Stuck in the lab again, for the third night in a row. I have never done three in a row I think I might just break a record. I cannot sleep, because the lab is super crammed and uncomfortable and I am afraid that someone will come in and take my belongings, I am afraid that I will fall sleep for so long that I will miss something so important that will ruin this semester, especially at a time when I beginning to see the light at the end of a long dark tunnel that has been both physically, emotionally and mentally draining.

Why not go home? Because home is an hour drive away and I am stuck working on multiple projects that lasts from 8 in the morning to 3 in the morning. Have to get up to school again at 9 am. Not much time left in my time zone. Should I go to sleep? Might just wake up in a lab full of people and look embarrassed. Should I stay awake? I will just wind up falling asleep in the lecture which is ten times worse!

But that's not the point I am asking this question. I am asking this question because I am the only one left in the lab. Eyes wide open from dusk till dawn, headed for a big crash. Can't form a full sentence, my mind is going blank. I am starting to wonder if it is just me. What is it about me that forces me to wonder the halls at 4 in the morning to go to the bathroom to brush my teeth? What forces me to drink energy drink at 11 pm at night and wonder how long before I will have my first heart attack? Can you call an ambulance over the internet, my phone is dead.

How do academicians view the subject of sleep when things left undone, problem left unsolved swirls around your mind? How to be productive, meet deadlines, and get adequate sleep?

  • 80
    Just go home and sleep. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 9:25
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    "home is an hour drive away": that is part of the problem, in my view. Two hours of commuting time every day add a lot of stress. Have you considered renting a flat closer to the university? Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 12:51
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    You deal with prolonged lack of sleep by sleeping. Once you do that, you should feel a little better. Working is fine, but it's just one thing you can do in your life the same as you can go for a walk, hang around with friends, etc... This advice actually comes from someone who went to bed at 5AM, 2AM and 2AM the past three days and woke up at 8:30. It's late, sure, but I still went to bed.
    – PatW
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 13:03
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    I'm sure no one in the world will freak out if you decide to call in sick for a day. And yes, sleep deprivation is being sick. So take a sick day, catch up on lost sleep, and return to normal sleeping habits.
    – Compass
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 13:23
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    Get a pickup truck with a back camper or topper, you can find them for cheap. This way you can cram in some sleep during your off hours during the week and then go home fully when you have more time. It's cheaper than a flat near campus and solves your fear of sleeping in lab. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 21:15

11 Answers 11


There are short-term and long-term approaches. Sometimes, a lack of sleep is necessary because of, eg, unexpected and valuable time on expensive valuable equipment X. Or, because the grant really is due today and you didn't budget time correctly. Or because process X has to be babysat and really does take 72 hours. For those short-term upsets, coffee and lots of water works, followed by about twice as much rest as the time you missed sleeping. Never pretend you can make time up on your long-term schedule by missing sleep. For processes, that part just sucks, either try to work in shifts with another student or set up a nearby sleeping area. If you're gadget-friendly, simple setups can often improve efficiency by allowing uninterrupted sleep.*

Long-term, missing sleep does not work for most people. Planning can help a lot. So, start by figuring out everything you want to do, estimate how long it should take, and then prioritize. Start by filling in an 8 hour workday and try to get everything on your list done. Listing tasks such as 'try X' works better than 'solve Y'. For most people, it won't come close to happening in 8 hours. Next, measure the ratio of estimated to actual time and use that to scale your future estimates. Keep reviewing.

Next, find a weekly hour limit that keeps you healthy. Then, optimize for efficiency. (commuting 2 hours?? move. Reading StackOverFlow instead of working? Um... Stressed, not getting much done? - Try the gym.)

Finally, after a few iterations, compare your productivity to your peer group while adjusting for your career goals and choose realistically. If you aren't close to living healthily while being as or more productive as people likely to achieve your career goals, it would be reasonable to rethink them.

*One of my friends moved into his office. There was a lab shower, so it wasn't bad - and saved a ton on housing. Add a lockable door == no problem.


