Every now and then, the IT professional gets to put in time beyond the normal working hours. Even more occasionally (we hope), we get the joy of pulling an all-nighter. Systems admins, network admins, and mail admins are no strangers to having a fixed amount of time to perform a big or complicated (and if you’re unlucky, it’s big and complicated) task during the late night and early morning hours.
Back when I was in my mid-20s working for startups with no budget, I’d have to do all-nighters on a regular basis. I never really had trouble with them; I’d stay up for 36 or 48 hours, go home, sleep for 12, and be ready to do it again. I remember one particularly messed-up week where I pulled a scheduled all-nighter and was up for 48 hours, had just gotten to bed and gotten 3 hours of sleep, then got called back into the office to deal with a different issue that took me over 96 hours to resolve.
Nowadays, though, I don’t handle them so well. Earlier this week I had an Exchange mailbox move turn into an all-nighter, and it wiped me out because I forgot to observe some basic strategies to minimize the impact of planned and unplanned all-nighters:
- Know what you really need to achieve, and have a plan to achieve it. Even if you’re suddenly pulling an all-nighter in response to an emergency or other unexpected event, take a few minutes to think your way through what you want to accomplish. You don’t need details, but you need to have a list of the particular milestones you need to hit to be making acceptable progress. In my case, I was moving mailboxes to an Exchange 2007 server. A couple of us had mailboxes on a temporary Exchange 2007 server, while the majority of employees were on an Exchange 2003 server. My key goal was moving the Exchange 2003 mailboxes; the temporary server could be dealt with at a different time. If I’d ratholed myself on moving everything, I’d have spent even longer on the task than I normally did.
- Don’t make assumptions. Because the Exchange 2007 server had been previously set up, I assumed that the disk partitions had been properly configured and that the storage groups and mailbox databases had been moved to suitable partitions with adequate space. Bad assumption; only the system partition (24GB) had been defined, and I ran out of space on the system volume mid-way through the mailbox moves thanks to the log files. I lost valuable time performing a full backup (to truncate the logfiles), creating the partitions, and moving the storage groups and databases — not to mention the time I lost trying to move some large mailboxes and having them fail.
- Don’t get so lost in emergency response mode that you forget to take care of your body. You’ve probably heard that for IT workers, it’s a good idea to get up and stretch every 15-30 minutes. This is doubly important when you’re working outside of your normal working hours; your body is more susceptible to fatigue, and your muscles really need the break. Get up, walk around, and shake out the kinks; you’ll think and work better for it.
- Ensure proper hydration and food. I’m still feeling the pain on this one, because I let myself get totally dehydrated. I know we all think we need lots of caffeine, but it will actually start fogging your thought processes when you get tired. Instead, try alternating decent water (I prefer bottled or filtered water) and your favorite sports drink such as Gatorade.
- Take a minute to look at your calendar for the next day or two, and keep an eye on the clock. It’s far too easy to get locked into focusing on the current problem and completely forgetting about other obligations. Don’t forget to extend this discipline to the couple days following your all-nighter until you get fully settled back into your routine. It can take a couple of days to recover fully from the physical effects of staying up too late, and while missing a 9:30 conference call might be understandable the morning after a heroic all-nighter, it’s much less so the next day.
 Away from the laptop, of course.