Tips For Nighttime Productivity

A lot of folks with day jobs find that call, that passion, that need to create something. However, when you’re out for 10 or more hours a day — the morning commute, work, lunch, more work, the commute home — the energy level you feel in the morning is depleted. But the drive, and perhaps even guilt, aren’t gone. So you’re trapped in that hell where you think you need to quit your job before you can be the Great English Novelist or America’s Next Top Game Designer or whatever.

I won’t say you aren’t that person, but I have talked before about this feeling. Baby steps means trying to create stuff at night, but then how exactly do you do that when you’re running on fumes?

[Before I go further, this is an audience participation post. I’m looking for your tips as well! Please comment.]

Stop, Drop & Write

When I know I need to get something done, I don’t go home right away. My commute home right now takes around 75 minutes. I take a shuttle 25 minutes to get to the part of town that has some open coffee shops, and I sit down to work.

By not immediately going home, I deny myself the restful rituals involved in arriving home — dumping my bag, laying down, etc. I’m so used to doing that the first few minutes of getting home, as a way to shed the day’s stress, that it breaks my flow. So I hold off. I write, or edit, or whatever I can do while in a public place. (Recording a podcast is right out, not that I’m a podcaster anymore, but I have edited some in a coffee shop.)

Those uncomfortable-after-too-long chairs, those just-big-enough-for-my-laptop-and-coffee tables, the lighting that’s crap-but-sufficient, the endless coffee you get if you do the free refill thing, all of that helps me push forward for an hour or two.

I don’t generally stay for more than two hours. But still, that’s two hours I might not have worked if I went straight home after a hard day. The siren call of “chill the fuck out” gets strong sometimes. And then we’re able to trick ourselves into thinking we’re working by lying around just thinking.

You don’t need a laptop to do this. There’s a great new app called “paper and pens”. I gave it five stars.

Aziz, Light!

You have problems sleeping while it’s light out? Use that.

Monitors are designed to look like a close approximation to sunlight. So far things like fluorescent bulbs. Gets bright, white lights and use them in your work space.

Now, that’ll play hell with you trying to sleep later, just like drinking caffeine late at night would. So be warned. (I know someone who used to do this and take melatonin shortly before work was done for the night.)

Related, if you do a lot of work at night, I recommend checking out the color temperature regulation software for PC & Mac, f.lux. I’ve been using it for nearly three years now. I have this on most of the time, but turn it off if I need the light to be bright and keep me awake longer.

Sit Up Straight!

Seriously, sitting up straight works. And get a desk & chair that’s at a comfortable height. And then sit up straight. Don’t slouch. That posture can keep you alert, because it’s not a restful one.

If sitting up straight seems to be an issue for you, and it sometimes is for me, there’s something I discovered this past August when I rented the tux for the ENnies. I have suspenders, and when I wore them, they made it awkward and uncomfortable for me to slouch. I still need to pick up some to see if it’ll help my productivity, but I’m thinking right now it couldn’t hunt.

Yes, I’m talking about having “big boy worky time suspenders.”

Better Yet, Stand

Standing desks are all the rage. But not everyone has one, has room for one, or has room in the budget for one.

You know what makes a great standing desk? Your kitchen counter. And it’s conveniently located near your coffee maker, tea pot, or whatever caffeine injection systems you use.

Keep your back straight when you do, though. Get some phone books[1] or whatever to have your laptop or notebook or pad of paper at the right height. And put something near your feet you can rest a foot on, like how bars have rungs at the bottom so you can elevate one foot and shift how the weight is distributed on your knees.

Easy on the Stimulants

You might be guzzling coffee or chain-smoking to keep yourself up, but that doesn’t last long. And it comes with side-effects — restlessness that’ll keep you up, headaches, things like that. Take it easy on the stimulants. In the long run, they’ll fuck you.

Here’s how:

  • 9pm: Oh man, I have a hell of a night ahead of me. Time for the coffee!
  • 2am: Jeez. Done. Okay, time for sleep
  • 7am: [Alarm goes off]
  • Every moment after 7am: Utter exhaustion

And that’ll carry over throughout the day and into that evening & night. When you’re young, you can bounce back, but I’m not able to bounce back like that today in my mid-30s. You’re time-shifting your exhaustion, not dispelling it. And it’ll come back to crash on you.

Kick-ass Playlists

Keep your energy up with playlists that motivate you, that get you moving. One of my is the Tron: Legacy Reconfigured soundtrack/remix album. And Korn. Yes, I dig me some Korn — when the work I do can bare to have lyrics involved.

Sometimes I do headphones. Sometimes I do stereo. Depends on if I feel I need the music in my ears or around my space.

What music do you groove on when you’re in the late-night zone?

Flip It Around

Working at night, after you’ve been working all day, is hard. You have all that energy and passion in the morning, and having to wait until half a day later to act on it is rough.

So why not go to sleep earlier, wake up earlier, and do your creative work before you head out? Seriously. I know so many writers that swear by that. It’s not unlike people who get up early to go to the gym

Try it for a week or two. You can DVR your favorite shows and postpone some social engagements for a little bit.

