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In the Still of the Night

Night Shift

The All Night’er is something that all of us have dated at one point or another in our lives. Staying up til’ 3am running on nothing but coffee and the knowledge that any sane person would be sleeping certainly isn’t a rarity in any case. And heck, it’s a little romantic the first time you do it… like the first time you try to stay up all night when you’re a kid. Whimsical, sure, but for the design professional who gets his or her work from freelance contracts, the all nighter is more than an occasional date, it’s a long-term partner, and understanding it is key to conquering it and unleashing your true productive power.

First, the reason it happens: You wake up, spend the first couple hours surfing and answering emails. Then come the phone calls, meetings, lunch, minor project edits, and personal life stuff. None of this can really be avoided, in fact, it’s all very necessary. A guy’s gotta eat, and without those meetings and phone calls you wouldn’t have work to begin with. So by the time the clock strikes 6, you probably feel like you’ve already worked a full day, but you project hasn’t moved an inch yet.

That’s fine in most cases. Lots of designers I know don’t even bother trying to get creative work done during the day for the simple reason that it’s too hard to focus. With all the emails, phone calls, and little nagging edits, it’s far too easy to be distracted and end up spending a day working on a project never making any headway. The wisdom here is to go with the flow. There’s no use in fighting the distractions of the day. Instead, tell yourself that your main responsibility for the day is to keep everything in order with clients. Starting a huge project that will require 4 hours of straight work is sorta futile if you know you’re going to be stopped every half hour. Instead, focus on little project goals that you know you can reach the next step in under 30 minutes. Pick the low-hanging fruit during the day, and save the real concentration time for the night when things settle down.The night is where the real concentration work can begin. As Shane so aptly put it: “I manage the business during the day, I work during the night”. With the distractions removed, the phone now silent, the inbox no longer blinking, and the rest of the world peacefully down to sleep, I begin to flex my creative muscles.I can identify clearly 3 reasons why I (and most other creative workers that I know) do my best work later at night:

1) Less Distractions: a quiet environment allows us to truly settle into a project and give it our full attention.

2) The Still of the Night: We are mentally unstrung: after spending a full day putting out fires, we’ve assured ourselves that the rest of the business is running fine. We’ve spent time with family, taken a break, and now we’re finally relaxed enough to spend a couple hours working on the important instead of the urgent.

3) Stealing Time: Knowing the rest of the world is sleeping makes us feel like we are “cheating” the 24 hour day. Yes, it’s a little extra work, but the simple knowledge that I’m making progress while everyone else is already down for the day is incredibly motivating.

The end result of a successful all-nighter is usually nothing short of pure gold if it’s done right (and nothing short of heartache and a long day after if it’s done wrong). If you start at 9pm, you know you have a good 3-4 hours to work before getting to bed at an ungodly hour – that’s a huge chunk of time. The key here is to understand and seize the opportunity that this chunk of time provides.

Here are some hints:

Fuel Up: grab a bite to eat and get hopped up on whatever it’s gonna take (caffeine, sugar, or anything else) to keep you alert for the shift.

Plan Ahead: write out a set of objectives for the session before you go to work.

Divide and Conquer: break the objectives down into little, bite-sized goals that can be accomplished in under 15 minutes each.

Find Your Groove: whether you work best in silence or with some beats in the background, create the environment that allows you to truly focus on and lose yourself in the work.

Pace Yourself: setting an insane pace at the start will stump your progress just as much as taking a 2-hour break to surf the net. Ease into the project and keep in line with the bigger picture so you don’t have to fix dumb mistakes.

Track Your Progress: cross off goals on the list as you complete them – there’s nothing more motivating than seeing that you’re actually making a huge dent in your to-do list.

Blood Flow to the Brain: every 3 or 4 goals that you finish, get out of your chair and get the blood pumping. This may not seem like much, but that little bit of physical activity will be enough to keep you sharp and awake. More importantly, walking away from the project for a minute will give you the perspective that you need to stay on task and not travel off on wild tangents.

Accomplish these things and you’ll find yourself satisfied at the end of the night. There’s nothing better than firing off an email at 2am that you know will draw applause the next morning. What’s more is that developing these good habits during the night will ultimately bleed over into your day sessions.