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How to Stay Awake? Low Sleep Debt Is Key

Staying awake all night is no easy feat, and sometimes staying up just one extra hour is hard. Keep reading for tips on how to keep yourself from drifting off.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Whether you need to stay awake to hit an important deadline, you’re trying to adjust to a later time zone, or just starting a night shift, there are times in life when you need to keep yourself awake. But we all know how that often goes: drooping eyelids, heavy limbs, and a decline in everything from our mood to our productivity. 

Below, we’ll cover a few science-backed ways you can stay awake for those times when you really need to. We’ll also explain why keeping your sleep debt low and aligning with your circadian rhythm can help you not only stay awake during the day, but feel better while doing it. 

How to Stay Awake During the Day?

If you often find yourself struggling to stay awake during normal waking hours, even though you had enough sleep the night before, no amount of coffee or natural energy hacks are going to help long term. Instead, you should focus on the two main culprits: high sleep debt and circadian misalignment. 

Lower Your Sleep Debt

RISE app photo showing your sleep debt and how you can pay it back.
The RISE app will tell you how much sleep debt you have and help you pay it back. 

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you owe your body compared to your sleep need, or the genetically determined amount of sleep you need each night. But sleep debt is measured over the past 14 nights. So, even if you had enough sleep last night, you may still be sleep deprived from the last two weeks, making you feel tired today.  

Plus, many of us don’t actually know what our real sleep need is. The average sleep need is 8 hours 10 minutes, plus or minus 44 minutes or so, but 13.5% of people may need 9 hours or more sleep a night. The RISE app calculates your sleep need and, with this number in mind, you can start aiming for the right amount of shut-eye for you each night. 

The app also works out your sleep debt. We recommend keeping this below five hours to reduce tiredness during the day. If you find your sleep debt is higher than five hours, you can work to pay some back by: 

  • Taking naps
  • Going to bed a little earlier
  • Sleeping in a little later
  • Practicing good sleep hygiene, which improves sleep efficiency (the measure of how much time you spend actually sleeping in bed).

Align with Your Circadian Rhythm

Another reason you may feel extra tired during the day, despite getting enough sleep, is your circadian rhythm. This is your body’s natural biological clock that dictates your energy levels over a roughly 24-hour cycle. If you’re not living in alignment with this rhythm, or you disrupt it regularly, you may feel lethargic when you really don’t want to be. For example, if you’re a night owl, but have to be up early for work, or if you stay up late on the weekends and then get up early Monday, you may feel sluggish even though you’ve met your sleep need. 

Plus, we all experience a natural dip in energy around the middle of the afternoon. This dip can feel even worse if your sleep debt is high (work to pay down sleep debt to improve this), but it’s also a fact of life. Instead of trying to feel more awake during your afternoon dip in energy, work with it. You can take a nap, rest, or do low-energy tasks like admin, emails, or household chores. RISE can predict the timing of this energy dip to help you schedule your day. 

Can I Get More Done if I Stay Awake for Longer?

Before we dive into how you can make yourself stay awake for longer, we’ve got to caveat this by saying that we don’t endorse skipping out on sleep. Sleep is fundamental to our health, and meeting your sleep need each night is one of the best things you can do to reach your potential each day. 

Our brains have a metabolic “recycle rate” of about 16 hours. That means if you’re still awake after the 16 hour mark, your brain takes a big hit in terms of performance. Research shows after about 18 hours with no sleep, your cognitive performance will be the same as if you had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05%. After 24 hours of no sleep? That number rises to a BAC of 0.1%, higher than the legal limit in all states. 