There are three basic approaches to handling this:

  1. Paul Erdos' approach. Pros: it worked for Erdos, after a fashion. Cons: you are not Erdos.
  2. Crack, maybe have a psychotic episode, and leave academia. Pros: it's the easiest course, and the one you're on now. Cons: everything else about it.
  3. Recognize that your career is not a sprint, but a marathon, and start triaging less important work in favor of sleep. Working sleep-deprived is exactly as smart as working drunk, so you are already cutting your productivity, just in an uncontrolled manner. Pros: Survival, possibly having a career. Cons: you will have to say "no" to people.

The truth is, in academia there is an endless amount of work that you could be doing: you will never be done. The only choice you get to make is whether you will choose the things that you do not do, or whether you will make self-destructive choices that mean those choices get made for you arbitrarily by the fracture points of your body and mind.

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    "Working sleep-deprived is exactly as smart as working drunk" - ahem.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 13:45
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    "Working sleep-deprived is exactly as smart as working drunk" - But not nearly as much fun :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 17:36
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    Heh. I read the first word of #2, I parsed it as a noun rather than a verb. I imagine that would be one way to handle prolonged lack of sleep... I wouldn't recommend it, though.
    – neminem
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 17:28
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    @neminem, that's more or less covered under #1 :-)
    – Matt
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 20:59
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    Dang. I also thought jakebeal means literaly crack. Also, the point suits fully if you interpred it as I did.
    – Julian
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 13:20

You are following the "path of the burn out". You may be interested in reading this question and its answers :

What can I do to recover from a short term burnout?

By main advice is always the same : seek advice from a professional, there is nothing that can be said here except "don't do that", "enjoy life outside the lab" and "you have to realize that you won't miss anything by not being 24/7 at your desk". For the rest, a professional is needed.


Your working, living, commuting and sleeping arrangements have gotten out of whack; also you are skipping exercise and time off. Recipe for burnout.

  • "I am stuck working on multiple projects that lasts from 8 in the morning to 3 in the morning" what does this even mean? That's insane. That's at least 8 hours too much. So immediately reduce it by 8 hours, depending on whether you prefer to avoid mornings or nights. I very much doubt your supervisor assigned you that schedule. What needs to change in order to fix that? Change it now. Can you nap in the afternoon? Exercise then nap?

  • Don't sleep in the lab. It's just not productive. And it feeds the workaholism and anxiety. Also, your labmates will think you're weird.

  • Worrying that someone will take your belongings can be solved by using a locker, and a backpack, but don't sleep in the lab. No sleeping-bags.

  • In terms of sleeping arrangements, either rent a room nearby, find a couch to crash on, or use a car/truck you can sleep in, with blanket and cushions. Probably can't find a carpool with such a wack schedule.

  • "I cannot sleep, because the lab is super crammed and uncomfortable and I am afraid that I will fall asleep for so long that I will miss something so important that will ruin this semester." There is a whole bunch of things wrong with that, workaholism and anxiety getting totally out of control. But for now, get your sleep schedule back together immediately so your thought process gets back to normality.

  • Then talk to your supervisor regularly to check you're on track and don't need to be anxious.

  • You are neglecting the crucial role of exercise and leisure time (as well as sleep) in any schedule. Fix that now. Whatever needs to get cut, cut it. 19-hour work days? Cut the least important 10 hours' worth. (Triage, as jakebeal said.) Unrealistic expectations? Talk to supervisor. Scheduling conflicts? Bring up to supervisor. No rational or ethical supervisor would inflict such a schedule on anyone. Academia is not some sleep-deprival forced-march do-or-die ordeal like special-forces boot camp. It's just a set of tasks to be managed and completed, then switch off and go exercise and have a beer with your friends. Really you're losing all sense of proportion.

  • "What forces me to drink energy drink at 11 pm at night and wonder how long before I will have my first heart attack?" Nothing "forces" you to, except perfectionism, anxiety and lack of structure, all of which you own. Do not drink energy drinks within 6 hours of sleep time. That means 6pm latest. Do not overconsume them. They lead to anxiety and insomnia; they can strain your heart. Every time you think of using an energy drink as a crutch, instead exercise/go for a run/walk/at least do pushups. Based on your symptoms and mental state, you should probably avoid energy drinks forever.


