I went into the shower trying to remember everything that happened last night. It was all a bit fuzzy. Hope I didn’t make any mistakes — no big ones at least. This was the third night spent in this unfamiliar bed. They hand’t been all bad – some nights were even better than expected. Still, it was time to go home.
Crossing the empty hallway I heard a voice from behind me:
I turned around and smiled.
“Three times in a row?”
“Well, you look surprisingly fresh. Enjoy the rest of the day!”
I thanked her and went into the morning meeting. Here one colleague looked a lot more tired than me, so everyone thought he had slept in the hospital.
Actually, I had night shift last night. The third in a row.
More surprised gazes. I was obviously a walking anomaly, which got me thinking: everyone has heard of the gruelling night shifts medical residents have to go through. You work at abnormal hours, try to catch some shuteye between patients and sleep in uncomfortable places. And the best part? You have to deliver correct diagnoses right after being pulled from your deepest dreams.
I knew the toll such a schedule can take on the body. Night shift workers have a higher risk of diabetes, depression and metabolic syndrome. The World Health Organisation even classified shift work as probably carcinogenic. And the more tired you are, the more likely you are to make a mistake and kill someone.
So right when I started doing night shifts I began developing a system. As always, I started from scientific evidence. All our bodies respond in similar fashion to the same impulses; some can make your day and some will break even the toughest of us. And when you’re on a deadline you don’t want to start experimenting to see what works. So I’ve done it for you.
How to master sleep
You can view this system as a guide to mastering your sleep. It doesn’t apply only to physicians or night shift workers. You can use it for the occasional all-nighter or if you have to power through several nights to meet a deadline. No matter if you’re a factory shift worker, junior lawyer or desperate student, we all would like more control over our sleep. And this is how you can gain control over it.
1. Use polyphasic sleep. I’ve written before about how you can get by with less sleep. There’s no other scenario where polyphasic sleep is more needed. It will fill up your energy bars and train your body to fall asleep faster. Learn about it, train it and use it. You can thank me later.
2. Control your environment. Light and temperature are powerful stimuli, so use them to your advantage. I always keep the window open in the diagnostics room. Warm air will just make you think of your blanket and get all mushy. Blue light is also important: it gives you body the signal to get up and go. So use it when you need to be awake, but avoid it before bedtime.
3. Eat healthy. Lack of sleep weakens your immune system. In my case, sleepless nights a are guaranteed way to catch a cold. That’s why I drink freshly squeezed fruit juice (usually orange, grapefruit and ginger) before and after each night shift. I also eat more vegetables during those days.
4. Control your cravings. If you’ve ever partied all night you know you get hungry at one point. Now imagine working all night instead of having fun and not having the time to grab a burger around the corner. You will most likely end up eating all sorts of crap during the night. That’s why I always pack a low-carb protein bar and some nuts. Proteins will keep the hunger away and make sure you don’t develop a chronic fear of scales.
5. Do light exercises. Whenever you’re feeling drowsy, stop whatever you’re doing — unless it’s CPR, then keep going. Get up and do a few squats or pushups. This will get your blood pumping and help you focus.
6. Use stimulants wisely. I’m not saying you shouldn’t drink coffee or tea, but make sure you know how your body reacts to them. You don’t want to lie awake in bed during the few moments when you could sleep. I usually have one espresso around 7 PM because I know the effect will wear off in about 4 hours. And please don’t have any of those ridiculous energy drinks. Just don’t.
7. Be friendly and firm with your coworkers. Of course, you should always do this, but it’s even more important when you don’t have a backup. Everyone gets tired and cranky after working all night. So be nice to each other and be clear in your requests, so even the ones running in zombie mode get them. Your colleagues can make a huge difference during night shifts.
8. Use a checklist. This humble tool is used in all sorts of high-stress environments, from ORs to plane cockpits. A checklist will help you go into night shifts with a smile on your face, not worried if you’ve packed everything or left the baby in the car. You can write down anything you consider important. Here is a screenshot of my checklist:
Follow this guide and you will soon be doing night shifts like walks in the park. Or you’ll at least stop hating them. Make sure to write your own secret tips in the comments so I can add them to the list.
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise — Victor Hugo