You don’t even need to pull an all-nighter to feel those effects. For example, if your sleep need is eight hours, but you only get seven hours of sleep for 10 nights in a row, you’ll feel the same level of impairment as if you’d been awake for 24 hours straight. Even more frightening, the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain are similar to those you’d get with a concussion

The brain’s prefrontal cortex — the part responsible for things like problem solving, reasoning, and organizing — is seriously impacted by a lack of sleep. Plus, it’s all too easy to get used to sleep deprivation, thinking you’re performing fine when you’re really not. All this is to say that if you’re thinking about staying up late to get more work done — or do other cognitively demanding tasks — you might want to think again. Not only does sleep deprivation take a massive toll on our health, it’s a productivity killer. 

How Can I Force Myself to Stay Awake?

Sometimes staying up for longer than usual is unavoidable. Whether you’re trying to stay awake for an extra hour or two, or attempting an all-nighter, here’s what you can do to wake yourself up when tired

1. Take a Nap 

Yes, this involves going to sleep briefly, but hear us out. A short nap will help you feel more alert and rested, and will pay back some of that sleep debt you’re building up. However, try to keep this nap to 90 minutes or less — any more and you’ll be risking sleep inertia, that groggy feeling when you wake up, canceling out the energy boost from the nap. 

Consider a power nap, too. A 10-minute nap may sound short, but research suggests those 10 minutes won’t cause grogginess and can boost cognitive performance and energy levels. Here’s how to determine the best nap length for you

2. Drink Coffee Responsibly 

We all know coffee can give us a boost in energy, but you should think twice before making a cup. If you’re already very sleep deprived, coffee might not do much to help. One study found consuming caffeine after being awake for a long period of time boosted performance, but it didn’t have any effect on how sleepy people felt. 

Plus, caffeine can stay in your system for 10-12 hours and can disrupt sleep long after your last sip. So, you should consider how long you want to be staying up for. If it’s just an extra hour and it’s already 11 p.m., reaching for a cup of coffee isn’t the answer. If, however, it’s early in the day and you know you need to stay up later that night, increasing your caffeine intake that day can help keep you alert later into the evening. 

3. Combine Coffee and a Nap

Sometimes called a “nappuccino,” a coffee nap combines the best of both. Drink a cup of coffee before taking a short nap, and by the time you wake up, the caffeine will be kicking in, so you’ll get the energy-boosting benefits of both the coffee and the sleep. 

4. Get Bright Light 

Bright light suppresses melatonin production — the hormone that promotes sleep. If it’s daytime, get outside and get some natural light exposure to wake you up. Bright light also boosts cortisol, the hormone that helps you feel alert, and the warmth from the sunshine will raise your core body temperature, another signal to your brain that it’s time to feel awake. 

If you can’t get outside, or if it’s nighttime, consider getting bright light exposure from a light box. The next best thing is artificial indoor light and blue light from electronic devices. So if you’re working away at your desk all night, turn on the lights and turn up the brightness of your screen. 

5. Take a Cold Shower 

This isn’t the most comfortable option, but it does work. Cold water increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism, giving you an energizing boost. If the thought of standing under a cold shower is enough to make you retreat to bed, try splashing your face with cold water instead. 

6. Get Some Exercise 

Physical activity can boost your heart rate and body temperature, which help to make you feel more awake, but you don’t need to head to the gym. One study found even low-intensity exercise like a 10-minute walk can help reduce feelings of fatigue. 

The very best exercise to wake you up would include getting outside to get natural light and fresh air along with movement, but even a few jumping jacks can work. At the very least, get up briefly to stretch and and move around.  

7. Reach for Water and a Healthy Snack

As tempting as it is to reach for something sugary when you’re feeling tired, that sugar high will come with the inevitable crash, making staying up even harder. Energy drinks, while also tempting, come with side effects like getting jitters from the high caffeine content and a sugar crash

Instead, reach for water, which can reduce dehydration-related fatigue, and a healthy snack, which will regulate your blood sugar levels and boost energy slowly. Try peanut butter, a small amount of fruit, nuts, or yogurt.

8. Lower Your Sleep Debt 

This one requires a bit of preparation, but it may be the most effective. As we discussed earlier, the higher your sleep debt, the more tired you’ll feel. So, if you know a night is coming up when you’ll need to stay up longer than usual, try to lower your sleep debt before this night. 

