How to Stay Awake at Work or School

By K. Stone

January 24, 2009   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Have you ever been so tired you almost fell asleep at work? Did you ever wish you could just crawl under your desk and take a nap like George Costanza?

Whether you were partying too hard the night before, up late feeding a newborn baby, or some other energy draining activity, you’ve got an emergency that needs to be addressed pronto!

Here are some steps you can take to make it through the day. They range from total retreat to commando “cowboy-up” tactics. Use the ones that will work for you and bookmark this for the next time this happens. (‘Cause you know it will! Doh!)

1. Go Home “Sick.”This is total retreat. Head into your boss’s office and tell him or her that you are not feeling well and need to leave. Save this for only the most extreme situations. If you came into work there was probably something that needed to get done. If you just can’t make it to 5 o’clock, then this can be a sweet relief. When you get home, get into bed and ditch the guilt. Go to sleep and start over again tomorrow. And then make a plan to have a better day tomorrow.

2. Staying Awake in Lecture Hall. This is can be a really tough one. The best way to handle this is with multiple tactics:

  • If allowed, bring coffee, discreet snacks, and gum.
  • Even if you are not a note taker, start writing down everything the teacher is saying to keep your mind alert.
  • Move as much as you can. Tap your foot or bounce your leg. Switch position in your chair frequently. Stretch. Move your head. Tap your fingers.
  • Pain. This is kind of an emergency procedure. If you can’t stay awake consider pinching yourself. I know it’s a little strange, but pain can keep you awake.
  • Stimulating Thoughts: think of something that makes you happy or makes you feel good. I’ll leave it at that.
  • Online activity: this wasn’t around when I was in college, but I would imagine if you’re in the back of the class you could surf the web, email your friends, and read Dumb Little Man.
  • Entertain Yourself: see if you can summon your extrasensory powers by willing someone to look at you. Or try across the room flirting. Why not?

Don’t do these things unless you want to fall out of your chair snoring and drooling:

  • Rest your head in your hand.
  • Rest close your eyes.
  • Lay your head down.

3. The Work Nap. If you are lucky enough to have a workplace that has an area for naps and if your workload can wait, then go ahead and take advantage of that benefit. Shoot for a 20-30 minute nap to take the edge off your exhaustion. A shorter nap will prevent you from waking up groggy. Bring some kind of an alarm with you such as your cell phone, or ask a colleague to wake you.

4. The Work at Home Nap. If you work at home, being sleepy on the job is not as much of a problem, or is it? The real problem is keeping it from becoming a habit. And actually the habit is only a problem if it interferes with your productivity, clients, or your family. If you successfully incorporate napping into your schedule, then go for it. But if it becomes something that cuts into your work, try to only do this if you are so tired you can’t get any work done.

5. The Work at Home Nap with Kids. This is similar to situation number 2, because your “boss” is your kids. If the kids are young enough, try to get them to nap with you or nap when they nap. Of course don’t leave young children unattended. If you’re afraid you can’t stay awake, call a friend, family member, or babysitter to come over and help you out. Lastly, you can always try #5, The Meditation Nap if you need to stay awake, but also need to get some rejuvenation.

6. The Meditation Nap. This is not a sleeping nap, but it will give you the similar feeling of renewal that you get after a short nap. In a nutshell a meditation nap is conscious quiet rest time. Here’s how you do it.

  • Allot approximately 10-20 minutes.
  • Start by doing a couple stretches, whatever feels good.
  • Next take 10 deep breaths with eyes closed and sitting upright.
  • Take the rest of the time to empty your mind of everything. A good way to do this is to mentally repeat one word or phrase such as “empty the mind” or “peace” or “om” or whatever works for you. As thoughts come into your mind, notice them like clouds going by in the sky, but don’t grab hold. Just keep coming back to your word.

At the end of your allotted time open your eyes, take another couple deep breaths and stretches. Optional: Lightly place your hands over your eyes during part of the time. This helps eye strain tremendously. You can also try giving yourself a face and head massage. Here is some additional info on meditation naps.

7. Physical Movement. When people are sleep deprived, exercise can increase alertness. This is good if you absolutely can not leave work early and you need to meet deadlines. Instead of giving into the head nodding and eyelid drooping, get up and get out for 10 minutes. Do some type of brisk physical movement like walking, jogging, jumping jacks, push ups, etc. If there is a stairwell, jog up and down the stairs 5 or 6 times.

8. Get Help from Colleagues. If you have some buddies at work, confide in them that you need their help with staying awake. See if there are any things you can work on together. Talking with co-workers will help keep your mind engaged and alert.

9. Pace Yourself. If you are just mildly tired, a good strategy is to simply take it real slow. Don’t be too ambitious. Just take one thing at a time. And conserve your energy by avoiding conflict. Then at 5pm, zip on out to get home so you can rest!

10. Take Multiple Breaks. If your work doesn’t give you unlimited breaks, take a bathroom break once an hour to get up and walk. And when you take your breaks, close your eyes for 5 minutes. Try splashing some cold water on your face before heading back to your work.

11. Stimulate the Mind. Find something to laugh about periodically during the day even if it is as simple as your ridiculous predicament. Find something that is interesting, fun, stimulating, or otherwise pleasurable to think about. Focus your mind on these thoughts as much as you can during the day to keep your mind awake.

12. Eat Frequent Snacks. Healthy is best. Protein is good for energy that won’t make you sleepy. Avoid sugar because it will give you a little boost, but then when the sugar crash comes it will be harder to take given your sleepiness. Try not to eat too much or too little. If you’re really hurting and can’t do healthy, perhaps a steady stream of chocolate might do the trick. 🙂

13. Caffeine. The key here is not to take in too much too quickly. You’ll have best results if you spread it out slowly over the day. This will keep your mind alert enough to stay awake, but it won’t jolt you too much which could end up making you more tired later.

14. Commando. If your butt is on the line today, you need to get serious about staying awake which means you need to combine several of these tactics along with awakening your inner drill sergeant. Start with some fuel. Get some healthy food to eat during the day. Line up some caffeinated drinks that you can sip throughout the day. Each hour or half hour do 5 minutes of moving, stretching and deep breathing. Stay around people to keep your mind alert. If you have a buddy who can help keep you awake seek them out! And give yourself a a prize at the finish line to look forward to by planning a treat for making it through the day, even if it’s simply slumping into bed when you get home.

Good luck! Being tired at work really stinks. The best thing you can do after it’s all over is find a way to keep it from happening again.

Written by K. Stone of Life Learning Today.

If you believe your problem pertains to just getting poor sleep, answer these 7 questions to identify the best way to get some peaceful sleep again!!

K. Stone

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