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If we forget about any time constraints for this question and instead focus on how well and efficiently you can get a task done, I would like to know if there is ever a time when it's better to keep working on a project/assignment/task until it is done rather than go to sleep or go out and resume working when you can.

The best example of this I have is when I am programming and come across an issue that I can't seem to solve. Personally, I feel like staying up and working until I get the problem solved is better. However, sometimes I struggle to sleep because I am thinking of solutions, but others say that it's always better to leave the work and come back to it. Sometimes this works for me, but often it feels counter productive.

Is it ever better to keep working on a problem until its done and not sleep?

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The answer here is really simple, if you ask me:

If you feel that you can solve the problem or if you are in the right "mood" you must keep going because that state is hard then to replicate in the future.

If you struggle with a problem and can't come up with a solution, the best thing, at least for me, is to sleep over it. The new day brings me new ways to solve a problem that on the first day I couldn't come up with.

This is how I do it, of course.

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I think you put forward an interesting point to consider here; that is whether you can actually see an end any time soon. I guess it depends on the situation really, and like you say, your mood. Thanks for your answer. – Andy Nov 30 '13 at 20:17
Well, I see an end when after hours I can't come up with a solution :). That tells me I need a break. – Con7e Dec 1 '13 at 7:53

I make the decision this way:

I will stay late (up as long as I am productive) if and only if I will be able to sleep until rested once I finally stop working.

If I have to be at work at 8 am the next morning, I will not stay up until 4 am. If I can come in at noon, I will.

The reason is simple. The productivity gained from working late almost never outweighs the loss from being overly tired the next day.

There's one exception, as has been noted above. If it's a critical task I believe I can complete before I become exhausted, I'll often bite the bullet, stay up, and complete the task.

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I think you make a really good point about it depending on the situation and how lack of sleep will affect you. The reason is simple, but something I never really thought of. Thanks – Andy Dec 15 '13 at 16:43
I find it's best to make these guidelines explicit beforehand; it's harder to make optimal decisions when you're tired! – inversion Dec 16 '13 at 2:01

It seems counterproductive because we like to think "hard work" is the same thing as spending time on a task. But it isn't. Search for why breaks are productive or the Pomodairo Technique to see why just ploughing ahead with something isn't the best approach.

Whether it is time to sleep or just take a break or go for a walk, giving your brain a rest to think of other solutions often saves time in the long run.

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Thank you for your answer too. Just out of interest, what would you define "hard work" as then? – Andy Nov 30 '13 at 20:18

Personally i have tried both approaches:

  • Trying to solve a problem although at the moment i can't really seem to progress anymore;
  • Trying to solve a problem and when i realize I'm stuck, taking a break and thinking in another stuff or continue to solve the problem in the next day.

The second option generally brings more benefits to me, with each break i take my mind seems to get more refreshed and i can solve problems more easily.

Note that when i take a break,i do something completely unrelated to my task so i can disconnect from the task for some moments like calling a friend or read something on my smartphone away from my desk.

Sometimes trying hard won't help you any good, the only solution is to take a break.

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Thank you for the insight. I think the key point in your answer is that for breaks to be effective, they need to be completely unrelated to the task, which is something I've struggled with in the past. – Andy Dec 15 '13 at 16:46

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