Monday, April 11, 2011

Writing All Night: Act of Genius or Just Bad Practice?

I have some unusual work habits. Or, at least, when I tell others about my work habits, they sort of blanch and say, "you poor thing!"

It started in college and got worse in graduate school, and now that I am a fully-fledged professional, I haven't changed. Here's what I do: when there's something due on a particular date, like a written report, I get up around two in the morning that day, and I start working. Yeah, I get a few hours of sleep, and then I pretty much stay up all night.

I can't manage to do it the day before. I can't stay up late and do it the evening before. There's something about waiting until the last possible moment that makes me type and think faster. I get hyperfocused--in the zone--and I get this stuff done pretty fast. Don't get me wrong--I do all the prep work ahead of time. I have all my information gathered in advance. It's the writing I do at the last minute.

This behavior has been reinforced. Heavily. See, I've developed a reputation in the state where I work as a psychologist who writes these super-comprehensive, helpful reports. And pediatricians, other social service agencies, and the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families keep referring clients to me. So I guess I'm doing all right.

But just last month, there was a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience that got my attention. Some scientists studied the brains of healthy young adults and discovered that the brain's pleasure centers are much more activated after a sleepless night. And that activation leads to a sense of euphoria and a tendency toward risky behavior. With sleep deprivation, the brain is more likely to swing to extremes on the mood spectrum, and that can result in impulsive decisions because one is feeling so optimistic. In addition, without adequate sleep, the brain's decision-making region (the prefrontal cortex) gets de-activated. But you know what gets activated in its place? The amygdala, which controls the brains more primal functions, like the fight-or-flight reflex.

In other words, sleep deprivation doesn't just result in fatigue and general droopiness.

The article goes on to suggest that people in high-stakes professions should make sure they get adequate sleep in order to maintain safety and good judgment.

Now, on some level, I knew this. I spend a lot of time talking with parents about the importance of sleep, both for their children and for themselves. But the idea that I might be more impulsive after a night of sleep deprivation because I'm feeling euphoric and overly optimistic ... it's something to think about, for a whole host of reasons, including my responsibility to my family and my clients.

Should I change my ways? And how about you? Do you pull all-nighters? If so, why? Have you felt this kind of effect after a sleepless night? Does it make sense?  And if this is actually the case, would you want to try writing under the influence of your brain on sleep-deprivation, just to see what you come up with? Do you think you'd be more creative, or completely unfocused? Are you afraid you'd kill one of your key characters in a fit of euphoric whimsy?

Oh! And don't forget to zip over to Lydia's for Medical Monday, and Laura's for Mental Health Monday!


  1. I tend not to stay up too late, because I'm too tired to function the second day after. That it could be related to impulsive behaviour sounds like a good premise for a mystery or murder novel, though.

  2. I simply can't stay up all night. And on the nights that I have a bad night's sleep, I'm miserable the next day. I'm much better getting up early in the morning to get things done.

  3. I have a rather unusual sleep schedule in that I sleep a lot. A lot. Nine or ten hours is perfectly normal. The other night I slept six hours and the next night I slept for twelve hours straight to catch up.

    I don't actually know if this is healthy or not. I didn't get as much sleep in high school, where I was depressed and regularly struggled to get my homework done on time, and once I left high school sleeping in became kind of a... thing. I have a really hard time adjusting to a normal, regular schedule. When I don't get enough sleep, I usually push through fine for a few hours, but then I'm useless the rest of the day.

    For those few hours, though, I've noticed the same thing as you--I tend to be productive and eager. So it might be worth pulling an all-nighter on occasion, though I'm a little scared of the consequences.

    That said, I'll probably be discovering allll about this when Clarion West rolls around. Sleep deprivation here I come!

  4. During my uni days I pulled all-nighters once or twice a term since I left my essays till the last minute then wrote them in a frenzy the day or two before they were due, much like you. It seemed to work. I don't know whether the euphoria came from lack of sleep or the triumph of finishing an essay last minute again. Occasionally I contemplate pulling an all-nighter to read or write since my sleeping hours keep slipping backwards anyway but I try to remember to be a normal human being.
    - Sophia.

  5.'ve really got me thinking. I used to pull all-nighters. I'm a mom of four kids. For a span of about ten years, if I got two straight hours I was a champion. Still, now that they are getting older and I'm writing seriously, I find sleeping such a waste of my time. Stupid, I know.

  6. Well, I think that there is no question as to whether the idea of "performing under pressure" can change a person's ... performance. Most people can't handle the added stress, but some are wired in such a way that they thrive on it. Professional athletes, performers, people who work under constant deadline, are often these types of personalities. I'm sure there are arguments out there for both sides, but to this layman I would imagine it's a combination of genetics and environmental influences.

    When it comes to sleep deprivation, it's a fact that it that it can alter your mood, and after a certain point, even become psychotropic. This can result in a fabulous experience, as in the Vision Quest I wrote about late last year, or it can have absolutely tragic results. Like a meth addict who stays up so long he believes he can fly, and steps off the edge of a ten story building. Think Rodney King.

