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March 13, 2013 3:12 PM   Subscribe

What strategies can I use to stay awake during academic seminars? I want to hear what they’re saying, and I don't want to be that lady who always shows up to take a nap.

I go to 2-4 academic seminars in my field per week (journal clubs, invited speakers etc.) and I have a TERRIBLE time staying awake. When I was a grad student, my institution scheduled the important ones at 9 AM, which worked for me and I stayed awake fine, but I pretty much gave up on going to any that happened at 4 PM. In my current job, they’re ALL in the afternoon, so I need some strategies to deal with this problem. Obviously solution #1 is getting more sleep at night, and that’s a perpetual goal, but I think I have a legitimate mid-afternoon siesta urge that’s going to kill me here even if I’m better-rested in general.

Things that seem to correlate with staying awake:
-a room with windows/natural light
-hard chairs at tables (like, classroom style) rather than auditorium-style padded chairs
-start time before noon

Things that seem to make no difference:
-bringing a snack/bottle of water/cup of coffee
-taking notes or otherwise paying attention really hard
-quality of speaker/my interest in the topic

help? Next talk I’d like to hear is in 22.5 hours.
posted by juliapangolin to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is what our office uses: http://www.puttyworld.com/ We're CPA's and have to sit through a LOT of mind-numbing tax updates. Putty does the trick!
posted by MediaMer at 3:15 PM on March 13, 2013

Reduce carbs and increase protein and fat.

Do some exercise right before walking in. A bunch of jumping jacks, kickboxing punches or kicks, or a few little sprints. Get your blood going.

More sleep.
posted by barnone at 3:20 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

For myself, being able to stay awake and alert involves two things: getting enough sleep at night, and semi-careful blood sugar management.

If I find myself getting drowsy, it's a sure sign that I am either experiencing low-grade sleep deprivation or have eaten something sugary/starchy within the last couple of hours. The combination of the two is especially devastating.

Getting enough sleep at night and switching my lunch to protein and fat plus vegetables handles it.
posted by pullayup at 3:21 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

How big are the meetings? Can you stand in the back?
posted by barnone at 3:22 PM on March 13, 2013

Can you "take notes" on an iPad that you can also read something on or play a game on quietly?
posted by xingcat at 3:24 PM on March 13, 2013

I've had success with habitually sitting front and center, making eye contact with the speaker, and participating/asking questions as much as possible. This can backfire though, since if you do pass out it will be very obvious.
posted by contraption at 3:25 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

My SO says to drink.

By which he means, bring in a flask/travel mug of tea or water or whatever, not shots. That's what he does to stay awake at seminars.
posted by jb at 3:26 PM on March 13, 2013

2nding sitting up front.

When you take notes, are you outlining the talk as it occurs? Don't wait for something interesting to come up, think of it as taking minutes. Also, notes about slide layout and presentation design can be useful even if the speaker's talk isn't related to your work.

I sometimes hold my feet slightly off the ground for as long as I can if I'm having a really hard time.
posted by momus_window at 3:35 PM on March 13, 2013

Drink a cup of coffee before the class, with plenty of time for the caffeine to go into effect.

If a coffee or a light meal really have no effect on your afternoon slump, to the point that you cannot physically stay awake during a seminar that you are otherwise interested in attending, I would really look closely at the basics like getting a reasonable amount of sleep and eating regular meals. If you're OK on that score, I would see a doctor. Because, I mean, most people can stay awake throughout the work day.

What were you doing in order to stay awake past 4pm before you started attending seminars? How was that different from now?
posted by Sara C. at 3:39 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have definitely been there, mainlining coffee, tickling the roof of my mouth with my tongue, biting pieces of my mouth until I drew blood, willing myself through adrenaline surges, flexing major muscle groups, slapping myself in the face...

When all else fails... Nicotine gum. Target, it's like eight bucks for 50 pieces.

I don't recommend it, the side effects and long term use can be exciting, but sometimes you just can't afford to be that guy passed out in his food when the board of directors holds their 4pm annual site visit followed by leisurely dinner and glass of scotch in the cigar room, and your day started at 4AM.

Narcolepsy runs in my family though so your mileage may vary.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 3:44 PM on March 13, 2013

I have this problem because I'll hold my breath when I listen, and then I yawn until my eyes are running and I start getting the nods.

