All-Nighters Suck, Overtime is a Myth

Published on: November 24, 2007 |Tags: , | Categories: Articles

All Nighters Suck and Overtime is a MythDon’t wait to deliver bad news hoping that you might fix everything with a mad sprint to the finish. All-nighters suck. And if you lead a team, overtime is a myth.

There are times when optimism has gotten us in trouble. I’ve noticed this in a lot of freelancers. After all, we can do it all! We think, “gosh this deadline is looking tight, looks like I get to do another few all-nighters. No worries, I can pull this off.” We have all done our fair share. Some times we even glorify it like it is a badge of honor. Peter has done six all-nighters this year and not a single one of them turned out to be necessary.

I have been thinking a lot about the myth of overtime. Every time we have had our team push really hard doing “overtime”, we always have an accompanying undertime following it. I think most people only have a certain number of viable work hours in them in an given period. I find I am happier and more productive, as is our whole crew, when we are not being rushed and have time to explore ideas, make mistakes and enjoy our life. A periodic push is rewarding, but is it as necessary as modern thinking makes it out to be?

I have noticed that the all-nighter fairy tale story usually has one of three endings:

1. You pull it off and everyone rejoices.

It happens (really it can). You feel great and exhilarated. And if you happen to be like me, you are absolutely useless for the next two days. All your other projects are put on hold while you catch up on episodes of Heroes and read blogs because you are too tired to actually be creative. Not a horrible thing to take time off, but meanwhile the work piles up creating more urgencies. In my head it’s a toss up.

2. The client responds surprised, “the deadline was today?”

You finish, you are exhausted, you turn it in, and the client looks at you surprised and says, “the deadline was today? I thought it was next week.” Or, they explain that they had to push the launch due to internal reasons, that they will look at your comps or module when they have time. Or my favorite, they take 3 days to respond to your I’m done email. This is by far our most common ending. Five of our six all-nighters have ended this way. In fact, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that all deadlines are fabrications of the owner’s or executive’s ego.

3. You fail and unhappiness ensues.

You push on and in the end fail to meet the deadline, which ends in an awkward, unhappy dialog. These suck. And they cause you to lose clients. And they make you grumpy and fight with your spouse. And hurt your self esteem. As we learned with all-nighter number 6, take the beating up front. At least that way you will probably keep the client because they will appreciate your open communication. That is almost a direct quote from the cranky client.

Common mom, just let me go to bed!

We have had all of these endings happen. Each time, we walked away with the understanding that if we had just asked our client and communicated the challenge, they usually worked with us to find a pleasant resolution that did not require an all-nighter. And if they insist that the all-nighter is necessary, and you still miss the deadline, then you can play the “Hey, I came to you and said this probably won’t happen, and you pushed and I DID AN ALL-NIGHTER. We are doing everything humanly possibly to give you the best service available” card.

Let me tell you, I may sound just a touch cynical on this topic, but I am absolutely not. Notice that Peter is the one who did the all-nighters, not me (haha, I only did two). I am learning not to put up with that Sh*t. If we are not going to make it, I’d rather face the music than spin the all-nighter wheel, but to each their own. Six spins later, I think Peter is slowly coming to my way of thinking.

I bet you all have some awesome all-nighter stories. What was your last all-nighter? Did it work out? Do you love them like Brandon does (he seems to do them every few weeks) or loath them like I do?

If you liked this article, they only get better (cuz this sure isn’t my best one). The next word of the day is coming up next and you don’t want to miss it, so click here to subscribe now!

Oh, and there is a pretty sick conversation going on about doing what you love vs loving what you do in the comments of the previous post. Definitely go check it out. I have enormous passion on this topic and would love to have more people join.

18 Responses to All-Nighters Suck, Overtime is a Myth

  1. Téa B says

    I think that there is a difference between being forced to do an all nighter, and doing an all nighter based on a surge of enthusiasm, or inspiration, or whatever.