You’ll have a much easier time staying awake if you’re not sleep deprived to begin with. It’s good practice to keep your sleep debt below five hours in general, but if you can, try to lower this even more in the nights leading up to the day when you need to stay awake for longer. By having an already low amount of sleep debt, you’ll also make this night of sleep deprivation easier to recover from.

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When Should You Not Try to Stay Awake?

It’s one thing to try and stay awake when you’re just trying to get an extra hour of work in or adjust your circadian rhythm to a new time zone — but there are times when you really shouldn’t be trying to stay up at all. These include anything where the risks include serious accidents and injuries. If you’re driving, performing surgery, operating heavy machinery, or responsible for children, you really don’t want to be staying up much longer than your body wants to. Although that’s easier said than done for parents, of course.  

It’s not just feeling tired while doing these things that’s dangerous, though. You may actually experience microsleeps. Microsleeps are exactly what they sound like: a tiny moment of sleep. They can last a second or two and sometimes you’re only partially unconscious, so you don’t even notice it’s happening. During a microsleep, however, your cognitive performance takes a huge hit, and this is what makes drowsy driving, for example, so dangerous.


What Should I Do After Staying Awake for a Long Time?

RISE app screenshot showing you when to stop drinking caffeine.
The RISE app can tell you when to stop drinking caffeine each day.

Congratulations, you managed to stay awake! Now it’s time to pay your body back for all that hard work. Once the situation that made you stay awake has passed, it’s time to catch up on sleep and get back to feeling and performing your best. Schedule time to pay back your sleep debt by taking a nap during your next afternoon dip in energy, heading to bed earlier the next night, or sleeping in a little later the morning after. At the very least, maintain good sleep hygiene the next day — and every day — to ensure you have an easier time falling asleep when you do finally get to bed. 

Go easy the next day, too, especially if you’ve pulled an all-nighter. Avoid working out, as the risk of injury is higher than usual, and doing tasks that require your full attention, like driving.

Plus, avoid anything that could disrupt that all important next night’s sleep. Caffeine, large meals, or alcohol too close to bedtime can stop you getting the sleep you need. RISE can tell you the right time to stop these things according to your circadian rhythm. 

Aim to get back to a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the right times for you, and at similar times each day. Getting back to healthy sleep habits will help you recover from a night of sleep deprivation quicker, too, by paying down sleep debt faster. 

How Do I Keep From Falling Asleep?

If you’re struggling to stay awake during the day, focus on lowering your sleep debt and aligning with your circadian rhythm to give you more energy long term. If, however, you need to stay awake for longer than usual to hit a deadline at work, for example, things like well-timed naps, careful caffeine consumption, and bright light exposure can help to stop you from drifting off. The RISE app can also help you keep your sleep debt low, making staying up easier to do and recover from. 

Summary FAQs

How do I keep from falling asleep?

Stop yourself from falling asleep by getting bright light — either from the sun or from your electronic devices — drinking coffee, and getting some exercise. 

How to stay awake in class, to study, at work

If you’re falling asleep in class, while studying, or while at work, try drinking some water, having a healthy snack, and getting up to move around, if possible.

How can I stay awake for 24 hours?

To stay up all day and night, get bright light from the sun and from your devices, take advantage of power naps and coffee, and make sure to move around regularly.

How do you stay awake after an all-nighter?

After staying awake all night, get some bright natural light, move around throughout the day, and take a nap in the afternoon to help you stay awake until bedtime.

What to drink to stay awake

Drink water to reduce dehydration-related fatigue and coffee (if it’s not too close to bedtime) to perk you up. Black and green tea are also good options. 

What to eat to stay awake

Eat foods that aren’t too high in sugar, so you don’t experience a sugar crash. Try peanut butter, a small portion of fruit, nuts, yogurt, dark chocolate, or oatmeal.

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RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential

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