So, breathe. And I think the putty suggested my MediaMur (or silly putty or clay or something) might be a really awesome idea.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:50 PM on March 13, 2013

As barnone says. A low-carb breakfast, no candy bars just before the class. I would add a cup of coffee, no sugar. The difference (between normal food sleepiness and this) is abso lute ly stunning, believe me.
posted by Namlit at 3:52 PM on March 13, 2013

If I'm understanding you correctly, it's not so much that you are physically done for the day at 4pm, but that the combination of late afternoon (a time when many people feel like taking a short rest anyway) and conditions conducive to sleep are knocking you out when otherwise you'd be fine. The way I handled it as a grad student was to try and ramp up my activity at least an hour before the lecture. Take a brisk walk, drink some coffee, have an animated conversation, or all of the above. Anything to get your brain acting like it does earlier in the day. Also, strong mint or lemon candies always helped to perk me up during dozy afternoon classes.
posted by atropos at 4:01 PM on March 13, 2013

Chew gum.
posted by TTIKTDA at 4:08 PM on March 13, 2013

Cannot agree strongly enough that no-carbing will do the trick. I used to have trouble staying awake through my drive home in the evening (!!) until I completely cut out any carbs/sugar in the afternoons.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:32 PM on March 13, 2013

There is an informal tradition in the US military-- where sleeplessness and classes/briefings go hand-in-hand-- that if you are falling asleep, you unobtrusively stand up and walk to the back of the room, and continue to take part in the class while on your feet. Eventually, your body gets the signal and sends some wake-up chemicals to your brain, and you can return to your seat if you like. You may of course say that it is slightly rude or not part of your academic culture to do this, but I would answer that it is more rude to fall asleep during a presentation. In fact, I am going back to school now that my military career is over, and I do this all the time in my classes at a university in the Pacific Northwest, and no one has ever said anything about it to me.

tl;dr: Stand up.
posted by seasparrow at 4:52 PM on March 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

My mom will fall asleep any time that she sits down. She solved her 'problem' at church by getting as many little children as she could to sit with her. Their busyness would help her to stay awake. You could possibly apply this solution to your situation by finding the most annoying person in the room and then sitting as close to that person as possible. Look for the change jangling, gum snapping, leg swinging twitch machine that is in nearly every room.
posted by myselfasme at 6:18 PM on March 13, 2013

Things that have fueled my attention in seminars:
  • taking a hot drink
  • an ipad
  • writing notes, even if they are totally unrelated to the presentation
  • human bile
  • mentally dressing people in historic clothing

posted by jadepearl at 6:36 PM on March 13, 2013

There are a lot of good suggestions here, but there's one that I use that I haven't seen posted yet which is this: avoid tunnel vision. Look away from the speaker every so often, glance around the room. Purposely think about something else for a second, and then bring your focus back. That helps me a lot when I feel myself getting a case of the nods.

Another excellent suggestion is to bring something to fidget with. I usually bring a bottle of water or a cup of coffee, though now I am seriously considering MediaMer's suggestion of Thinking Putty.

It also helps if I can take a brisk walk right before the seminar, even just once around the building. I often do this right afterward too, to wake myself back up again.

I also find that if I am even a tiny bit congested I will be less alert. I used to use Afrin to help me stay awake (it opens you up like nothing else) but then I got dependent on it and had to deal with some pretty bad rebound congestion when I gave it up, so you might want to give that a pass. Still, worth considering if you think you can be more careful than I was.
posted by Scientist at 9:21 PM on March 13, 2013

Instead of taking notes, try thinking of a question. I can take notes on auto-pilot but formulating a question engages my brain enough to keep me awake while still letting me focus on the talk
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 10:27 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Keeping people awake/engaged is a surprisingly common problem. Often at seminars these days they will stock the table with things like putty, pipe cleaners or other things for people to fidget with. I have a small bendy/clicking thing I use at my desk instead of destroying endless paperclips. At one place I worked, a lot of people brought knitting to longer meetings/seminars where they were mostly listening.
posted by mikepop at 6:03 AM on March 14, 2013

I take notes with my left hand. Just key words, since my left-handed writing is really bad and it takes a long time. But it wakens up parts of my brain that regular right-handed writing doesn't need to to use, so it keeps me alert. I write out just key words, and I can always switch hands if there is something I really need to write down quickly.
posted by CathyG at 10:55 AM on March 14, 2013

I used to chew Altoids in class to stay awake. Probably not the best advice since that can lead to cavities or seem annoying to others in your immediate vicinity. You could try bringing a bottle of water with you. I always take something with me to drink when I have to attend long, boring meetings at work.
posted by mrplaid at 6:02 PM on March 14, 2013

Mindless handwork is the only thing that keeps me awake I such situations. For me, it's embroidery, or even better, knitting.
posted by rebeccabeagle at 3:03 PM on March 15, 2013

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