    I find that, more often than not, my mind is clearer at 2-3am. It might be because of the stillness, coolness, and kidlessness at that time, but I think that there is something biochemical going on that makes me work better at that time of night.

    For that reason, I have often stayed up past 4 or 5am — I dont do all nighters that often, but am frequently up at ridiculous hours.

    BUT — it is not out of any expectation from the client’s end. If I have clients that ae setting impossible deadlines that force an all nighter, I am getting better at saying “just not possible” — or charging them rush fees for the privilege of disrupting my life.

    So I don’t think, as such, that it is just the all nighter that is the problem — after all, I like them and some of my best work has been created in the still of the night — but working across timezones means that noone ever quite grasps it anyway!

  2. Téa B says

    PS, shit that illustration looks like me. hahahaha

  3. Ahmed says

    Currently in an all-nighter myself, thought I’d have to comment! But then I found Téa’s comment, which is exactly what I was going to say. :)

    It’s all about enthusiasm and inspiration. I frequently work till ridiculous hours too (6am ), and I do all-nighters every now and then (when the *mood* is right).

    For example, today, I went to bed for over an hour trying to sleep, but then found myself thinking about projects and work until I figured it’s one of those days! So, I decided to just get up and get my coffee. And here I am, just got some of the hairy things I’ve been postponing for weeks done! No deadline to meet, and no client wanting them tomorrow.

    I believe occasional all-nighters can be fruitful. Overdoing it may negatively impact productivity. But then again, it all depends on *you*.

  4. Scott Clark says

    I loved reading this.

    For ~44 or so weeks per year, I am ridiculously available. I pull off fast, efficient and effective solutions. I work all night sometimes.

    6 weeks of the year I do not.

    > Ecommerce death month (November)
    > My 2 weeks of vacations.

    Despite this, clients seem to always pull rabbits out of their hats late October or in November. Despite the reasonableness of my warnings (“plan early”) and my good faith efforts, people get ticked off. WTF. It catches me off guard even after doing this for over 10 years. My paranoid side says they do it on purpose, but I know better.

    The change has been that in the past 2-3 years, I do not panic. If I lose a client, it was for a good reason – my happiness. I am human. I have a family who needs me. New, better clients will come and my life will improve in the long run.

    I fully expect to lose 2 financially-important clients this year because I am now telling them ‘no’ to ridiculous last minute requests. I am not going to die for it, folks.

    One of the things that changed my life is the reading of Seth Godin’s book “The Dip”. Seth added me to his site as a “quitter” which I am proud of. I recommend this for talented people being abused by amateur business clients.

    I may make my next comment from the poor-house, but I’m going to be a better person in the end.

  5. Peter says

    About that excitement and inspiration before an all nighter…

    I liken it to the feeling i get when i drink a little too much alcohol. Invinsible, quickly followed by hopelessness. Then autopilot. And in the morning, there’s a mess.

    All nighters feel good because we feel like we are stealing time. We are getting time that would have been lost on sleep. But the fact is that the angle of sleep has a nasty temper and will take revenge in the form of a grumpy demon.

    When I pull an allnighter, I do a dis service to our business. I end up barking at Shane, our team, and our clients. I end up procrastinating and spending days recovering.

    It’s much better to set the client’s expectations than to stubbornly attempt to fulfill unrealistic ones and then suffer the humiliation of failing.

  6. Peter says

    When I think back, I can’t think of a single all nighter that I am truely proud of.

    One thing in common with all my all-nighters, they burned me out on the projects that I worked on. And there were always loose ends. I’s to dot and T’s to cross. And crossing and dotting after an all nighter is a miserable affair. Where as crossing and dotting at a paced rate can be fulfilling.

    The Fine Line Between Genius and Madness
    The other thing is that all-nighters tend to impare judgement. What seemed like a great idea at 3:30 am doesn’t seem so smart at 1pm the next day.

    One night Shane and I stayed up all night working on a client’s site that was set to launch the next day. The client had their own team as well. We overwrote all sorts of stuff with our brilliant ideas.

