by James Somers, February 10, 2010
I had a very bizarre sleep schedule in college. For a while I’d plod along regularly, going to bed at around one or two in the morning, waking up at nine or ten. But within a week or two, invariably, I’d stay up through the morning and sleep through the late afternoon. Soon enough I’d be in bed from 4pm to midnight, living in what I liked to call “reverso time,” and my only way back to regular human hours was a hard reset—staying up for twenty or so hours and crashing.
I bring this up because I now have a somewhat complete “theory” of how or why this would happen. There are just a handful of key factors:
- I had a few friends who were prone to get into the kind of long conversations, Scrabble games, arguments, Fresh Prince marathons, etc., that can energize two or three people to the point of staying up till sunrise. What’s interesting is that these friends of mine, if left to their own devices, would sleep normally—as I often would. But when the two of us got together, there was virtually no way we’d be in bed before four.
- Still, I’ve flown solo into that other world many times. But always—always—because of my computer. Here’s why:
- Quite simply, the glow from a computer screen is enough to trick your brain into thinking the sun’s out. Which puts a stop to (or at least attenuates) the release of hormones designed to conk you out.
But that alone won’t drive you till the morning. You need something else: a highly engaging project. Just browsing the web or reading won’t do it—you need something with short, fast feedback cycles, the kind of activity with lots of small challenges and quick rewards. Like programming.
Working on websites is especially effective. For one thing, web development frameworks like Ruby on Rails have made it almost too easy to build applications quickly, and what’s more, almost all the progress you make is visually interesting. By that I mean that as you change your code, you’re not just spitting out different numbers—as you would be in the text-only world of the command line—you’re moving colorful blocks around the screen. It’s dangerously engaging. So one hard and fast rule for avoiding late nights is to wait until morning to play with stylesheets. I’m serious.
Surprisingly, installing software from source is another real nighttime time sink, if during installation you run into lots of roadbumps and if the software has a seemingly unending tree of dependencies. When those two conditions are met, and when you’re genuinely excited about having the complete package, it’s very hard to pry yourself away from all the open command lines, the big tarball download progress bars, the forum posts discussing build options and compile errors and PATH variables. Examples fresh in my mind: offline Wikipedia, Metacat, and the Ruby wrapper for the Stanford Natural Language Parser.
- Of course it also helps to have very little respect for your alarm, which in college usually happens when you have very little respect for class. Which in turn happens when you have, for whatever reason, missed one or two lectures without consequence. It’s the classical slippery slope, made all the more slippery in my case by a lack of discipline—which I think I’ve outgrown—and disregard for grades—which I picked up after a bizarre semester in the business school.
Finally, you’ll often find yourself in reverso time if you like reverso time. Once you get used to waking up at night—and the first few times, it’s very disorienting—it can be thrilling, and peaceful, and deeply rewarding. Often I’d get up around 9 or 10pm, spend an hour or two with friends over food, and head to Mason to read, and work, and think. I’d spend six or seven hours completely uninterrupted. Then I’d wander the empty streets at dawn—occasionally I’d catch the traffic lights switch back from blinking into their regular solid rotation—and grab breakfast at Angelo’s.
I grabbed the following from my notes page. I wrote it around noon after having one of those nights:
An unusually warm winter morning, with spare traffic of any kind in the streets… reading Franny over an excellent breakfast: fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, scrambled eggs, ham, and potatoes. Pursuing a thread through Shirky and LambdaMOO — the old Internet… Ramachandran’s inductive science… Eliezer and Tyler and the rest in a heady stream. Lots to look up and to learn.
Calvin and Hobbes.