You Make the Call #2: Night of Bad Sleep

You Make the Call is a series of posts aimed at answering real-life situations with various possible solutions ranging from bad to better to best. You may remember this series of commercials from the 1980s NFL TV broadcasts.


You had a terrible time falling asleep because you have something heavy on your mind, it was hot, and to top it all off, your house alarm went off for no reason at 4 AM. Unfortunately, it is a weekday night. You have to be at work at 9 AM, but, in an effort to be healthier, you have committed to yourself that you would get up before work to exercise three days per week. Tomorrow is one of those days. You have been doing this for a few weeks now religiously. It is now 4:13 AM, you are looking at the alarm clock thinking how bad it will feel to wake up at 6 o’clock and then how much worse it will feel to have to drag yourself to the gym to run and lift weights, which is what is on your training schedule. You also have a full day of work to follow where you need to be sharp. After a night of bad sleep and a busy day to follow, what do you do? YOU MAKE THE CALL!

You Make the Call

Option 1: The Bad Idea.

Drive on with your plan. Utilize extra caffeine pre-workout and then again during the day. Why is this a bad idea? First, bad sleep will impair just about all of your bodily functions: alertness, energy, strength, etc. While it may feel good to actually complete the workout in the short-term, your potential to make progress is very limited. You also are adding more stress to a bad situation. As “healthy” as you think exercise is, when you are stressed out, eating poorly, and sleep deprived, it is just digging further into the hole. It may seem like the right behavior-related thing to do (stay on track with working out, no matter what), but this is just going to make the rest of the day worse. Relying on extra caffeine can temporarily work with no true ill health effects. However, you will not be sharp at the office. You will likely have reduced concentration, focus, and ability to make sound decisions.

Option 2: The Better Idea.

Skip the morning workout, get some extra sleep, do the best you can with the day at work, and make up the workout later in the day. This is a much better idea, but it’s still not taking into account the impact of your bad sleep. You may have gotten a few more hours of bad sleep and you didn’t add the workout stress up front, yes. This will make your work day better. However, you are still not on your A game and adding the workout later on is still likely to be an unproductive endeavor.

Option 3: The Best Idea.

You realize at 4 AM this is not going to be a good day. So you modify it significantly. Here is how:

  1. Sleep in as much as possible.
  2. Cancel the day’s workout. Not in the morning, not later.
  3. Start the day with some caffeine and a good breakfast. The caffeine will help with alertness. No eating (intermittent fasting) this morning would be adding more stress. You want to get your hormones in check. I would eat 3 eggs with cheese and avocados and one cup of black coffee. I almost always go low carb/no carb at breakfast. Healthy fats are what you want here. Bulletproof coffee is a good idea here too (MCTs!).
  4. Go into the office and attempt to modify your schedule. You realize up front you don’t want to make any big decisions. You want to avoid any serious meetings. Reschedule them. If you do have to make any decisions, you schedule them early in the day where you will be at your sharpest. Late afternoon you will be a zombie. Plan to do something mindless like reorganize your office or go through old paper work on your desk.
  5. Take a nap at lunch. There is a napping sweet spot in this situation (short and sweet, not necessarily the maximum time possible). Some people do the caffeine nap – caffeine right before you fall asleep, wake up 20-30 mins later with a double recharge! Never tried this myself, but a regular power nap will work wonders.
  6. Eat super well. Your bad sleep will leave you making worse food choices. Your willpower will be reduced making certain things irresistible. I’d pack a lot of healthy food for the day so I don’t end up choosing the easiest thing around. Bad food will make the day more stressful on your body.
  7. Don’t take in any caffeine after noon. You don’t want to hurt tonight’s night of sleep.
  8. Get to bed early. Make sure you do all the sleep hygiene things like reduce lighting (I wear a sleep mask), maybe ear plugs, cool room, avoid any electronics at least 30 minutes before bed, etc. You can sleep extra tonight to make up for earlier sleep debt.

The key to this situation is not pretending you can get through the day like the bad sleep didn’t matter. This is like the guy who had 5 beers, isn’t what he considers drunk, and gets in his car to drive. You are impaired. Realize it early and plan appropriately!

QUESTION: How do you handle a bad night of sleep? Post thoughts to comments.

References & Further Reading


  1. Thanks. Enjoy the blog and articles. Our Mental Performance Teams (MPOs) are pushing hard on sleep maintenance, and naps – leadership isn’t quite on board yet. It will take a generational level culture change, I believe. Our military schools still pride themselves on pushing deep into the realm of sleep deprivation and then grading performance, which parallels my old football coaches who felt denying water during hot late summer practices made you tougher on the field. Science versus culture.

    • Paul, I totally agree. Cultures of hyper-masculinity/type A behavior relish pain and suffering as rites of passage. Sleep is seen as crutch and can appear lazy/undedicated. Imagine the perceptions of Soldiers if they saw their commander napping at lunch (which we agree is healthy) vs if they saw him/her doing a second PT session (which may not actually be healthy!). Hard chargers do PT at lunch, work long hours, and don’t sleep! I fear even a new generation will not see that sleep should be seen as important if not more so than exercise. There is something to be said for working through challenges under a sleep deprived condition, of course, as this may actually happen when lives are on the line. But viewing little sleep as a badge of honor ALL THE TIME is clearly a bad idea. Thanks for the comments!

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