The feeling I associate most with my early university days is exhaustion. I wrote all my papers at night and fought sleep every time a lecture got a bit dull. You can’t live for years on a sleep deficit, though, so here’s what I should have known from the start.
Believe That It’s Possible
There’s not a student share house in this world where everybody is asleep at 10 and waking up refreshed every morning.
But if you look around your own university, you’ll find people who do fall asleep in class, and people who don’t. People who write their papers partly in the daytime, and people who sleep until 5PM on the weekends and barely have time for laundry, much less partying.
You don’t need to have a perfect sleep schedule, but you do need a schedule that leaves you functional.
If you don’t get enough sleep, your ability to learn suffers. You won’t remember things as well or think as clearly. You’ll drift off when your reading gets boring. And then you’ll try to prop your eyelids open for all-nighters to make up on the learning you missed.
There are physical effects, too. If you don’t sleep enough, you’ll either be too tired to exercise at all, or you’ll be sore and exhausted the day after a workout. Without enough sleep, you’ll feel more stressed and get sick more easily. You don’t want to spend all semester in this state, so take a few steps now to set yourself up for an OK sleep schedule.
Schedule Yourself Some Sleep
It may help to think of sleep as a vindictive mob boss. If you don’t pay your debts — eight hours a night — someone will come and break your kneecaps. Plan ahead so you aren’t in that situation.
When you schedule your classes and activities at the beginning of the semester, pay attention. When is your earliest class, and what is your latest evening obligation? Do you have enough downtime each day to take care of surprise homework assignments and still have a little time to relax? A packed day can lead to an all-nighter just because you didn’t have enough time to get everything done.
As you’re scheduling, remember that you don’t fall asleep the second you walk in the door, and you don’t wake up immediately bright-eyed and ready to jog to class. Build in some time to wind down at night and get yourself mentally ready in the morning.
Start paying attention now to how many hours of sleep you tend to get each night, and how it makes you feel. If you have a fitness tracker or a sleep app, it should tell you how much you’ve been getting. If not, here’s your basic guideline: In your teens you needed eight to 10 hours a night; in your early 20s it’s more like seven to nine.
Get Coursework Out Of The Way Early
The number one reason I pulled all-nighters in university was “Oh crap, I forgot that was due tomorrow.” The number two reason was “I knew this was due tomorrow, but I kept pushing it off until *checks watch* tonight.”
If you’re commuting to school and working a job or three, life gets in the way. Crap happens. You have plenty of things competing for your attention, and something has to give. Either you make time for coursework, or you have an honest talk with yourself about whether this is the right semester for university.
If you’ve determined you do have the time, then you need to put your class times and study hours on your calendar, and protect them like a precious treasure.
If you’re in student housing away and from your parents for the first time in your life, the temptation to goof off will be enormous. You can party and drink every night! You can skip class and nobody will chase you down in the halls! Nobody is going to force you to do anything, so your learning and study times have to be enforced by, uh... you.
So make sure you know when stuff is due, and work backward to figure out when your butt needs to be in the chair: “This will take me so-many hours, and I have this many days...” Keep an eye on your upcoming obligations, both short and long term.
I’m not saying you have to get everything done before it’s due, but try to have some of the work already taken care of before you sit down for your all-nighter.
Use Caffeine As A Tool, Not A Way Of Life
If you aren’t used to caffeine, and then you drink a giant cup of coffee late at night, it will keep you awake and your mind nimble for hours - possibly all the way until morning. That’s kind of the ideal way to use it.
But if you have coffee every night, and every morning, and some energy drinks in the afternoon (or even a Coke, which has caffeine as well), it won’t work as well any more when you need to use it. You’re dulling your sharpest stay-awake tool.
Have you ever found yourself chugging coffee to stay up late studying, but then when it's time for the exam, your mind is foggy with fatigue? Researchers from the US Army have developed an algorithm that can predict the energy peaks and valleys that come from drinking caffeine, and in turn, created a web-based tool that helps you predict how alert you can expect to be based on your own sleep schedule and coffee habits.
If you find you need caffeine all the time, for example just to stay awake in class, it means you haven’t been getting enough actual sleep. (Return to the step, above, where we talked about scheduling your sleep and staying ahead of coursework.)
The magical caffeinated all-nighter is a powerful tool if you use it occasionally - a few times a semester, tops. Not every week, OK?
Keep Your Phone Out Of Bed
Even if you use a night mode on your phone or laptop, pointing your eyeballs at a light source is a way to keep you awake. It isn’t just about the light, either. Whatever you’re doing on your phone (playing games, getting angry on social media) is keeping your brain awake as well.
So if you charge your phone by your bed, here’s what happens: You’re exhausted, you flop onto your pillow... and then you spend the next hour doing whatever the heck it is you do on your phone when you actually mean to be sleeping. Nobody wakes up and says, “Man, I wish I had an extra hour of YouTube last night.”
So plug in your phone in a place you can’t reach it from bed. If you need to be able to see the time during the night, get a clock, or set up an app to display it dimly all night. Just keep it out of bed.
Make Your Room A Sleepy Place
A lot of sleep hygiene for adults centres around making the bed feel like a nice, comfortable, sleepy place. If you’re exhausted all the time, though, you’re likely to fall asleep as soon as you give yourself the chance to close your eyes. But you still don’t want disruptions waking you up, or (like your phone) tempting you to delay bedtime.
Have a chat with your housemate(s) about when all the light and noise should settle down for the night. If you’re in student housing with a quiet hours policy, that should help.
If there’s a quiet hours policy but nobody enforces it, go talk to your RA. They’re probably trying to walk the line between enforcing the rules and being a nice guy who doesn’t get up in people’s business. Let them know you actually want them to enforce the rules for once, and you’ll help shift that balance a bit.
Have A Wake-Up Routine On Weekends
If you want to be able to wake up for a Monday 8AM class (or even a 9AM, or 10AM...) it’s best not to sleep in super late on the days you don’t have class.
If you’re signed up for an 8AM class, ideally you’ll be getting up at 7 (or whatever allows you to get there in time) every day. (This is a good reason not to sign up for 8AM classes.) I find it doesn’t mess up your schedule too much to sleep in late one day a week, so maybe have a later alarm Saturday mornings but try to keep the rest of the week the same.
That doesn’t mean you need to hop out of bed raring to go every Sunday. Instead, make yourself a nice wake-up routine. Maybe bring your blanket to the couch to watch TV, and make yourself a cup of tea. Something calm and relaxing, so long as your eyes are open. Make it something you want to do, and before you know it you might actually enjoy keeping a semi-reasonable sleep schedule.