Try to stop at good enough on the tasks that really aren't that important. Spending several hours to go from 99% to 99.9% isn't really worth it (maybe for some limited tasks). You will save an immense amount of time.

You'll be more efficient on the important tasks if you get enough sleep and you don't have to stress as much over them.


I think that another approach to view this problem is: do I really need this amount of time to perform this specific task? Or is there a better, shorter way to tackle this scientific problem?

It happened to me from time to time that either (i) the experimental design or (ii) the technical aspects of the experiment itself could be improved in a way that I could still reach the result that I was aiming for, without having to go through the pain of sleep deprivation.

Always consider that as other people pointed out working so much will have a big impact over the quality of the data that you will obtain, thus leading to you having to increase even more the amount of hours that you put into the lab, in a vicious cycle that could have very negative outcomes.

I would sit down and go back to the experimental design to see if there is a better path towards your goal.


In the neurological institute I did my postdoc, the biologists tended to stay up with only brief intermissions while experimenting on the visual cortex of a cat. A cat lasted for about 3 days of useful results from anesthesia to euthanasia. It was sort of their code not to waste any of that time. Rats lasted shorter but were more expendible, probably also emotionally. But they were not useful for the same things.

It was not really much of a conversational topic in this interdisciplinary institute but most people knew what was up when a biologist dragged himself around with bloodshot eyes before disappearing again.

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    Poor cat :( This is so cruel. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 11:02
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    I'm sure you'll understand if I, as a cat person, can't find much sympathy for those sleep-deprived researchers.
    – tsleyson
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 16:52
  • You're a cold soul 'user3193'. Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 4:53
  • Long experiments can occur in other fields besides biology. In synchrotrons, the physicists' motto is Never waste a photon! Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 19:19

It's hard to disconnect when you've got into a continuing stressy zone.

If you find that Johanna's answer isn't enough for you, then you might try:

-- schedule in some hard, physical exercise (2 or 3 times a week). (I chose swimming lanes). This will give your system a chance to work out all the piled-up stress metabolites (not science; just my world-model) and leave you physically tired. I found it altered my mood; even if only for an hour or two, providing respite from perpetual stress.

-- eat as well as you can afford to; I find I lose concentration when I eat sugars, fats and starches without meat and vegetables [you might not prefer meat for protein]. Your body has to rebuild itself continually; give it the inputs to manage that.

-- think carefully about your use of stimulants. Many established adults I've spoken to about this, have (eventually) adopted a plan like this: don't have any more coffee after 6pm / 3pm. Experiment has shown that caffeine too late damages your sleep (you don't get the benefit of the time you spend asleep), by making that sleep lighter. The first night a tea or coffee (or energy drink) late on will give you extra. The second, less. And quickly none or less than none; it isn't a sustainable behaviour.

-- adopt a new policy to your body. It is the platform on which all your achievement is built. Nurture it. Feed it. Notice when it is struggling, and adapt what you expect of it. Don't treat it as a whipping horse; it is you. There are no marks for destroying your platform for future achievement, and the only person who will have to pay the price is you.

-- managing your own programme and delivery is a continuing experiment. Watch how your system copes and adjust what you expect of yourself. When adults gave you tasks as a child, they were also supervising you from a position of seeing your general physical and emotional state. Now this has become your job. Have you noticed?

-- reconsider the promises you have made. Are you trying to deliver more than your system can sustain. Consider unmaking some.

-- the body isn't designed to perform under continual high pressure. It has evolved in an environment where it got bursts of stress and periods of relative calm. Bear that in mind when planning for performance. You need downtimes; and your body won't tolerate not getting them.

-- do not try to reach your absolute limit of achievement, be aware that your capacity might not be infinitely elastic; if you get there, you might damage your ordinary capacity to deliver.


You may be experiencing some early signs of bipolar disorder. I speak from experience because I was undiagnosed bipolar for over 20 years. When I was at the university, I occasionally experienced spells like you describe where it was just impossible to sleep. And once or twice a year I would fall into a pretty serious slump where it was all I could do to get out of bed for a week or two. And most of the time I was my good old self.