    Even if our ideas were brilliant, the clients team awoke to see their whole site had changed overnight without their feedback. They were pissed. They undid our whole nights work. We went to sleep thinking that we where geniuses and awoke to find we were idiots. With an angry client, a night of unbillable hours, and a sleep hangover.

    Seemed like we had some great ideas at 2am….

    In Silence of the Night
    That also brings me to the topic of communication and feedback:

    When you work at a good daily pace, you afford the opportunity to get feedback both from yourself and from your client.

    Often I need to let something digest before revaluating it. Overnighters don’t afford that opportunity.

    Also, as illustrated in the story above, we often need to involve our clients in the process. I don’t know about you, but none of my clients enjoy working with me at 3am.

  7. Sonia Simone says

    I have the unfortunate (but actually fortunate) complete inability to do this. Going without sleep is just not an option for me. I don’t know if I’m more physically sensitive to going without sleep or just more attuned to how stupid and ill it makes me.

    In general–not just with literal all-nighters–there’s a lot of phony heroism in the U.S., esp. in technology, around marathon hours. Remove the 2-3 hours of Stumbling, 1-3 hours of coasting around on blogs of only the slightest relevance to what you care about, 1-2 hours of screwing with your blog theme to make it cooler, 1-3 hours of listening to workplace bitching and moaning, etc., and the all-night warriors are putting in the same number of productive hours that anyone else is. If that.

    It’s my humble opinion that anyone who can consistently do 4-5 hours of actual work in a day is a rock star.

  8. Witold Rugowski says

    I like all-nighters – in theory… Of course – not with deadline gun put to Your forehead ;) but coming from inspiration or excitement.

    In theory – I mean when I would live as a single – no family, and with no work to do on next day. Long time ago I did that and I liked it.

    Nowadays I have family and don’t want to be zombie when playing with children, it kills all fun of it. And if there is another work to do – I opt for early communication of potentially failed deadline.

  9. Scott Clark says

    Sonia Simone: Absolutely true. You’ve touched on the issue of focus. Most businesses are ignorant about what it takes to concentrate and actually move through a task effectively.

    People stumble because they’re not engaged, and often they’re not engaged because they’re in the wrong job (or role.)

    Tim Ferris’ book “The four hour work week” has some nuggets of wisdom. One of them is when he recommends that we all set timers and each time they go off, we ask ourselves: “Are we doing real work or just screwing around and fooling ourselves that we’re working?”

    I have done this, and while not perfect, it’s helped me course correct.

  10. Eric Davis says

    I’ve done my share of all-nighters. I agree with Téa, there are different types of all-nighters.

    1 – “This is so cool I forgot about sleeping” all-nighter. I had this when I was working on the Rails Rumble 2007 programming contest. It is where you are driven to work because it is fun.

    2 – “This has to get done” all-nighter. This is the common all-nighter we all know about. I have found that I actully do get more work done in that time but it is of lesser quality and is no where near as maintainable as my standard work. In a few cases I even had to throw away all the work I did.

    I think the main thing to keep in mind is to work at a sustainable pace. Not so fast you burnout but not too slow that the project gets backed up requiring an all-nighter or feature cut.

    The C2 wiki has a lot of classic information about this:

  11. Brandon says

    Wow, I’m implicated in this article so I have much to say:

    First, excellent article. I love that you’re debunking this completely irrational myth. So, my rebuttal is as follows:

    1. The difference between a creative all-nighter and a programming all-nighter: Creative all-nighter has the potential to turn to design gold… your mind opens as the night goes on and you can find yourself unencumbered by distractions and traditional thought processes when you’re all alone. A programming or any other all-nighter often dissolves and unravels as the night goes on… you actually become far less productive trying to complete otherwise mundane tasks (writing CSS, an essay, etc) than if you were working during the day, fresh and awake.

