To Burn or Not To Burn the Midnight Oil

Today over at, Eva Lantsoght has a fantastic post on graduate students and sleep deprivation. She refers to lack of sleep as “the silent creativity killer,” and with good reason. Some of the symptoms that she cites are:

  • decreased quality and accuracy of work
  • inability to think and judge clearly
  • reduced ability to make decisions, particularly ones that require both emotional and mental thought
  • and diminished memory of important details

All of these, one could argue, are essential to one’s success in graduate school. Because the problem of getting too little sleep is not isolated to graduate students, I think many will benefit from what she has to say.

Her article reminded me of my own foray into voluntary sleep deprivation as a new graduate student.

As an undergraduate I was always able to pound out those delightful 3-4 page reflection papers on this or that topic with relatively little effort (I shall refrain from commenting on how good I feel these papers actually were, particularly in retrospect). Reading assignments were generally manageable, and I never really studied much for tests (your mileage may vary). When I did sacrifice sleep, it was typically so I could do fun things. When I stayed up too late, I was able to sleep in the next morning and not really suffer for it. I made every effort to schedule my classes in the afternoon, or at the very least, not at 8:00 am.

Upon entering graduate school, I quickly realized (as many do) that graduate study was going to require more work than I had previously become accustomed to. Reading assignments increased from manageable gobbets of introductory texts to lengthier sections of more sophisticated books and articles. Papers became longer and more complex, and exams were not the type that you could fudge your way through. To compensate for this, I decided (as many do) that the way I was going to handle my new work load was to stay up late.

At least a few times per week, I found myself hunched over my work at 1:00, 2:00, even 4:00 in the morning, coffee in hand, attempting to make some headway. Before long, I was sleeping in past 10:00 on a regular basis. When I finally made my way out the door, half of the day was gone, and the cycle would repeat the next night. My classes were mostly in the afternoon (some things never change), so the only thing I really missed out on was breakfast (the most important thing after family). But this schedule also left me thoroughly exhausted all of the time.

The image of the graduate student burning the midnight oil is frequently sold as “the way things have to be.” Veteran students tell incoming students, “get ready for some late nights” and “say goodbye to getting 8 hours.” Their advice is not unlike that received by so many new parents. The difference is that for new parents, this IS actually the way things have to be — you can’t simply allow a screaming, hungry newborn to “work through” whatever is bothering them.

The fact of the matter is that for graduate students, sacrificing sleep is only one way of doing things. Granted, situations may arise in which you have to stay up late in order to accomplish a task that you’ve put off (because of procrastination, other engagements, etc.), and then arise at the usual time the next morning to fulfill whatever obligations the day may hold. Problems arise when the occasional late-night-followed-by-an-early-morning becomes your norm.

I credit beloved spouse for finally snapping me out of my bad sleep habits. She is an early-to-bed type, and once we got married, so was I. At first, the mandated 9:30 bedtime didn’t come easy, and I would often lay awake thinking about the work that awaited me in the morning. But the side effect of going to bed early is that you are (typically) more prone to rise early. And rising early means that you get started on your work earlier, which means you don’t have to stay up late worrying about it. See where I’m going with this?

While I do think there is some truth to the old “early bird gets the worm” adage, it would be folly to apply it to everyone. Many people (myself included) are not natural “morning people.” I have met enough “night owls” that I cannot deny their existence (although I would draw a fine distinction between people who do their best work at night and people who claim to be night owls just so they can avoid going to bed). The point is not that there is an inherently better or worse time to get one’s work done. The point is that productivity becomes more difficult when it takes priority over the rest that your body needs in order to function. Lantsoght closes with sound advice in this vein:

Sleep is not a luxury, but a basic need. If you want to boost your performance, start to discover which sleep schedule really works for you. Truly listen to your body and try to find out how much sleep you really need and which are your ideal sleeping hours.


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