tips advice survive late night at work

When Late Nights at Work Are the Norm

Do you work at an office where late-nights (I’m talking 10pm, midnight, 2am and beyond) are the norm rather than the exception?  If so, you might be a Biglaw attorney, investment banker or any number of jobs that increasingly are becoming 24/7 responsibilities.

If you spend the occasional late-night at the office, these tips might be useful, but they are not necessarily targeted at you. This post is for those who consistently find themselves at the office during dinner, past dinner, through the night and sometimes up until the next morning and through the next day.

If this is something that strikes a chord in you, read on for some tips on how you can best prepare yourself and your work environment for a successful “overnighter” (or something close to it).

When Ordering Dinner at Your Desk Becomes Your Nightly Routine

When I worked in Biglaw, it was more normal to order dinner to eat at your desk than it was to be home in time for dinner.  If we were working past 7pm we could order dinner and charge it to the client and matter that was the reason for us being stuck at the office. From the outside, this might sound amazing, and I admit it was pretty cool when I was a very junior associate. However, it got old, quickly.

Basically the menu of every restaurant in New York City was at my fingertips.  The choices were seemingly endless. In the mood for a gourmet burger and sweet potato fries? How about a platter of Mexican food, including guacamole, tacos and tres leches cake? What about Italian?  The list of pizza, pasta and loaded salad choices went on forever.

You might be surprised to know that, after the novelty of ordering out wore off, most people fell into similar ordering patterns. The same salad from the same place around the corner that was reliable, fast and generally came with the correct order.

Or the Italian place with the chicken parm that could make your stress momentarily evaporate during the three minutes you spent wolfing it down at your desk.  With your door closed and your computer turned to something other than work for the moment, you could enjoy your sandwich and silence.

Dinner’s Served – Now What?

You’ve scarfed down your dinner order, but what do you do when you are facing a pile of documents to review, emails to respond to and even the loud hum of the late-night cleaning crew’s vacuum cleaner has long gone?

When I was faced with this situation, the most painless nights were those that I had prepared myself for, way ahead of time.  The thing about working super late is that you often cannot predict it. Or you can’t predict how many nights in a row it will happen to you or how late those nights are going to be.

For me, the key to a successful late night or stretch of late nights in a row came down to four categories (1) my clothes, (2) my food, (3) my stress level re: personal errands/tasks and (4) the strength of my community/friendships/family relationships. 

Below I’m going to give you tips in each of these categories about how you can maximize your chance at having a “successful” (i.e., not torturous) late-night at the office.

1. Clothes

Comfort to me is EVERYTHING.  If I am uncomfortable in my outfit, it is hard for me to focus on anything else. When I am comfortable, usually that means I’m in leggings and a sweatshirt, and I feel like I can take on the world (see my previous post on work attire: Dress for the Job You Want).

After a whole day, even the comfiest of work clothes can start to feel a little (or a lot) constraining, start to smell a little (or a lot) like they need a good run through the wash or start to look a little (or a lot) rumply and unprofessional. So what’s a diligent worker who is stuck at the office for more than 12 hours to do? 

Well, if she’s prepared, she’ll have just what she needs to transition to the next phase of work and keep her confidence and focus up.  This is what you should have in your office at all times, if you are a frequent late-night worker:

  • Gym clothes.  Even if you don’t have access to a gym, you probably have access to fresh air. Is there time to squeeze in a run? A half hour, brisk walk?  A short spin around the block?  If so, put on your gym clothes and head outside.  If you don’t have this option or you simply don’t have enough time to take even a short break, you still might want to slip into those sweats at 2am when you are the only one around anyway.  At least you can be working in comfort rather than in the same pair of tights and pencil skirt you put on twenty hours before.
  • Comfy almost work-appropriate clothes.  Some people don’t feel comfortable being in the office in anything but their business attire. If you wouldn’t be caught dead in sweats, at least do yourself a favor and have an extra set of comfortable clothes that could pass as business casual stored away in your office. Maybe this means draw-string black pants that are not sweats but that you wouldn’t necessarily wear to a client meeting and a fresh sweater. These can be your late-night change of clothes.
  • Spare work outfit.  Lastly, you should have a spare set of clothes. This probably means business casual if you work in most corporate environments.  When I first started out in Biglaw they told us we should have a suit at the office at all times, so for a little while, I had a suit hanging in my office. In seven plus years working at the firm, I never used it once. Now, some people did – those in litigation often had to dress up more often, whether it was for a deposition or last-minute court hearing, and having a suit was important. If this is your situation, then by all means, have a suit. But for the rest of us, a spare set of business casual clothes is enough. I found this most helpful on the rare occasions when I was working so late that I didn’t have time to go home, or it would have been more stressful and time-consuming to go home just to shower and get a fresh pair of clothes to change into. Most corporate and Biglaw offices have showers, and if you have a change of clothes with you, you save yourself from that round trip home just to get some new pants (or worse – staying at the office another day in the same outfit).