    2. My little brother once did a research study on sleep and discovered this little tidbit: it takes, on average, 2-3 days of full sleep to recover from 1 night of 0-4 hours of sleep. Yup, that’s right – for the all nighter you just pulled there is a quantifiable loss in productivity. This is established fact and should be carved into the wall of project managers: to maintain a consistently productive team, each team member needs to balance his work sessions with a healthy night of sleep AND non-work -related personal time. What science tell us is that cracking the whip is often effective in short term spurts, but results in inconsistent and low quality work over the long haul.

    3. The lesson: If you’re a creative (like me), all-nighters can be effective if you use them right and understand the cost. More often than not though, the all nighters that I pulled this year were huge creative pushes that truly did compromise my rational abilities for the next couple of days. The one successful all-nighter that I pulled this year(I’m thinking of one project in particular where all 3 of us worked until 4am) actually did pay off and it was well planned with the understanding that we would decompress for a week afterwards. I liken this to video games where you can use a “hyper mode” for 10 seconds with the implication that your character is completely vulnerable for 30 seconds thereafter.

    4. Common sense: All-nighters are not only usually unproductive, but are often completely avoidable if you have a good project manager and a good grasp of the actual time it’ll take to complete a project.

    The theory of the all-nighter shouldn’t be grounded in “the last minute push to finish a project”. It should be based on a justifiable need for 8-10 hours of pure silence… which, when you think about it, can be accomplished in a variety of other methods (unplug your phone, ignore your email, tell your wife to catch a movie and hit the mall).

    I’ve adjusted (and I’ll blog on this as soon as school’s done) my work habits to revolve around a new habit: the work-sleep-family 3 pronged zen approach. More on this soon enough :)

    Thanks for an enlightening article Shane!

  12. shane says

    @ B – I posted you answer in the last post’s comments

  13. Harrison McLeod - JCM Enterprises says

    You’re right, all-nighters are pretty useless. I just got off of a horrible cycle of staying up all night to work and being totally worthless the next day – until the sun went down and then I was wide awake. I felt my work was crap and my creativity was practically non-existent.

    I decided something had to change. I sat down and made out a schedule and started following it. Having everything mapped out with the amount of time I wanted to spend on each project helped take the pressure off and I actually got more done than I would have had I tried to cram it all into one night. I’m able to get up at a reasonable hour (if 5.30 can be deemed reasonable) and call it quits in the early afternoon.

    So far it’s working, but like they say, “One day at a time.”

  14. ses5909 says

    What about the all-nighters where you can’t sleep because your brain just won’t turn off. I won’t pull an all-nighter for the job as the work for one client will affect all clients.

    My problem is when you’ve just got all of these ideas in your head and you can’t sleep. You spend so much time telling your brain to shut the hell up. These are the times that I have to decide… do I a) lie in bed and hope I fall asleep, b) get up and start working since I’m awake anyway, or c) go lie on the couch and watch tivo’d Extreme home makeover and hope the mindless entertainment puts you to sleep. last night I chose c. Sometimes I choose a and sometimes b.

  15. Joshua Clanton says

    Well, I can honestly say that I’ve never pulled an all-nighter before. The closest I’ve come is a few times when I’ve been unable to go to sleep for a bit and choose to do some relatively simple design/coding tasks to kill time. But that only keeps me up an extra hour or two.

    I think that I may be more sensitive to lack of sleep than a lot of people, as even minor things like that can leave me feeling groggy the next day.

  16. Naomi says

    I think there should rarely be a reason to do an all nighter. Most of the time, this occurs in the first place because the client’s own lack of planning. You can still provide a good service without making the client’s emergency your own.

  17. Anthony says

    Nobody with any sense lies on their death bed and says “If only I had worked more hours”.

    Your clients and your bosses will take whatever you’re willing to give to them. Nobody will tell you you’re working too many hours.

  18. Peter says

    Anthony, while generally you are right, I must admit that Shane has a tendency to tell our team that they should take a break when he senses fatigue.

    I’m trying to learn from him. He has a great sense of timeline whereby he gets people to take good breaks while making sure things get done on time.