Programming
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By James Edwards

Top 5 Tips for Staying Awake

By James Edwards

It’s been my observation that we web developers are a fairly nocturnal bunch. We beaver away long into the night, building the next big web app, trying to meet client deadlines, or fiddling with some new technique or technology that has us all excited.

Makes me wonder how much of the sum output of our industry happens in the middle of the night, and what is it that sustains us through those wee small hours? Is it fueled by the pure nervous energy of obsessive compulsion, or are there concrete things you can do to boost your performance beyond the physical impulse to sleep?

For me, it’s both — part obsessiveness, and part practical routine — it’s simply quieter in the middle of the night, with no phone calls and fewer distractions, and that really helps me to stay focused.

But there are also a number of simple, practical things I do to help me stay on form. I can only speak from personal experience, but with that proviso, I present this short list of tips I use to cope with sleep deprivation.

  1. Drink a lot of coffee

    Although the short-term buzz you get from coffee is largely psychosomatic, the effect over several hours is undeniable. Caffeine is a stimulant drug, and coffee has it in abundance, far more so than tea or cola. Proper filter coffee is the strongest, and the nicest, but instant coffee still works; though personally I can’t stand instant coffee and would rather drink tea if real coffee isn’t available.

    Perhaps you could even consider investing in a real coffee machine. We have one here at SitePoint HQ, and it gets well used, for totes.

  2. Drink a lot of coffee!

    Just like you do not talk about Fight Club, this tip is significant enough to mention twice. The risk of course is that caffeine addiction is recursive — it calls itself in a self-sustaining loop: you drink coffee to stay awake, but that stops you from sleeping properly; so the next day you’re tired, so you drink coffee to stay awake, but that … and so on!

  3. Eat properly, not just junk

    Good food is the gasoline that makes your engine go, and just as low-grade fuel gives diminished performance from your car, so poor food gives poor performance from your body and your brain. If you want to be firing on as many cylinders as possible, you need to eat decent regular meals, and drink plenty of fluids like water and fruit juice (as well as all that coffee!).

    What you don’t want to do is spend the whole day or night snacking on chips, chocolate and donuts (mmm … donuts), however tempting that may be. There’s no denying the instant gratification of a sugar-induced energy rush, but it doesn’t last, and doesn’t keep you going. It’ll also make you feel gradually more nauseous over time, so eat decent food.

  4. Avoid power naps

    Many people recommend power naps as a quick way of refreshing yourself, however I find they often have the opposite effect — either you wake up an hour later feeling groggy and just as tired as before, except you’ve wasted an hour; or, your body takes over and you end up sleeping for three or four hours, at which point you’d have been better off just going to bed.

    If you do start to feel like you can’t keep your eyes open then stand up, walk around, perhaps even go outside for a short stroll; get some fresh air and smoke a cigarette or whatever. Have another cup of coffee. That doze feeling will soon pass.

  5. Get plenty of fresh air

    A hot, humid or stuffy atmosphere is a sure-fire way to send yourself to sleep. You need to stay alert, and circulating fresh air will help you to do that. Have a window open, and if it’s too cold put on extra layers rather than turning the heating up — cold air is much better for you to breathe and will help you stay awake.

Okay so that’s only four really, but the first one deserved both the top spots! I do however have one more tip that’s a little less self-evident:

  1. Allow yourself creative distractions

    You might think that distractions should be avoided at all costs, but I don’t reckon that’s necessarily true; what you want to avoid is unwanted distractions, but distractions themselves are not necessarily unwanted. This is where a lot of corporations, by having such strict content policies for personal internet use, are failing to see the bigger picture in the quest for greater productivity.

    Allowing yourself 20 minutes to snoop around Facebook, watch Neighbours, or whatever else it is that helps you to relax, you can find yourself invigorated and ready for the next few hours’ work. Unwinding like that for a short period of time can have a beneficial effect, by allowing you to shake things out of your mind, and then come back to them more objectively.

There is a risk with any of these tips that the distraction can be too attractive, taking you away for work for far longer than you intended; but hey — that’s the chance you take when you push your body’s natural rhythms. A little discipline is always necessary!

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