How To Survive Work on Zero Sleep

Sunday 10 September 2017

What happens when it's not okay to hit the snooze button? How do you cope doing a day's work when you've had absolutely no sleep?

It's not something that seems to be discussed, but there will be occasions in anyone's life when you have to perform on little to zero shut-eye.

As anyone who is parent to a small child and also working knows, or even just those who suffer from the odd sleepless night or over-active social life, sometimes in life, you have to soldier on when all you want to do is crawl under the duvet.

This has happened to me a few times - we're lucky that usually, Theo is a pretty good sleeper now, but there are times when he's ill that we find ourselves heading into the office less than refreshed.

I thought it may be helpful to share the tips, tricks and coping strategies I've evolved!

Note: These tips should not be taken as medical advice - I'm definitely no doctor. What I'm talking about here is the odd night without any sleep. If you are suffering from persistent insomnia, please visit your doctor. 

Drink All The Water

Even though it may seem that a quadruple shot, extra-sugar Venti Caramel Macchiato and hiding in the stationery cupboard is the only thing that will help you get through the day, I'm here to gently suggest that approach might just be counter-productive.

By all means, grab a small espresso, but big hits of sugar-laden caffeine are going to make you feel a lot worse come 11 am. Instead, staying hydrated is way more important.

Dehydration makes tiredness ten times worse, and upping your intake of H20 will help you to feel much more alert. Plus, drink enough and you'll be running off to the bathroom, which also helps with not falling asleep under your desk.

Get Moving Outside

Direct exposure to sunlight can boost your mood, send those 'wakey wakey' signals to your tired brain, and also help to reset your internal body clock if you're feeling like your sleeping patterns are all wrong.

I always try to take a walk outside at lunchtime, and the fresh air and break away from the stuffy office environment works wonders. Sometimes, if the situation is drastic and I feel like I'm in imminent danger of just dropping off in front of my colleagues, I will just get up and go for a short, brisk walk around the block.

Watch What You Eat

A sleepless night is a recipe for disaster when it comes to eating habits the next day. There's nothing like lack of sleep to make you feel as if you need those sugary drinks and fatty snacks. But guess what? Those kind of foods are not going to help at all.

What you need are slow-release foods that prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar. Good things to reach for include raw almonds, which are full of Vitamin E, magnesium, and protein to give steady energy, salads or soups that feature spinach or kale - this will up your iron levels, which in turn will make you feel more alert and focused, and Greek yoghurt, which has more protein and less carbs than standard yoghurt, and will give energy without slowing you down.

Get the Toughest Tasks Done First

It's so tempting when you're feeling far from the top of your game to busy yourself with a reply to a few emails and tidying your desk. But if you start with these tasks, the day is going to go downhill fast.

Instead, try to prioritize anything requiring an ounce of brainpower for as soon as you come into the office in the morning. Even if you don't feel it, the first 1-2 hours are unfortunately the most alert you're likely to be all day.

So use them wisely to tackle a project or get a critical task out of the way before you slide into the busy work.

Do 10 minute 'task bursts'

Studies show that severely sleep-deprived people have a maximum of 10 minutes sustained concentration on one task. So try to chunk things on your to-do list, like filing emails, into 10 minute bursts, ideally with a break away from your desk in between each. That way you stand a small chance of actually being able to get things right in your hazy state.

Try A Sneaky Power Nap

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and on very dire days I have been known to try a lunchtime power nap in the back of my car.

I keep a lightweight fleece blanket in the boot anyway, just in case of a breakdown and getting stranded somewhere, so I pop this over me and use the Calm app on my iPhone to put on some meditative gentle background music. The rear windows of my car are tinted, so I feel happy that no one is going to be able to look in and see me snoring.

However, it is vital that you limit yourself to just 20 minutes. Sleep works in cycles, and you pass between lighter sleep and the deeper, restorative REM sleep (that's the good stuff). 20 minutes is just enough time to complete a full cycle.

If you wake yourself up during the deeper phase of sleep, you actually run the risk of being more groggy and awful when you wake, so make sure you set that timer!

Even if you don't drop off, 20 minutes of calm listening to a meditation track can make you feel more refreshed. If you can, elevate your feet above your head while you rest. This promotes blood flow to the brain and can help you to feel more alert.

Make Sure You Get to Bed Early

Congratulations - somehow you managed to survive the day! It can be tempting to just carry on the rest of your evening as normal. After all, you pushed yourself to get through the day, you deserve some leisure time, right?

Well, that can be a dangerous trap. You need to try and repay the sleep debt by going to bed a little earlier than normal - but not TOO early, or you run the risk of waking up during the night.

I like to make sure I'm in bed for 8 pm reading a book and sleeping by 9 pm if it been a tough day. This is early enough to get some extra restorative sleep without being drastic and still giving you a little bit of an evening, even if it is only an hour after the baby's in bed! Be kind to yourself as well.

Don't worry about jobs around the house that haven't been done. They can all wait a day or two until you're caught up on sleep and ready to face the world.


  1. I get barely any sleep at nights but I find that getting the difficult tasks done first is always the best, you can use your energy up getting those out of the way before taking a nap!

    Sophie xx // One Unique

  2. I absolutely loved this post! Some great tips and really well written :) xx