Dear Lifehacker, I'm moving to a night shift at work, going in at 5pm and leaving at 3am, and I don't know how to prepare. How do I adjust? Is there a good time to sleep, get up or take meals, considering I'll be awake when the sun is down and the rest of the world is asleep? Should I avoid caffeine or eat breakfast at 4pm? Help! Sincerely, Newly Minted Night Owl
Switching from a traditional diurnal schedule to a nocturnal one can be tricky, and it's not for everyone. A lot of people like to think they're night owls and would prefer be productive when the world is sleeping, but when you have to do it for work, it's a whole other story. Fortunately, lots of people work third shifts or late shifts all the time, and it's not impossible to get accustomed to. Here are some tips that can help.
Give Yourself a Head Start
If you have the option, try easing into your new schedule before it starts. If you start your schedule on a Monday, try making the change Saturday and Sunday, for example. If you're off work for a while before making the change, try the new schedule at home. You'll be able to see how long you'll need to wake up and get ready, and how long your commute will be, since traffic and public transport will be different in the afternoon or evening.
If your family or loved ones aren't on that same schedule, this may prove difficult, but it could even be an opportunity to see where your schedules will line up. If you can see when you'll be able to take a meal together or at least talk for a while, you'll be better prepared for the stress of the new schedule, and you won't feel like you're missing out on your personal life. Personal time is important — make sure to give it to yourself. Remember what it is you're working for, after all — it's cliché, but you're working to live, not living to work.
Make Sure You Get Good, Healthy Sleep
Obviously, one of your biggest challenges is sleep. Unlike the rest of the world, you'll wake when the sun is down and go home when the sun is coming up. It's unnerving, but you need to make your sleep schedule feel as normal as possible.
The same rules that apply to getting a good night's sleep apply to you getting a good "day's" sleep. Cut out light and noise, even if that means installing blackout curtains in your bedroom so you can make it as dark as you can. Kill the distractions and try to keep your sleeping space as quiet and comfortable as possible. That means your phone should go on silent, calls should go to voicemail, and your family — even if they're home — need to understand that you need to sleep for work.
Set your alarm, and avoid the snooze button when it goes off. If you need to, make sure you open those curtains as soon as your alarm sounds. Nothing wakes you up like light does, and exposing yourself to it right after getting up will help you shake off the sleepies. If you have trouble waking up in dark rooms, consider an alarm clock like a Philips Wake Up Light that will gradually brighten the room for you as the time for you to get out of bed approaches. You can even make your own. When you're headed home after work and know you'll be in bed soon, treat your "evenings", (aka everyone else's mornings) the way you would if it were after dark. Limit the amount of light you're exposed to, and cut back on your screen time. Relax and wind down with a sleep routine that will ease you into restful sleep.
If you find that you're having serious trouble adjusting, you may want to see your doctor about it. There's a condition called Shift Work Sleep Disorder where your body just doesn't acclimate to the change, and you wind up being restless and weary all the time. Talk to your doctor. They may have additional suggestions, like light sedatives or additional changes for your routine that may help.
Eat Regularly and Eat Well
Many people who work late wind up eating terribly. It's an easy trap to fall into, mostly because the only food available at such late hours is the kind of food that you should probably avoid: fast food, junk food — anything you can get at a drive-through or a convenience store. The situation is bad enough that working late can even increase your risk for diabetes. However, with a little planning and forethought, it won't be a problem for you.
First, make sure you pack your own meals. You're entitled to breaks and a lunch, and you should make sure you take them. Brown-bagging it has never been more important than when you work the late shift. You'll save money and eat much better — with even greater returns over the alternative — than your daytime counterparts if you pack your own sandwiches, salads, soups or whatever else you enjoy eating. We've covered some great ways to upgrade your brown bag lunch before.
Personally, I'm a big fan of the "Ploughman's Lunch", which consists of wide variety but small portions. It gives you plenty to choose from and kills the temptation to buy your food elsewhere. Whether you pack a variety of foods, soups and salads, sandwiches or just make sure that there are always leftovers from your family dinners that you can enjoy during your "lunch" break, try to eat a well-rounded and healthy meal. Oh, and don't forget to stay hydrated.
Similarly, when you get home, you should have a wind-down ritual. If you eat a massive meal and then head right to bed, you'll have trouble digesting and your sleep will be restless. Your "breakfast" on the other hand, could very well be a family dinner — you don't have to limit yourself to breakfast foods just because you're waking up, you know — eat whatever you want, as long as it gives you a good boost for your day ahead.
When it comes to caffeine, the jury is out. Since you'll be more sensitive to sleep disturbances and issues since you're already bucking your body's natural circadian rhythms, you may want to eschew caffeine entirely. Some doctors will tell you to give it up entirely, but I know I'd have a rough time without my coffee or tea, no matter what time of day it was, and I'm sure more than a few police officers, nurses and firefighters will tell you they get by through the night with a cup of coffee just fine.
Get Plenty of Exercise, and Pay Attention to Your Mental Health
While you're at it, don't forget to keep up your exercise. In some ways, this is even easier than if you worked in the daytime — there's no one around to fight you in fitness centres and gyms by the time you're ready to go. Exercise is one of the keys to restful sleep and it's fairly obvious why regular exercise is good for your health. Since you'll be at a disadvantage on both fronts, regular activity is even more important for you.
Finally, watch your mental and emotional health. At first it might seem like fun to IM or text your friends at night, but that feeling of missing out can make you feel alienated over time. Combine that with bad food, poor sleep and a lack of light, and you have a recipe for depression or other mental health issues. Make sure you get your holidays, switch up your schedule a little from time to time so you can join everyone else (although it's important to be consistent too), and get plenty of sunlight when it's right for you, usually before work. Consider a lightbox for your workspace. If you have colleagues who also work your shift, talk to them and spend time with them so you don't feel alienated and alone. If you feel yourself sinking, switch off that shift and/or talk to a professional as soon as possible.
It may sound like all of this is advice for anyone working any shift, and that's true to a certain degree. However, shift workers and people who work nights have the odds stacked against them. All of the tips we've mentioned for making sure you get up, get exercise, eat well and sleep well go twice for someone making the change from a diurnal schedule to a nocturnal one. It will be difficult, and it's not for everyone, but as long as you're mindful about it, you can make the best of the change.
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