I was at my office last night past midnight working on last-minute needs for an event marketing commitment. There are a lot of feelings people might associate with staying late at the office (and getting reduced sleep), but “fun” and “nostalgia” and “wellbeing” aren’t too common.
Yet those are the things I feel when I work late nights or the (very rare) all-nighter. I have great memories of blasting music, drinking energy drinks (5-Hour Energy is a real trip), and breaking into undistracted flow states that lead to project triumph.
But beyond all the fun trappings of late-night work (and there are many), there is real wisdom to be learned from the occasional stint. To see it, consider another practice – the practice of pretended poverty as recommended by the ancient Roman Stoic Seneca to his correspondent Lucilius:
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence . . .
Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”
This practice is meant to immunize Seneca and Lucilius against the fear of poverty. Since many other forms of exposure therapy work, I can only imagine that this one works as well.
Exposure therapy – therein lies the wisdom of late nights and all-nighters. Pulling one from time to time can be an immunization to many fears and limiting beliefs.*
When you know you are willing and able to put in extraordinary effort in extraordinary time, you become less afraid of deadlines. You know you can trust yourself to come through on big projects, important projects, projects that require resources or knowledge you don’t have yet. By pulling a late night, you get to deploy the best assets you may have: time and persistence. And you’ll know in the future that your time and persistence will be available to you again.
When you know you’re capable of putting in a late night, you become less obedient to your weaknesses. You can push past the yawns and the stress and the uncertainty. You know you can push past the temptations to sleep or distractions into those flow nights that come with the setting of the sun and the departure of your coworkers. You don’t have to stop, and you don’t have to take a break.
Finally, you experience what true exhaustion is, and you can receive it as a gift. You can experience true rest: recovery after a meaningful job you chased to completion through the dark of night. This new appreciation is wisdom.
So give it a try sometime. Make it a part of a regular (if not common) routine to push yourself to your limits and work into the night. You might be surprised at how much it helps the work in the day.
Intellectual credit: Isaac Morehouse on the “sleep in your car test” which I’ve also written about, Seneca, Tim Ferriss for popularizing this section of Seneca, and BrainPickings for the curation of this quote.
*I’ve made a similar note about sleeping in your car.