Take Some Time Off

When I was working on the Dresden Files RPG, I was working between 55 & 65 hours a week (again, day job). I was burning myself out, and toward the end, I crashed on one of my chapters. Luckily, Clark Valentine was there to put the finishing touches on City Creation, but if I had taken a couple days off here and there, I wouldn’t have crashed. This is something I see from a lot of during-my-spare-time creators. Take some time off. Don’t try to push something out every night. Know your energy levels, and know when you need to replenish.

You cannot be productive at night if you create a situation where you have no energy at night. (And, really, you can remove the “at night” parts in that sentence.)


What Tips Do You Have?

So, faithful readers and newcomers, what tips do you have for working at night after you’ve been doing day job work all day?

– Ryan

[1] I look forward to the day where this is an honest-to-god anachronism.


24 Responses to Tips For Nighttime Productivity

  1. I find that spicy food gets me revved up without the aftereffects of an actual stimulant.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Like what?

      – Ryan

    • Well, my personal preference is Thai food, specifically basil fried rice with beef.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      How much do you eat when you’re doing it for that? I ask because of the food coma effect. There’s definitely some alchemy to this method (which is, yeah, different for each person).

      – Ryan

    • Candidly, that’s never been an issue for me. The alchemy for me is making sure I don’t end up in the bathroom instead of at the keyboard. So, yeah, moderation.

      Cinnamon is great for this too. A hot cocoa has less caffeine than coffee or soda. And a healthy sprinkling of cinnamon tastes great in it.

  2. Edmund Metheny says:

    It doesn’t matter how important the raid is – your WoW guild can get along without you.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      A different topic, but related. I’m not talking about procrastination here, but I have a few times in the past.

      – Ryan

    • Edmund Metheny says:

      It isn’t JUST a procrastination issue – spending half the night wondering how your guild is doing and wishing you were playing can put a serious dent in productivity.

      And besides – I was just being a smartass. ;-P

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s not particularly helpful for my readers.

      – Ryan

  3. Graypawn says:

    This post was awesome.

    I have a ritual of going to different locations depending on fatigue/familiarity/time before bed/burnout. If i’m too tired, or if i’m out of work late and don’t have a lot of time before bed, i don’t go to far – i go to one of the locations en route home. If i’ve been there too much i don’t go, don’t want to kill time looking over a menu with nothing on it that i want, so if i can’t think of something i want to eat for dinner there before i go, i don’t go.

    Familiarity is a major key for me, though. If i go someplace that makes me feel constantly aware of ‘being the guy with the laptop out trying to do stuff’ it slows me down. I go where i know the waitstaff and they know me, where i hear things like “You want your usual table?” Diners are good for this, especially chain-operated ones because they don’t give a crap – they’re hourly paid wage earners – they like you there because you tip and keep other jerk customers from taking up a table. A locally owned joint will likely ask you to leave before too long, though, because they’re in it for the business. Fex- the food at Denny’s is crap, but they’re half-way between work and home for me, so i get dinner there a lot, and the waitresses all know me so i don’t get asked to leave.

    When i’m just out of gas entirely, i spend time putting together playlists i keep in a folder called “Forges.” So, like, working on my Harry Potter Apocalypse World Hack i’ve got a Forge playlist called “HarryPocalypseWorld” filled with a ton of music that evokes both settings (John Williams, Ravel, Debussy, Hans Zimmer, etc). Oh, and i follow my friends on 8tracks.com – that one is a *winner*.

  4. Ezra says:

    What is footnote [2] ?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ack! That’s something I removed and incorporated into the main body, but forgot to remove the reference. Thanks for catching that!

      – Ryan

  5. Leonard Balsera says:

    Here are some of mine:

    * I make my productivity goals more specific at night than in the day. If I’ve had a full day, and I’m tired, giving myself permission to “just get these next 1,000 words out” or “just get to the end of this example conflict” or whatever helps a lot. It makes the goal seem surmountable, which ensures I’ll get there, and I’ll often get there with a feeling that I could do more, and then do.

    * While coffee is definitely off the table, I do use mild caffeine boosts, like in green tea. The effect is subtle, but it’s there – a little bit of buoyancy without affecting my ability to get to sleep.

    * I also find that vitamin-enhanced beverages help with late-night energy as well, without ill effect.

    * Even if I’m home, I change my environment up so I’m not somewhere too comfortable. The dining room table. The porch. Something else.

    * I allow myself just enough recreation to feel like I haven’t made any sacrifices – this is related to your “take some time off”. One big issue I’ve run into in the past is the feeling that between work and writing, I don’t really have time for a life. It’s never been true, and it’s easy to have false expectations about time vs. productivity. A lot can happen in a couple of focused hours of work.

    So, go ahead and watch your favorite show, play Mass Effect for a couple hours, etc. Be kind to yourself. Use the time to help transition your brain into the space required to create and be awesome. This probably won’t work for everyone, because it can be hard to have the discipline to shut the fun times off and get to writing, but for me it prevents getting to a place where I resent the writing.

