When the clock strikes the witching hour, most Americans are snug in their beds. But millions of workers (many of them healthcare professionals, security guards, or remote workers) are just clocking in.
"Graveyard shift is an evocative term for the night shift between about midnight and eight in the morning, when—no matter how often you've worked it—your skin is clammy, there's sand behind your eyeballs, and the world is creepily silent, like the graveyard,” says Michael Quinion of World Wide Words. Working while everyone else is asleep can turn you into the walking dead.
Surviving this type of lifestyle requires more than just flip-flopping your sleep schedule; you also need to rethink the way you spend every waking hour. Here are 10 tips for making the overnight shift work, from the people who’ve done it.
1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.
Your body usually knows what it needs … even if your brain may disagree. “If you are up, stay up. If you are tired, rest,” says Danielle Pearson, who worked remote overnight hours while traveling for four months in Asia. It may sound simple, but it can be especially difficult when, like Pearson, you want to spend your days exploring instead of sleeping. But resting when your body tells you it's time makes all the difference when it comes to being able to operate at max capacity without a typical schedule.
2. GIVE YOURSELF TIME TO ADJUST.
There’s no point in sugarcoating it: No matter what you do, the first month is going to be brutal. Give yourself enough time to adjust to your new routine by scheduling as few non-work-related activities as possible; instead, focus as much of your energy as you can on changing your sleep patterns. And most importantly, don't set an alarm when sleeping during the day (unless it's one to signal it's time to get ready for work). Let yourself sleep until your body tells you it's had enough.
3. GET THE RIGHT ACCESSORIES.
You may want to fall asleep at 9 a.m. when your shift ends, but the sun streaming through your window has other plans. The best thing you can do is shut out all of the light and noise in your bedroom. "I had to have a sleep mask and ear plugs to fall asleep,” says Pearson. Blackout shades and a sound machine can be helpful, too. And don't skimp on your bed: A good mattress and pillows will help keep you in bed, even when everyone else’s day is in full swing.
4. TIRE YOURSELF OUT.
"I would try and be active and have a full day so I would be tired when I would sign off at 1 a.m. for bed,” says Pearson. Exercise helps, especially if you treat it like a “morning workout” before starting your day (or night).
5. STICK WITH A SOLID ROUTINE.
If you’re going to be a night-shift person, you need to fully commit—switching between days and nights will only make things more difficult. For Tyler Duzan, who spent four years as a graveyard-shifter in his technology job, this means: "You’re awake no earlier than 5 p.m. on non-working days just to get a chance to do errands and meet people after their day-shift for drinks. You’re in bed no later than 10 a.m. on non-working days so you can ignore the horror that is day-time television. You get a minimum seven hours of sleep every day, and you maintain exercise routines on non-working days at night."
6. POP A MELATONIN.
Just not taking to the new routine? Consider adding a natural supplement to help you adapt. "Right when you get home in the morning [after your shift], take a shower, and then after the shower take a melatonin tablet,” says Duzan. "Melatonin is a chemical produced naturally in your body to trigger sleep and helps regulate your body’s clock. By artificially introducing melatonin during the day, you will shift your body’s clock to accept a flipped [circadian] rhythm.”
7. STAY SCREEN FREE.
Since any time you have to sleep is a luxury, it’s important you get the most bang for your buck the minute your head hits the pillow. Put your phone far, far away, and do not try to fall asleep with the TV on. The blue light emitted by your electronics can mess with your circadian rhythm—which you've already turned on its head.
8. KEEP IT COOL.
There are few things cozier than curling up under a big blanket in a cold room, and this is extra important when you’re trying to sleep during the day. "Keep the temperature in your room about two to three degrees cooler than you find typically comfortable," says Duzan. "This will both help with temperature changes as it warms up outside and encourage deeper sleep.”
9. LIMIT YOUR CAFFEINE INTAKE.
“Just like ‘day walkers,’ you have to eliminate caffeine consumption after 'lunch-time,’ says Duzan. "The less caffeine your rely on the better all-around, but it’s especially important you don’t consume any caffeine after 2 a.m.” Instead, drink water or juice. Juice contains sugar which helps to even out your metabolism during the night and consuming enough water eliminates the risk of dehydration and also keeps you awake. According to Duzan, if you’re in a state of cycling water through your body, you won’t sleep.
10. TAKE A "LUNCH" BREAK—BUT DON'T SPEND IT EATING.
"That 3:30 feeling” is a thing in the middle of the night, too. The hardest time during the night shift to be productive is between 3 and 5 a.m., a period colloquially known among night-shifters as “the 3 o'clock hump.” "There are a few ways you can deal with this, from taking a seated nap (zero-gravity chairs are great for this) to exercising,” says Duzan. (Of course, don't take a nap if it would put someone in danger or is prohibited.) "I have found that exercising is the most effective and won’t negatively impact your sleep cycle during the day. Take an hour, but don’t get lunch—go to the gym instead and eat a healthy snack." Gym not open in the wee hours of the morning? Keep a jumprope handy or do some pushups—anything to get your blood flowing.