How to Schedule Sleep for Night Shift

It’s pretty simple. The best sleep schedule is the one that works for you! Everyone’s sleep needs and circumstances are different. The main thing is to get enough sleep.

Sometimes I read articles on how to sleep while working nights that dogmatically dictate a certain sleep schedule. But, realistically, the same thing just doesn’t work everyone. And if you’re new to shift work or have been struggling to get adequate sleep, you might need to try a few different sleeping patterns to see which is best for you.

You need to figure out what works for your body and circumstances and then stick to it consistently. This will let your body adjust and help you build some routine into your life. It will also help you sleep during the day more easily by training your body when it should be asleep vs. awake.

How to build your sleep schedule

Take the time to plot out exactly what hours you need to sleep, either digitally or on paper. Mapping out your sleep plan will help you find potential flaws in your well-intentioned ideas. When plotting out your sleep schedule, consider:

  • Your scheduled shifts (8 hrs? 12 hrs? start time? end time?)
  • Your individual sleep requirements (7 hrs of shut eye? 9 hrs or more?)
  • Your family responsibilities (children to be dropped off/picked up?)
  • Social engagements (PTA meetings, dinner dates, etc.)
  • Other commitments (soccer practice, doctor’s appointments, etc.)

Sample sleep plans

Want to see the schedules of some of my co-workers? These different sleeping schedules show you that successful daytime sleeping doesn’t need to look exactly one way to be effective.

The fitness buff

Some of my athletic co-workers follow this schedule:

  • Leave work as the sun rises, eating breakfast before they go
  • Work out at the gym & shower
  • Hit the sheets by 10 a.m.
  • Sleep til about 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.
  • Eat dinner
  • Head into work

These folks admit that this only works for them if they go directly to the gym. Stopping at home is deadly for as it inevitably leads to crawling between the sheets and never making it back out.


The school sleeper

Many of my co-workers are parents. Here’s how they work their sleep schedule:

  • Leave work
  • Get home in time for the breakfast parade and lunch-making lineup
  • Pop kids on the bus and/or deliver them to school
  • Head straight to bed
  • Sleep until school is over
  • Do homework and eat dinner with the kids
  • Give bedtime kisses
  • Head into work

If you need more sleep than this schedule allows, it may be possible to arrange after-school daycare or babysitting.


The split sleeper

I have other co-workers who cannot stay asleep for one long spell during the day. These folks do the following:

  • Leave work
  • Eat breakfast
  • Head straight to bed
  • Sleep for a 3+ hour nap
  • Have lunch / putter around / do some housekeeping
  • Sleep for another 3+ hour nap
  • Drive to work
  • Eat dinner in the staff room and head into their night shift

My schedule

Here’s what works for me:

  • I have a small breakfast near the end of my shift.
  • I head straight to bed after work and sleep for several hours.
  • I invariably snap awake at 1 p.m. so I drink a tall glass of water and pad around my apartment for a few minutes.
  • I get back in bed, do some reading and head back to sleep until late afternoon.
  • I eat dinner, grab a large coffee, and drop off my dog before heading into work. (I try to get to work 15 mins before shift start to settle in and relieve my coworker early.)

Could any of those sleep plans work for you? Do you already have a sleep schedule that works for you? Please share below so we can learn from each other!

Sleep Schedules for Shift Workers

How to Stay Awake During the Night Shift

Staying awake for your entire night shift is probably the difference between keeping your job and losing it. In school, you might have pulled the occasional all-nighter to finish an assignment or crunch for an exam. But the experience of working the graveyard shift, night after night, is entirely different.

If you’re a lucky duck, you may have designated breaks and a comfy place to crash for a cat nap during the night, but you’ll still need to figure out how to stay awake and alert most of the night. And of course, it’s easier to stay awake when there is lots of action. It’s the slow nights without much to do that present the real brute of a challenge. Here are some tips on how to pull it off.

Stimulate your mind

If you’re faced with lots of downtime, find ways to keep your brain busy. Keeping your mind busy is the best way to avoid accidentally snoozing.  Bring crosswords, sudoku, or other brain teasers. Listen to podcasts or energizing music. Work on a personal project, plan a vacation, browse the flyers, figure out your weekly meal plan, etc.

Engage with other humans

If you have coworkers around, chat it up. At my work, we have our best chats in the wee hours of the morning while we are struggling to keep our eyes open. Chatting makes the time fly until we have more work to do, or the day shift arrives to relieve us.

Keep it lit

A well-lit workspace plays a big role in keeping awake all night. If you work in a dim work environment (eg to keep patients asleep in a hospital ward) then at least take your breaks in full light to perk you up.

Drink lots of water

It’s healthy and it’s a natural diuretic. All that peeing can actually help you stay awake! Drinking lots of water will also help your body run at optimum levels and is especially important if you’ve been sipping coffee, which might dehydrate you a bit.

Keep moving

Move around as much as possible. Perpetual motion fights off that urge to go to beddy-bye. Kick it up to the next level with some on-the-spot fitness. Climbing three or four flights of stairs will kick up your heart rate and give you a great boost to awake. 

Chill out

Warmth can make you feel cozy and comfy and snoozy. Keep your work area a tiny bit cool to keep awake. I liked to dress in layers to accommodate fluctuating temperatures. A small desk fan circulating cool air can be helpful too. Sip cool drinks if you feel sleepiness start to overcome you.

Freshen up

Breathing in fresh air is an instant pick-me-up that can last for hours. If you can get outside during your shift -even for just a few minutes- the outside air can freshen you up. And the change of scenery is mentally refreshing.

Eat carefully

Eating meals high in carbs and low in protein can make you feel extra sleepy (think bagels, doughnuts, muffins, etc). Avoid too much caffeine, heavy meals, fast foods, sugar highs, high-fat snacks from vending machines. They offer little nutritional value and can make you extra drowsy. 

Chew minty gum

Freshen your breath and give yourself a little jolt of awakeness with a fresh stick of minty gum when you feel yourself nodding off. Spicy cinnamon gum works well too.

Sleep enough

It might seem obvious but it’s worth repeating- if you get enough Zzzzz’s during the daytime before your shift, then you won’t be as plagued by sleepiness during your shift. Check out my article Daytime Sleeping for the Night Shift for more help.

DYK? Some of the worst man-made catastrophes have been attributed to mistakes made on the night shift: the BP oil leak in Gulf of Mexico, the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker spill, the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, the nuclear disaster at  Chernobyl and the cyanide chemical spill in Bhopal, India. Avoiding critical errors is an important reason to stay alert all night long.

How to Stay Awake on Night Shift