Coffee can be amazing. It might just be the ultimate superfood. It tastes great, boosts cognition, decreases perceived exertion, stops us from getting drowsy, may even increase memory and problem solving, and some research is saying it contributes to longevity and maybe even protects against some cancers. Oh… did I mention it is full of antioxidants?
But - most people aren’t using it the right way. How we think it works, versus how it actually works are two very different things. And coffee - instead of being the productivity superfood it could be - has also now been socialised as something to do to relax. When you say - I’m going to catch up with a friend for a coffee - you’re not envisaging talking at a million miles an hour and solving NASA’s atmospheric re-entry problems, are you? No. You’re thinking about chilling out and talking about the latest Netflix binge.
And due to this association, I would argue that most people stumble into work, get their morning coffee and then gradually ease into the day by answering some emails and procrastinating a little. That’s an accurate description of most people’s first hour at work. And definitely not a productive way to self-caffeinate.
Then when we crash in the afternoon, we use coffee to get through the last few hours (or chocolate if that’s your caffeine fix).
Recently, I abstained from coffee for four days straight to see what it would do to me. I’m a habitual coffee drinker, and some of the things that happened were downright scary (read about it here). But it also taught me some lessons about coffee and how we can use it to the best of it’s potential.
So, below are a few ways I have changed my coffee intake to take a strategic approach to making it boost my productivity, focus and general work life.
But first, let’s talk about coffee.
Coffee is the second most consumed beverage in the world behind water.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported a study involving more than 400 000 participants, looking for the link to coffee consumption and longevity. They found increased coffee consumption correlated with a decrease in all-cause mortality (that is, a decrease in death) by an average of 14%. This held true up to four to five cups per day, but began to decrease at around six cups per day.
Coffee may also help with protecting the brain from long term breakdown, and has been positively correlated with a decrease in presentation of degenerative diseases like Alzheimers.
There is also evidence that coffee consumption can lower post-meal insulin levels and therefore have a preventative effect for Type 2 Diabetes. Caffeine itself has not shown this same effect, so this particular phenomenon may come down to other ingredients in coffee such as Chlorogenic Acid (CLA) - this chemical is purportedly responsible for many of the health benefits above.
A study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that 200mg of caffeine a day boosted long term memory and recall.
Many studies over the last ten years have shown that either caffeine, or coffee in particular: increased alertness, improved sustained attention, improved memory retrieval (not necessarily memory formation).
The Bad News
It’s not all plain sailing. Coffee also has some downsides.
Some of the lipids in coffee (like cafestol and kahweol) may play a role in raising cholesterol. Coffee can also deplete some B vitamins, particularly B6 and interfere with the absorption of minerals, like calcium, iron and magnesium.
So… with some of this in mind, how do you change your coffee habits to maximise the upside, but minimise the downside? If you want to use coffee to help you be super productive, then here’s your best guide:
Six Ways to Optimise Your Coffee Game
1. Limit to Three to Four Shots a Day
The amount of coffee you drink really matters. But the threshold is more than you think. The Mayo Clinic, as well as some other studies, show that up to 500mg a day of caffeine has all the positive effects, but when we consume over 500mg a day negative effects such as anxiety, tension and elevated physiology start to take hold.
The average shot of coffee has anywhere between 80-190mg of caffeine. Most have around 90-100mg. Instead of counting cups, make sure you count shots. You might be having three medium coffees and consuming 600mg (six shots).
But you also need to find out what works for you under the 500mg level. Remember, as little as 200mg has been shown to have really positive effects. Personally, I have changed my own intake to three shots per day. This makes me be more strategic about how I use it and gives me a bit of wiggle room.
We also ‘get used’ to caffeine and build up a tolerance. The more we drink the more we need. Three cups a day will hopefully prevent me from building up too high of a tolerance, and going through what I experienced when I stopped coffee for four days (read about it here).
2. Use it When You Need It
We tend to drink coffee out of habit. Not when it will really benefit us. Coffee focusses attention, helps with short-term memory, and prevents fatigue. So it stands to reason that you would use coffee for anything that requires focus and high output. This might be some serious problem solving or reasoning, or powering through some tasks that require your focus or attention (especially boring tasks that you might otherwise be distracted from).
We definitely don’t need it if we’re just going to procrastinate or spend some time scrolling through our emails and calendar.
Also, our body has natural cycles during the day where we have our own elevated performance chemicals like dopamine, adrenalin and cortisol. Depending on what we are doing, we don’t really need caffeine as well as these natural chemicals.
Coffee may not be helpful for creative thinking either. The extra boost may cause us to switch on the parts of our brain that are responsible for logic and focus, while creative thinking needs loose associations and thinking outside the box.
Finally, coffee is absorbed in about 45 minutes, and caffeine peaks in the bloodstream about 15 minutes after that (60mins total). If you had a coffee before you left for work, you may not need one when you get to work.
My personal strategy is to use it for those tasks that need my full focus and attention and mental clarity. For instance, I may not use it to brainstorm for an article like this (where I will be free-associating), but I will use it to write the final draft, which requires focus and being succinct. If I have a whole bunch of short, admin tasks to do, where I have to switch from one task to another constantly over a couple of hours, I will use it then, also. In short, anything which requires logic and focus. Coffee will extend your focus and stop your brain from becoming ‘fatigued.’
3. You Don’t Need Coffee to Wake Up
This blew my mind. When I went four days without coffee, the most interesting thing was that my best time of day was still the morning. And I was completely alert and functioning pretty well.
