I never pulled an all-nighter during university. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of all-nighters I’ve pulled during my 28 years on this planet, and most of them were either due to insomnia or a particularly wild teenage slumber party.
No, even in university I knew that I needed to sleep, lest I become a drooling zombie with a massive headache for the rest of the week. So this meant that even if I had a big essay due, or a giant exam approaching, I still got my 8(+) hours most nights.
Besides the zombie thing, I think the major reason that I prioritized sleep so much during that time was because I realized that this magical thing would happen while I slept: I would integrate what I’d just learned. I’d wake up, and suddenly everything I’d been learning would have sunk in more deeply, would feel more solid and graspable in my mind. This had such a pronounced effect that I started building naps into my exam studying schedule, which might have made me *look* lazy but actually helped me get great marks.
Whenever I was learning big concepts or solving complex problems, I needed time and rest for my brain to process them. I needed to pause and allow everything to sink in first, before trying to stuff my brain with even more information.
In the years since, I’ve realized that the same concept applies when I’m learning big life lessons and solving complex problems in my work. I’ve had a lot of “upleveling moments” over the past couple years: experiences that require more of me than I’ve ever given, projects that are tricky and complicated to plan, situations that ask me to show up as my brightest self, and so on. And every single time, I feel completely bone-tired and exhausted to a point that feels far out of proportion to the physical energy I’ve put in.
This is good, and right, and normal. I’ve done something that has required all of me: of course I’m going to be exhausted! I think where I get into trouble is when I don’t let myself rest fully after these experiences. I become, as Debbie Millman once said, a “master metabolizer. I metabolize any achievement or success almost instantly, almost as if it’s Gatorade. Then I keep looking for the next thing to metabolize.”
But the point, I think, is that successful upleveling experiences are NOT like Gatorade, which is easy to drink and digest. Usually, they’re tricky and multi-layered. They’ve probably triggered some of our deepest fears, or brought up old wounds, or caused massive anxiety, or required us to step away from toxic relationships and subsequently grieve a past version of ourselves. This is not some sweet bright-pink electrolyte drink! I don’t eat meat, but I imagine it’s probably more like digesting a tough steak.
So lately I’ve been trying to allow myself integration time, however that looks. Usually, it’s more sleep than usual, and a whole lot of doing nothing (which I try not to feel guilty or lazy about), and tackling simple things like cooking a meal or going for a walk. I try to process the lessons I learned through conversations with good friends and writing in my journal. And I let it take as long as it takes, even if it takes longer than I would have liked.
Because the alternative is worse: moving through the world like a drooling zombie with a massive headache all week. I’d much rather treat these experiences like the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned in the classroom of my life (because that’s what they are) and just decide to build more naps into my studying process.