I recommend that you discreetly get yourself checked out by a mental health specialist. If it is bipolar, you want to catch it early on because it can progressively get worse if left untreated. That's what happened to me.

Either way, the specialist should be able to help you, perhaps with some non-addictive sleep aids for occasional use as-needed. Certain antidepressants can be used off-label to crush insomnia spells. I find them very helpful, very powerful, and I use them sparingly.

Best wishes!

  • 5
    -1: I don't see any evidence of bipolar here at all. He's not saying that he wants to sleep but can't because he's wide awake and that is what's preventing his sleep: he's saying that he's taken energy drinks and deliberately stayed awake in order to (a) get work done ("I am stuck working on multiple projects that lasts from 8 in the morning to 3 in the morning"), and (b) physically protect his belongings. Not everything can be blamed on neurological disorders, though it seems in vogue to claim so nowadays. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 11:15
  • +1 from me. Those long around-the-clock experiments can exacerbate bipolar tendencies. Another medical problem that can be related to the OP's problems, which often goes undiagnosed, is thyroid problems. So go get checked out, if only for your peace of mind. Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 19:15

I was on my way to where you were a few months after I started my PhD. There are already some really good answers on why you should get more sleep, so I'm going to focus on how to get more sleep without stressing about not getting enough work done. Here are the two things that have helped me a lot with not getting stressed about shutting down at a set time to sleep:

  • Plan your day: make a schedule for what you should be working on when, and stick to it. Make sure this schedule includes things like exercise, time to hang out with friends, family time (if you're in a relationship, live at home or have kids) and a set bedtime. If it's scheduled, you'll feel better about not working during those times.

  • At the start of every day, take 15 minutes and write a to-do list (based on which things you should be working on according to your schedule) for the day. Every time you do something, cross it off. At the end of the day, when your schedule tells you to stop working, look at the to-do list. Most likely, you will have crossed off a majority of the items on the list. Seeing all the things you actually have accomplished during the day makes it easier to shut down and recharge for the next day.


How will you be able to complete things if you are unable to take care of your health? I understand that things are important,but is this going to matter on the expense of your health? I am not an expert but here are few things you can try:

  • Ask a friend to stay with you, so that when you sleep , your friend can keep a watch. You can sleep turn wise.

  • Try to spend less time on laptop or phone. It drains your energy and makes you feel more tired.

  • You can set few video recording devices , so that while you are taking moments to relax , they record everything you need. But give it a try before you actually start using this method and see if it is working correctly.

  • Eat your food in short intervals, instead of taking all at a time. It may help you to become less tired.

  • Keep fruits to eat in between(already chopped), instead of drinking energy drinks.

  • Close your eyes, breathe in slowly from your nose (count to 7 or to 10 )and exhale from mouth ( slowly like you inhaled). This will help you to relax. Repeat it again and again ,until you feel relaxed.

  • You can use cotton balls, dipped in cold water , to keep on your eyes for 10-15 minutes. It will help your strained eyes.

  • Don't sit in one position, stretch your body from time to time.

How cramped is your lab? What kind of chairs are there? You can use chairs to take rest.

I think you can work better if you are not sleep deprived. Try smart work not long work.

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    I guess this is all pretty good advice if one is literally forced to work all night every night, but nobody is actually forced to: the repercussions of not doing so, at least in the general case over a prolonged period of time, are to be attacked not dismissed. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 11:04
  • @Lightness- It will be helpful if you can elaborate.
    – Vibhu
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 11:12
  • Well, just read the other answers... Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 11:14
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    @Lightness- I already did and then I checked what asked in the question. That is why I was not in favor when one is sleep deprived to such an extent. But what if one wants to carry on and not willing to step back.
    – Vibhu
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 11:16
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    @lightness - haha, yes you can say that if you find me doing the same thing. But it would be unfair to the person who put up his query here for solution and not for judgement. My personal view are mine. I can't put it on another person. :)
    – Vibhu
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 12:09

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