comic– that was exactly what I was going for with it

Alex Smtih September 26, 2012 at 12:38 am

Hey Sheela,

I liked your post and I loved your comic. As a person who almost by definition of my major pulled lots of all nighters, I found that as long as I had realistic expectations for the next day I found that I was able to get a lot out of the next day. For instance if at the beginning of a week if I for saw pulling an all nighter the night before a test or pulling two in a row after the test it was better to take a nap and do two in a row, for me at least. Also finding a study group to pull an all nighter with can be really helpful. If you do want to investigate all nighter methods, I’d be happy to tell you some things I saw in school.

Sheela Doraiswamy September 26, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Thanks for your comment, Alex! I know that sometimes they are unavoidable, especially for majors like engineering, but I hope my article has shown that they’re not really ideal.

Mike Handzo September 27, 2012 at 12:07 am

Alex Smith shared your blog with me as one of her known “all-nighter experts” from college. Very interesting blog!

I have always been a night person, and rarely go to sleep before midnight. I certainly pulled enough all-nighters in college, and it was often by choice. As a Government & Law major, I would often write papers requiring a strong thesis and unifying train of thought. I felt I worked most efficiently following my logic through and writing from start to finish overnight, free from distraction. Following set all-nighter rituals, such as going to the local Dunkin’ Donuts as soon as it opened at 5am for a treat, always seemed to help. This always seemed to work for me, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone; it’s a matter of knowing how you do your most effective work.

I certainly preferred writing papers all at once to cramming for exams, though. The latter, while I could manage, was just stress-inducing!

Sheela Doraiswamy September 27, 2012 at 12:44 am

Hi Mike,
Thanks for your reply. I knew I would probably get a few people saying that all nighters tended to work for them. I also think that writing a paper is pretty different from cramming for an exam, which is more the focus of this article (and I think the study I cited works a bit better to explain the problems with last minute cramming and not so much paper-writing, if that makes sense). I will have to see what kind of studies there are regarding actually working late at night, or even all in one long stretch as you described. That will have to wait for another blog post, I think!

Alex Beeman September 27, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Hi Sheela,
I was also referred here by Alex Smith. I liked your article a lot, especially since it had references to back up your statements, which are sorely missing in other “informative” science sites. I was a neuroscience major and everything you stated was dead on with what I learned in undergrad, as well as what I’ve seen in pharmacy school. I myself never pulled all nighters, but did stay up later than I had planned on a few occasions, usually due to procrastination or a lack of organization, like you said. Getting a lack of sleep messes up a lot of neurotransmitters and hormones, such as melatonin (especially in the cerebellum). Since parts of the brain “sleep” in response to chemicals released during sleep, they can recharge during that time. Without that sleep, the neural homeostasis is thrown off, resulting in that haze one experiences after an all nighter.
That being said, if you’re interested in pursuing this more, I have heard from a doctor that as far as performance (academic, mental, or athletic), the amount of sleep 2 nights prior to an event (race, test, etc) is actually more important than the amount of sleep the night before the event. I haven’t looked into this at all so I don’t know what evidence there is to this, but it’s a different aspect to the same issue. Thanks for the insight Sheela!

Sheela Doraiswamy September 27, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Thanks for the additional info, Alex! I did read a bit about hormones and neurotransmitters and what not, but I decided it would be best to leave all those details out so that I didn’t confuse/scare people with no science background. I have heard about the 2 nights prior thing as well, but I will have to look a bit more at the research regarding that. I feel like I could probably do all 10 of my blog posts on sleep research if I really wanted to! I guess we’ll have to see about that!

Kaydora October 4, 2012 at 10:47 am

Hi Sheela,
Very interesting and informative. I enjoyed reading it, since I remember how I studied all night for an exam in med school, only to be so sick I was unable to take the exam! The comic relief and the video on procrastination added a lot to make the post really stand out.
Good job,

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