Contrary to what we think, coffee doesn’t actually ‘wake you up.’ Instead, it stops you from getting drowsy. This is because it blocks a chemical called adenosine from reaching the brain, and adenosine’s job is to make us sleepy. Coffee stops this by occupying the adenosine receptors in the brain. Think of it this way - adenosine is like a small car that only fits into certain parking spaces in the brain. Now, the ‘caffeine car’ just happens to be exactly the same size and shape. So, after we consume coffee, when the adenosine shows up to our brain, there are no parking spaces left and it has to go away again.
So coffee doesn’t actually wake you up. There is no adenosine floating around in your brain when you wake - it comes later in the day. Researchers suggest that we have associated morning coffee with waking up (which happens naturally after about 30-60 minutes after waking), so now we think that’s what it does. So 65% of people drink coffee with breakfast in the first hour of waking up.
What does coffee do when we drink it first thing in the morning? It increases our caffeine tolerance.
Coffee used to be the first thing that went into my body in the morning. I changed that a while ago and started drinking water first, then coffee, but it was still within 10-20 minutes of waking (I also decided to make my first cup organic so that I was at least putting the best coffee in).
That’s changed. Now I don’t just drink coffee out of habit first thing in the morning. I make a conscious decision. I do like to work early in the morning (as in, 5-6.30am) - it’s my most productive time. But if I’m just doing creative work, I won’t drink coffee. I’ll leave that cup for later when I really need it, and this will also ensure that I don’t blow out to four or five cups.
I would say that I now drink coffee first thing in the morning three mornings a week instead of seven.
Coffee has it’s biggest effect when that adenosine wants to kick into gear. So, this is any time when our alertness is naturally low, which is very dependent on your own chronotype or your sleep-wake cycle. For me, that’s around 10.30am (because I am an early riser) or around 2-3pm (which happens with most people).
4. Last Drinks!
Caffeine elevates heart rate, blood pressure, produces chemicals that help us stay alert, and blocks the chemicals that make us drowsy. So what is this likely to impact? Sleep.
Lots of people can drink coffee any time of the day and still fall asleep. I am one of those people. I can have a 10pm espresso and go to bed at ten-thirty and be asleep in 5-10 minutes. No problem. So I always thought that coffee didn’t affect my sleep. Then I decided to dig a bit deeper.
Coffee was not affecting the quantity of sleep I was getting - I wasn’t having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. But it was affecting the quality of my sleep. Our most restorative stages of sleep are deep sleep (rejuvenates the body) and REM sleep (rejuvenates the brain). In a little self-quantification experiment, I discovered that I was not getting great amounts of either of these sleep stages.
I also had a DNA test which amongst other things assessed my expression of genes that affect caffeine processing. Here’s what the report said: I don’t metabolise caffeine particularly quickly, it can stay in my system for 6-8 hours, and I am more likely for it to affect my sleep.
So I started limiting my coffee intake to the morning only - and things changed dramatically. My amount of deep sleep went from 15 minutes to 60 minutes per night after a couple weeks.
For everyone, it is important to understand when you can consume caffeine without it affecting the quality of your sleep. It was drastically affecting my sleep and I didn’t even realise.
5. Boost Your Workouts
Caffeine is used liberally amongst athletes to enhance performance. For power athletes (sprinters, weight lifters) it gets the nervous system firing and boosts adrenalin. For endurance athletes, one of it’s biggest effects is to blunt the pain response. In a study of cycling performance, athletes cycled at a certain percentage of their maximum (power output) and researchers assessed their time to exhaustion - the point at which they had to stop because it became too hard and they could no longer hold the level of power required.
The same group took the same test a week later, the only difference was that they ingested 300-500mg of caffeine prior. They improved an average of 12%.
In athletic terms, caffeine decreases our ‘Rating of Perceived Effort.’ What we would usually rate as an eight out of ten in regards to pain, we might rate six or seven when we have caffeine in our system.
If you really want to crush a workout - if it’s a hard running set or a focussed weights session where you need all your mental fortitude, coffee is definitely your answer.
6. Have Caffeine ‘Rest’ Weeks
Adjusting the amount of coffee you consume - if done the right way - can have a huge effect on your caffeine tolerance, but also your caffeine buzz.
Some athletes - especially endurance athletes - have a strategy where they will abstain or reduce their coffee intake in the week or so prior to a big competition. But close to the competition (or even the day of) they will reintroduce it into their diet. By ‘cycling’ caffeine in this way, it has a more dramatic effect on their system when they really need it.
This, I can attest to. After my four day abstinence, I had a double shot after breakfast and another single shot about mid-morning. The effects were amazing. My focus and attention were incredible. I was actually facilitating a workshop that morning and I can honestly say it was the most ‘on my game’ I have been in a long time.
One of the things I am acutely aware of now is my caffeine tolerance. Knowing what I know now, I could easily assume that during the last five years of my life I haven’t been getting the buzz out of coffee that I should (or want). Part of this is to do with an ever-increasing number of shots per day.
So once a month I am going to try to decrease my coffee intake for around four days (that was how long it took me to feel normal again after giving it up - it might be different for you). Will I quit it completely? Probably not. That was pretty horrible. But I might reduce it. Say, one day without (if I don’t need it - for example if I have easy work days), and maybe one coffee on the other days.
Again, part of this is avoiding high levels of tolerance, but the other side is maintaining the positive effects in the ‘up’ weeks.
So there you have it. Some background on the effects of coffee and ways to optimise you coffee strategy if you really want to get the most out of it. Should you still drink coffee as a social ‘chill session’ - absolutely. I still do this to catch up with friends, or after a training session with the crew in the mornings. But I am more mindful of how that is going to affect my strategy for the rest of the day as well.
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.