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How to Stop Sucking at Night Shift

Recently, I got a question from a new cop on FTO. He asked about tips and thoughts with regard to working night shift and maintaining health and social life.

If this isn’t a million dollar question, then it’s definitely at least a 50 grand question, since you know.. we’re cops). There are a lot of different directions we can go with this question, so I’ll break it down into themes that you can build into your lifestyle.

Find a routine and stick to it:

We are creatures of habit, so we will function best when we can establish those habits and stick to them. With this in mind, the struggle can be making them HEALTHY habits. This takes intention. It takes discipline. It may take literally writing it down in a planner, notepad or your phone calendar. Create a specific schedule for your off-time on work days. Create another one for days off. For some, making it looser may be helpful, but making it too open-ended can result in you wasting your days away.

When we are fatigued we can have a really hard time making decisions or the appropriate ones. Impulse control and judgment also suffer (think about the influence of alcohol, and how sleep fatigue can emulate this in studies). So write it down- and stick to the plan (workouts, errands like grocery-shopping, meal prep, etc).

Dial in your sleep patterns:

A younger me focused on workouts first, then meals/nutrition, then social life, then a bunch of other things. Sleep was less of an after-thought; it was BARELY a thought. I can recall roughly a decade ago driving home after numerous graveyard shifts at 0630 hours.. sipping a black coffee.. fighting “the nods.” I often had my windows rolled down with music or talk radio blasting, even AC in the winter time, and even slapping my cheeks. ** DON’T DO THIS**!!

Thankfully nothing bad happened except a decent dose of well deserved shame administered by Future Me when I have reflected on this a number of times, including this moment.

Sleep doctors will cite studies that agree that working nights is unhealthy in the long run. However, many doctors and other health professionals will also agree that keeping a consistent sleep schedule will yield higher sleep quality and long-term health. I switched my hours back and forth for years, in the pursuit of a more normal life and “better” sleep at night. However, in doing so, I would short-change my first day off (stay up or take a “nap”) and crash out extremely early. I would then sleep normally at night and have to pull an all-nighter on my first night back on, or potentially survive off of a quick afternoon nap before the shift. I was burning the candle on both ends, and there were significant health and hormonal implications that affected me for years to come (arguably still).

On the other end of the spectrum, I had friends and peers that kept their exact same hours on days off. They family/lifestyles were able to meld to this, but anecdotally, I recognized most had sustained energy and didn’t have to rely on energy drinks or coffee literally all night long and were reportedly well-rested, functionally in good moods.

You may also consider an adjustment, ie a couple hours toward a swing schedule on days off. I also had friends and colleagues that took this approach and reported great success. For example, instead of going to bed at 0800 hours, they would stay up until 0300-0500 on days off. This was much gentler on their circadian rhythms and body’s ability to adjust to that. It is also aligned with what many sleep doctors have proposed for those who work nights (ie gradually progressing work and sleep hours rather than abruptly flip-flopping).

If you don’t keep similar hours, you are essentially creating significant jet lag for yourself every few days. If you look up data on being jet-lagged, most experts say it takes one day per hour (time zone) you need to adjust. See the problem?

Manage your stress:

Many of the mornings after my shift, upon getting home, I would literally stumble in, brush my teeth, disrobe and fall into bed. Yikes. Passing out is not the same as falling asleep (sleep quality suffered). I would usually wake up around 5 hours in, absolutely alert. There was no going back to bed most days. I would be “wired but tired.” Though I felt alert, my body was still tired. In an effort to start my day and be useful, I would sit on the couch and drink coffee (a few cups) until I generated the manufactured energy and motivation to hit the gym.

Needless to say, my sleep was jacked. In hindsight, I was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by sacrificing sleep to sling weights around and workout. Stan Efferding- renowned weight-lifted and bodybuilder puts it well- if you’re forgoing sleep to train, you’re stepping over dollars to pick up nickels. Truly, I was pouring on more stressors that were aggravating my already high cortisol levels.

In hindsight, cutting back the caffeine, practicing more restorative exercise like walking, and trying breathing exercises would have been much more beneficial. In this industry, we need to recognize our jobs are inherently stressful (danger, hyper vigilance, etc). These can and usually do manifest in physiological responses (high cortisol/stress hormone) and thus impact things like sleep quality and energy levels.

Prioritize your relationships through scheduling:

Shiftwork (nights, weekends and holidays) can be especially tough when you are a newer officer and many of your friends or family aren’t in the same boat. In this profession, it is imperative that you keep your friends and relationships “outside of the blue world.” Although this job is a lifestyle and calling in so many wonderful ways, at the end of the day, being surrounded by only cops and cop friends can be damaging to your perspective and connection with the rest of society. Ultimately, it is a career in the sense that we may not always be able to continuing serving in this regard, so you need to have an identity outside of it.

It’s not easy to just grab a coffee or hit happy hour with your buddies like you used to.

Scheduling out will be your best hack. It may not be common for you and your friends to schedule something weeks in advance, but it will be effective and rewarding. Look out for free weekends or big games for your favorite teams that you can host or otherwise coordinate. Initiate one-on-ones with your closest friends to keep you grounded and genuine to your true self. It will pay dividends. As I get older, I find that intentionality is the key to success in whatever realm of life you are looking at. When you’re at work, be present and focus on work. When you’re at home- be home. You will be more successful in both.

To sum it all up, though shiftwork can be a challenge, it can be managed with proper planning and strategy. This job isn’t easy, period. So take that lesson from the Stoic philosophers- focus on what you can change, not what you can’t. You can alter your daily and weekly schedules, lean into health and wellness, and dial in your intentionality with others to maintain your optimal performance in all aspects of your life. That’s really what Blue Grit was all about from the jump.

If you found this helpful, do me a huge favor and share this out, like it on the socials. Be safe, take care, and stay gritty.

photo credits:,, , Shutterstock,


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