How to Win Hackathons Powered by Sleep Science

Hackathons are all about a focused burst of productivity. But what Facebook and Google have all learned is that companies end up having a really productive night followed by 1-2 days of sleepy, unfocused, zomb-ployees. In this post we will give you a program to ensure people are productive both during and after a hackathon.



Dr. Nitun Verma, a Stanford trained sleep physican, spent years helping tech companies to optimize the all-nighter. Until we stole him away to co-found PeerWell.

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Now he is going to share his secrets with the public:

After pulling 200+ all-nighters in medical training, I got a sense for what works and what doesn't. I refined and tested these methods based on what I learned studying sleep and treating sleep disorders at my practice.

The methods I lay out are powerful, and if done wrong, can cause other sleep issues, so be careful. My plan is not just about staying awake- it is about staying awake, focused and creative. I have also included a method I gave to firefighters to sleep as fast as possible after their shift is over.

Some of the advice here will be counterintuitive. This is because what might be good for an all-nighter might not be good on a regular day.

8AM to Noon

Start with your usual caffeine intake. Avoid naps to save up for a big nap this afternoon (if your schedule allows)

Breakfast: Avoid sugar and processed foods as much as possible. Put away the waffles and maple syrup and eat something high in fiber and protein like steel cut oats and eggs. Your body is primed for an insulin spike after you wake up. Giving your body sugar will make you feel groggy by lunch.

Noon to 4PM

The afternoon lull after lunch is your friend today. If possible, find a place to take a nap once you notice you are sleepy or mentally foggy. A 90 minute nap now will decrease sleep drive greatly. I say 90 minutes because it can contain an entire cycle of sleep to balance sleep inertia and sleep drive benefits. Sleeping for less time will also help you later tonight, but you will feel groggy just after waking. So if you can't get the 90 minutes, plan a few minutes of exercise post nap to recover your alertness. Hold off on caffeine for later.

Lunch: Avoid processed foods. Stick with something with unrefined carbohydrates for sustained energy and protein.

4PM to 8PM

If you can repeat a nap, go for it. You may not be as sleepy because of your big nap this afternoon. If you got 90 minutes earlier, a 20 minute nap now will refresh you. A 20 minute nap is easier to wake from because there would be limited slow wave sleep. Have some caffeine if you want. Since caffeine takes time to absorb, you can have some before the nap.

Dinner: Go smaller than normal. Split your dinner into 2 parts, and eat only one part now. Save the other part to eat in a few hours. Once again you will want to get unrefined carbs and protein, no quick sugars like rice, pasta and pizza.

8PM to Midnight

You'll likely start craving some sugary foods, avoid. Caffine is ok, but best to save for later.

Snacks: Throw the Red Vines out the window and opt for nuts, seeds, dried fruit, veggies or beef jerkey. I know. I love Red Vines too.

Midnight to 4AM

The sleepiness has begun to build. Sleepiness reduces the ability to multitask and think creatively first. Then as it worsens it will start to affect thinking speed. A short (20 minute) nap will help, but be careful because you might not wake up.

Starting now, you'll likely crave sugary foods. You are working against a combo of insulin resistence and your circadian rhythm. Stay active and upright with good posture. Also drink plenty of water (without sweeteners or sugar). Last chance for caffeine.

Snack: Avoid sugar and processed foods if possible. If you absolutely need a boost, know that a sugary snack now will cause extra sleepiness in an hour. If you must eat sugar now, you might as well plan a 20 minute nap when the sugar crashes to recover faster.

4AM to 8AM

Maximal sleepiness. Fatigue, irritability, decreased focus, decreased concentration. Naps of 20 minutes can help, but avoid longer durations. Longer naps now and the sleep inertia it invites will be difficult to recover from. Caffiene now will make it harder to sleep once home, so avoid it 6 hours before sleep time. Drink lots of water! Short intense exercise will help also. Consider standing as much as possible.

Snack: Avoid sugar and processed foods if possible. If you absolutely need a boost, know that a sugary snack now will cause extra sleepiness in an hour.

Driving Warning

Driving while sleepy isn't terribly different from driving while sleeping. Don't do it! Have a plan (friend, walk, transit, taxi).

Back Home

Surprisingly, some people can be so energized by the process that falling asleep once home is difficult. Make the recovery sleep come quickly. Close curtains, lights, and turn off phones. Best: sit in a chair for 5 minutes and relax before bed. Ensure a quiet space. Use a fan for white noise and use earplugs. Avoid water an hour before sleep time for less interruptions.

Next 2 Days

Stick to your usual sleep schedule to avoid shifting your circadian rythm. Instead, add nap times to recover. 90 minute naps are perfect for this.

TL;DR

Taking timed naps, eating right and short, intense exercise can get you through an all-nighter.

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Nitun is a sleep medicine physician. He's built clinics to help people understand their sleep so they can be more alert and effective. He connects the best of tech with the best of medicine.

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