3 Easy Ways to Stay Awake After Not Sleeping

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
woman with poor sleep
© Thais Varela / Stocksy United

If you once dreaded kindergarten nap time, but now yearn for those moments of consequence-free rest — you’re in the right place. And yes, we’re exhausted too. 

Sleep is essential to function efficiently, but many factors can impact your ability to get a full night of sleep. If you find yourself drifting off in the middle of afternoon meetings, here are some realistic ways to stay awake — until you can crawl back into bed. 

Why poor sleep happens   

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 31.6% of adults 18 and over get insufficient sleep. That’s a lot of us who are very, very tired on some (or most) days. 

Dr. Martha Billings, a doctor at the Sleep Medicine Center at Harborview, says that every human will occasionally have a poor night’s sleep — and it’s completely normal.  

One common cause of poor sleep is, you guessed it, stress. Whether it’s an upcoming deadline or big event, stress can cause your body to be hyperaroused, awake and unable to settle down to sleep. 

Environmental influences can also impact your sleep. For example, it’s definitely hard to doze off when your upstairs neighbor is once again vacuuming their unit at 10 p.m. 

If poor sleep occurs frequently, it could be caused by an underlying sleep disorder, Billings says. Sleep disorders like chronic insomnia (the most common), sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome could also cause poor nights of sleep. There are over 80 known sleep disorders, some of which are rare. 

Regardless of the reason, there are ways to push through and stay awake after a night of little sleep. 

How to stay awake after a night of poor sleep  


Yes, you can nap. But try to only resort to a nap if you really can’t avoid the crash. 

“Ideally you don’t want to take a long nap or a late afternoon nap because it makes it hard to get to sleep the following night,” says Billings. “I often encourage people to push through so they don’t go to bed that night and struggle to fall asleep. But if you need to drive somewhere or need to be really alert for work, it’s OK to take a short nap.” 

Billings recommends that your naptime should be an hour or less, otherwise you risk waking up groggier than before. Longer naps can often be less restorative.

“Short naps can help you stay focused,” says Billings. “Ideally go for a walk or stay active instead of a nap. But do what you need, as there are certain conditions where it’s important to stay alert.” 


We get it, the snooze button and an extra shot of espresso go together. And it’s actually A-OK to have your daily morning cup of joe. Billings says that caffeine in moderation can potentially make functioning during the day easier.

“We usually recommend not drinking caffeinated drinks much after 2 p.m.,” says Billings, “but it depends on your waking hours. If you have a typical bedtime of 10 or 11 p.m., it’s OK to drink one to two cups, ideally not more than three cups a day on a routine basis.” 

The caffeine buzz could successfully keep you awake and alert until you can rest at the end of the day but try not to use it for that late-afternoon slump. If you go to bed around 10 p.m., then stop the caffeine intake by 1 p.m..  

Getting sunlight and fresh air 

Motivating yourself to get your body moving and go outside when you’re beyond exhausted can seem like an exhausting task — and it might be what you need. If you’re feeling the drowsiness hit, try to push through and stay awake by giving your brain a little bit of activation, like getting some sun or fresh air. 

The sun can act as the body’s natural clock and regulate our circadian rhythms. Sitting in the sunlight for 30 minutes (especially after waking up), or even the outside smells can jump-start your senses. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest and the sun is asleep for the winter (lucky sun), artificial sun lamps can be helpful.

What not to do when you’ve had poor sleep 

Forcing sleep 

It’s tempting to go to sleep early after a night of poor sleep, but it’s recommended to wait a bit before hitting the hay.  

Here’s why: Common knowledge suggests that going to bed earlier or sleeping in late could help you “catch up” on the hours of sleep missed the night before. The math may technically seem sound, but the result might not leave you feeling fully rested. 

Billings says the go-to-bed-earlier approach can perpetuate insomnia and poor sleep because you’re spending too much time in bed. 

“I recommend people go to sleep when they’re sleepy, not when it’s forced,” says Billings. “You can go to bed a little earlier but going to bed too early could mess up your sleep cycle.” 

Relying on electronics at bedtime 

Leaving your phone on the kitchen counter to charge during bedtime is more of a preventive measure against poor sleep, and is a great way to test and see if it affects how tired you are during the day. 

Using your social media feed as your modern-day bedtime story can actually be more problematic than helpful.  

“Distractions like your phone aren’t great because the lights can indicate to the brain that it’s time to be awake,” says Billings. “Your bedtime routine should be a transition point that’s relaxing – much like a child’s bedtime routine.”

When poor sleep is a problem 

Having to consistently push through the days to stay awake is not only a struggle, but it shouldn’t be something to endure for extended periods of time. If you’re having consistent nights of poor sleep, it might be time to reach out to your doctor to discuss what’s causing your restless nights.

“If you have over two weeks of restless sleep, talk to your primary care doctor,” says Billings. “But if you know you’re going through a major life event, keep in mind that could be contributing. Even that might be a reason to get help to find ways to cope and get fulfilling sleep until the event passes.” 

We all have nights that leave us dragging through the next day. See what works best for you to get you through your to-do list — and to bedtime.