    I've never written while under the effects of sleep deprivation, but I imagine it could get very interesting, as long as you were careful, and made sure that you were in a controlled environment.

    Another great post! Food for thought. Thanks Sarah.

  7. Really interesting... For me, my sleep habits have changed since I started writing. I almost want to test this theory out (though I'm sure the opportunity will arise naturally). :D

  8. If it's just a once in a while thing, it's probably okay. My hubs is like you--he does a bang-up job preparing talks and presentations the night before. Me, I'm a planner, so the idea of having only one night for something like that totally freaks me out!

  9. i don't know how people find time to fit writing into their schedules without sacrificing sleep to some extent. i think matt's comment has a lot of merit as well. i'm more of a tortoise as far as my writing goes- i don't write in one fast blurb, but slow and steady... and late at night. :D

  10. Now I usually go to sleep with the chickens, but if I'm excited about something, I can't sleep at all. My eyes close, but my brain keeps churning. All. Night. Long. So in that case, I suppose getting up an working on the project at hand is more productive. I usually do this a few nights before the deadline though. The night before it's due is reserved for obsessively reviewing possible mistakes. ;)

  11. hi miss sarah! mostly for me i cant sleep if i got something i need to do or finish. like last night i got my new post started in the day and went to be and got asleep and then back awake and got up and finished it. i feel like i do better writing in the night and for sure i got more energy in the morning when im up in the night.
    ...hugs from lenny

  12. I don't pull all nighters because I'm a morning person. I read till 11 pm (if I last that long) and get up at 5 am to blog or write.

    I used to get up at 4 am, but then did the math. Now that all three kids are at school full time, I keep thinking I should sleep in till 6 am, but then realize that will never happen (unless I'm away from home, on vacation). I like getting up at 5 am, even it's just to read. :D

  13. I guess you'd know if you needed to change your ways if you tried writing your papers without all that adrenaline surging through your veins at 2 a.m. If you were just as successful at 10 a.m., then why go the sleep deprivation route? (I have a hunch, though, that writing through the dawn is the way you're wired.)

    As for me, I feel fuzzy headed without proper sleep--so if you got you a can of that whoop ass euphoria, send it my way. (My 4-year-old often wakes me during the night, and it's usually morning grumpiness for me, rather than morning glory.)

  14. You know how I feel about your habits, deary. And you know I'm the type of person that needs my eight hours of princess sleep (it'd be better if I actually was a princess, though. lol). I didn't realize that sleep deprivation could cause other issues. No I vow to sleep even more! And you should too! (There's a reason pilots and truck drivers are only allowed to drive/fly for so many hours for taking a break. I wish Dr.'s had that same rule.)


  15. I tend to get up really early instead of not sleeping. And yep, the day something is due, of course :) The pressure works wonders. Normally, I think you shouldn't change something that works, but yeah, your well-being is SUPER important. So is your judgment. Get some sleep!

    These results are amazing, btw! It actually helps with my WIP, so I thank you for doing some research on my behalf :)

  16. I can attest to sleep deprivation being a personality changer. I am usually a pretty even keeled live and let live person, but when I am severely sleep deprived I become an utter bitch.

    Not because I become more easily irritated, but because I start saying all the things I usually don't. The voices in my head are judgmental as hell. I don't get excited, angry or twitchy about it, but I suffer fools not at all.

  17. I have pulled all nighters, but mostly back in college. I did enjoy the feeling of getting everything done just in the nick of time.

  18. I'm a night-owl. I work much better at night than in the morning and I'm more likely to stay up late to work on something than to get up early. My brain doesn't like to wake up until about an hour after my body does. I really enjoy writing late at night, but the idea of going to sleep and then getting up at 2am and writing anything even remotely legible feels impossible to me.

  19. This is really interesting, especially since I'm a night owl and tend to work best late at night. Of course, that means I lose sleep since my day job starts at 9 am.

    I give you credit, though. If I were asleep, nothing but a fire or break-in could wake me at 2 am.

  20. If it works for you, right now, and your family then I would stick with it. For me, I need a full night's some. Writing wise, I'm most creative right after I sleep or exercise.

  21. Another informative post.

    I'm impressed you can get up at 2am and work. I need my sleep. Even as a college student, I never did all-nighters. I don't know about highest of highs, but I figure I'd hit lowest of lows.

    When my children were infants, the lack of sleep was hard.

    But I have been known to wake up from a dream with an idea, and type a few pages before returning to sleep.

  22. I think that probably makes sense...

    I've never needed much sleep. It was not until I started working full-time in the past couple years at a job that often involves tedious and repetitive activities that the sleep or lack thereof ever became a problem.

    Even now, I'm fine (and actually more creative) on a minimum of sleep. It's just the stuff that actually IS boring that becomes difficult.

    I mean, how much classic literature is the result of insomnia, anyway?