2. Food

Aside from the usual advice of: drink lots of water, don’t drink too much caffeine, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and avoid processed food and sugar; I have some additional advice.  Once you have the basic concept of what you should be eating and what works for you to healthily fuel yourself through the night, you need to make it easy for yourself to make sure that is what you stick to.

Sticking to the same order makes sense when there are so many other things to think about and decisions to be made. It’s why Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck and why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same jeans and t-shirt or hoodie every day – it’s all about freeing up the mind to eliminate space for more important things than clothes or food choices.

The problem for those stuck at their desks is when their go-to choice is the chicken parm, with a side of fries, a large coke and a couple of giant chocolate chip cookies, because, why not, they had leftover room in their budget (but not their waistline) for them.

If you order food from a certain website (like seamless) or directly from a restaurant, figure out one, two or maybe three (although the less choice, the better) options that are healthy and you know will keep you full and energized.  Then, save those orders so you just have to click once to complete the order.

This fulfills two roles – it both eliminates choice and frees up your mind to complete your tasks faster and more efficiently, thus furthering your ultimate goal of making it home the sooner the better, and it fuels you with a healthy choice for the night.  Left to our own devices, especially in times of stress, lack of sleep or irritation at being at the office for yet another late night, usually means poor food choices.

3. Outsourcing

Remember in this post (Outsourcing Your Life as a Busy Professional: Suggestions and a Caveat) that I warned you to limit what you outsource and not over-rely on it?  Well this is exactly the time when you should take advantage of all that outsourcing has to offer.

Especially when you are stuck on a project or a deal where unexpected long-nights have become the norm, you should take advantage of outsourcing.  Spend a few minutes at the office to schedule any personal tasks that you can. 

Place your grocery order online so that at least when you get home or have some free time on Saturday, your fresh food is waiting for you. This eliminates the need to spend more time at the grocery store and frees up some time to cook yourself some healthy meals.

Take a few moments out from your evening to think about what else you can schedule that will help your future, even more-tired, even more-haggard self. Usually do your own laundry? Force yourself to spend 10 minutes when you get home, even if it’s exceptionally late, to throw your laundry into a bag and get it ready for pick-up. Someone else can take care of it for the week.

Same goes for your apartment – do the bare minimum to keep it maintained (it probably won’t be too terrible if you aren’t in it much anyways) and schedule a cleaning lady to come through so that when you do have free time in the next few days (hopefully), it will be welcoming, clean and you’ll have time to spend catching up on more important things than cleaning.

4. Clear Your Head / Work On Your Relationships

Lastly, even if you are crazy-busy, stressed and don’t see an end in sight, make sure you take some time to take breaks. Check in with your coworkers, your friends and your family and make sure to clear your own mind.

I always found it helpful to take a coffee break, run a quick errand, or simply go for a walk on afternoons where I knew I was going to be at the office late at night. You might feel weird ducking out at 4pm, but you’re going to need to recharge.

Be sure to take some time to reach out to a friend or family member. If you always chat with your husband at 7pm for dinner, do that. If you facetime with your nieces for their bedtime, don’t miss that. Even if you don’t have a daily ritual, make the time on a late-night to squeeze in a phone call to a family member or friend.

And protect this time. If you decided that you would call your college roommate to check in with her and catch up at 8pm, then block out 8-8:30pm on your calendar and treat it like an actual meeting.

Likewise, if you have some personal tasks to complete, schedule those too. Need to place an order for a present and make hotel reservations for a wedding you’ll be attending in a few months? Block off your calendar for 15 mins, 30 mins or however long you think the tasks will take, and take a break to complete them.

The Payoff

Remember that you are not helpful to your firm or company when you aren’t healthy, both mentally and physically. I hope these tips help to keep you healthy even during stressful times when you’re wondering why you even pay rent for an apartment you are never in.

These times always pass, even in Biglaw, and if you focus on keeping your health and sanity during even the busiest of times, you’ll be happier and more productive during them and when they are over.

Let me know in the comments below what tips and tricks you use when you are faced with a late-night at the office!

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