  6. blackcoat says:

    I commute via public transit, and that, and my lunch break, are my ‘creative’ times. I’ts about an hour in the morning, and an hour in the middle of the day, and an hour in the evening. Now, even if it’s just reading articles that I’ve flagged as research, or jotting down notes for fleshing out later when I have a better work space, I find that spending that time on creative things is nice.

    This doesn’t work for everyone, obviously, because of either no public transit, or carsickness, but it works pretty well for me.

    Also, I never feel like I’m “wasting” my commute time (which is a significant fraction of my life at this point)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I wish I could do the same. I take public transit & walk, but my medication keeps me dizzy if I focus my eyes on non-moving stuff. I do use the time to brainstorm, when I’m not napping.

      – Ryan

  7. Devon says:

    My situation is a little different than yours, but similar to other people, I think. I don’t commute. I work from home. Even if I did, I have a wife and child that are expecting me to spend time with them as soon as I’m done with my day job. So, the only RPG work-time I have is at night, after my little boy goes to bed.

    So, here are my tips, for what they’re worth:

    * I discovered vitamin energy shots recently and love them. I take one around 7pm and it’ll keep me going until 12am. And, I find it easy to fall asleep after that. I don’t have any other caffeinated beverages with that.

    * Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! While I’m sitting and typing, I usually drink 3-4 liters of water. Water does a body good and the occasional need to get up and pee keeps me awake and gives me a moments separation from what I’m doing.

    * I have my RPG work with me at my day job (since it’s the same office) so I can grab 15 minutes to slam something out for RPGs during my day job. This short time is usually productive and is just short enough to motivate me to get back to it at night when I have more time.

  8. blackcoat says:

    Also, the note about “pen and paper” is a good one.
    This is probably less a process about writing around a day job then just about getting stuff done, but I like pushing through a draft with pen and paper. I can’t necessarily do something that I’d even consider great, but I can sketch in tables or diagrams (not something I can do quickly in my writing application), and I don’t have the urge to re-write, or edit[1].

    This also forces me to keep pushing forward towards the end of the idea, whatever that is. I can edit later (and in fact will do quite a bit when I transcribe it) but this keeps me moving forward on ideas. Also, it keeps you away from distractions like twitter and blogs and g+ and Lord knows what else.

    [1] I’ve rewritten five sentences or thoughts on this comment (and this foot note twice). It’s just something about writing on a computer that I revise without really thinking about it. You should see the autosave diffs on my googledocs

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah. I used to do that, and called typing it up my “first-and-a-half draft.” But I eventually got used to working on a computer — blogging helps a lot. It is a different (but related) skill to have that discipline.

      – Ryan

  9. super rats says:

    When I really need to write after coming home from work and know I have to do it for a prolonged period of time, I physically unplug the TV, put the phone in another room, disconnect the internet router. I am easily distracted and I’m lazy. Having to go back and connect the wires again stops those thoughts of checking Twitter for a sec. I really grind through work best when it feels like I’m the only person left awake on earth.

    For energy, I go with apples. Even eating 3-4 of them on a long night isn’t that bad for most people. If I don’t have any, then it’s ramen…reminds me of all those late nights in college.

  10. Jason Pitre says:

    I picked up a handful of tips and tricks during my late-night university days to keep me functioning on my all nighters.

    1) Hot liquids are the key. I usually have coffee in the mornings/afternoon and black tea just after dinner. If I am planning on working past 10pm, I brew up a pot of green tea or oolong and nurse that along for a couple hours. At 2am, when I need to finish something for a deadline, I resort to hot, sweetened mint tea. No caffeine, but hot sugary mint is excellent for waking you up for a last gasp without interfering in your sleep an hour and a half later.

    2) Lights are excellent tools. Turn on some lamps, light some candles and you can trick your body that it’s not yet time to collapse.

    3) Pay attention to your natural cycles of wakefulness. I tend to get tired at 2pm, 9pm, 12am which means that I can get up (exercise) and make a beverage to keep me going through these down times.

    4) Alternatively, I have gotten some decent results from naps. Sometimes, one hour of rest earns you more then an hour worth of additional productive time.

    At least, those are a few of the things which I have picked up over the years.

  11. JDCorley says:

    This is the ultimate kick ass soundtrack. It helps if you have a robot or a yeti to chase, or to chase you.

  12. Carl Klutzke says:

    I can’t concentrate at night after a full day of work and then spending time with my family. So get up early instead: about an hour before I’d get up if I was just going to work. My brain is much fresher then. Before I go to bed I arrange everything so that as soon as I sit down (with my coffee) I can start typing: documents are already open and ready to go on the very next task. It helps a lot if I can keep my first action in the morning from being “Okay, now what do I do?”

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally. That sounds similar to one writer trick I’ve heard, where you intentionally stop mid-sentence so that you can start again from there, rather than from a dead stop. Doesn’t seem to work for it, but it works for others.

      – Ryan

  13. Carl Klutzke says:

    Just found the following farther along in my news feed, and this seemed like a good place to share it: Optimal Caffeine Consumption tips