Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes, 36s.
Last week I watched 70 hours of TED talks as a productivity experiment, and over the course of the experiment I deeply explored how caffeine helped, and hindered my ability to learn.
To measure how caffeine impacted my learning, I mainly observed how caffeine affected my energy and focus (it would have been difficult to measure information retention), and discovered a lot about how caffeine can affect your productivity. Here’s what I learned!
What I discovered experimenting with coffee and tea
Last week I mainly experimented with coffee, green tea, and black tea. I usually drink a cup or two of green tea every day, and one or two coffees every week.
A cup of green tea contains 25mg of caffeine, a cup of black tea contains 42mg, and a cup of brewed coffee contains 108mg, so coffee definitely packs the biggest punch out of the three beverages.1 If you’re looking for an energy boost, coffee has the biggest effects, and it’s no doubt the strongest. (Unless you count energy drinks, which I purposely didn’t include. Most of the popular ones are overloaded with sugar and are terrible for you, though there are some great ones out there.)
To observe how adding caffeine to my diet affected my focus and energy levels, I started by not drinking any caffeine at all for the first two days so I could have a baseline to compare other days to.
I think everyone has a different productivity baseline (how productive they are without any outside stimulants). There isn’t much science behind the productivity “baseline” below – it’s just an arbitrary, flat curve that I’ll show the affects of caffeine against.
After you drink a caffeinated beverage, caffeine gets to work quickly. Caffeine quickly stimulates your central nervous system, reduces your physical fatigue, and restores alertness when you feel drowsy.2 It generally helps you focus better, and also helps your body with physical coordination. This results in a productivity boost. Take green tea, for example:
Of course, what goes up must come down. When caffeine clears its way out of your system, it can produce a caffeine ‘crash’. The crash you experience from green tea (if you experience one at all) is much much much much smaller than coffee, but it’s still there, for me at least. In the case of green tea, the productivity you lose because of the crash (the light red area) is much smaller than the productivity you gain from the extra energy and focus that tea provides (the green area), which means you’ll get a net productivity gain from drinking green tea. For me, black tea was similarly rewarding.
Coffee was very different. Coffee is definitely more stimulating (and fun) to drink, and it produces a huge productivity spike if you don’t over-caffeinate and get a case of the ‘coffee jitters’. But again, what goes up must come down, and I think on the whole, at least to me, the cost of drinking a cup of coffee was greater than its benefits:
The amount of caffeine in a coffee is much greater than I’m accustomed to (4x as much, roughly, because I mostly drink green tea), and since my body isn’t accustomed to drinking so much caffeine, this no doubt contributed to my loss of productivity. I think almost anyone would have a comparable experience if they were to drink more caffeine than they are used to.
In a nut, here are the two points I want to get across with these graphs:
- If you don’t over-caffeinate, caffeine will provide you with a solid energy boost, and it will also boost your focus.
- That extra energy has a cost, which may make you less productive (depending on how much caffeine you drink).
Caffeine can have incredible short-term costs on your productivity if you drink too much of it, or if you’re not mindful of how coming down from a caffeine high negatively affects your energy levels, motivation, and focus. But luckily, last week I discovered a bunch of ways to lower those costs.
6 ways to get more out of caffeine
Caffeine can have a huge impact on your productivity. While the list below may not be bulletproof (I’m sure there are tactics I’m missing), the six items below helped me maximize the positive effects caffeine can have, while minimizing the crash I experienced after.
- Drink coffee/tea over an longer period of time, to slowly release the caffeine into your body instead of bombarding your body with too much caffeine at once. If you slowly consume caffeine, your body will also slowly clear it out of your system, and you won’t crash as hard.
- If you drink a coffee in the morning, drink water alongside it. Staying hydrated allows you to stay focused, and in the morning when you’re dehydrated (after going without water for 8 straight hours), nothing will quench your thirst as well as water. I also found that drinking water alongside caffeine during the experiment helped me focus better, though it should be noted that numerous studies have shown that coffee doesn’t actually dehydrate you.3
- Stay away from sugary energy drinks. Sugary energy drinks are stimulating, which makes them fun to drink, but they’re also chockfull of sugar, which will spike your insulin levels, making you crash harder after. I know there are some great energy drinks out there, but most of the ones on store shelves are garbage.
- Eat very well if you consume caffeine. When I ate slow-burning foods that metabolized slower (like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits), I found that I had more energy for longer, and that I didn’t crash as hard.
- Don’t drink caffeine on an empty stomach. Drinking coffee on an empty stomach “stimulate[s] hydrochloric acid production”, which isn’t good, because hydrochloric acid “should only be produced to digest meals”. This makes it more difficult for your body to digest large meals later on, leading to weight gain. It also messes with your energy levels.4
- Wait before consuming a second coffee/tea. Often when I drink tea or coffee, after I finish my first cup I immediately crave another, even though I’m likely only craving the stimulation the coffee/tea provides. Waiting before drinking another cup allowed me to spread my caffeine intake over a longer period of time, and made me a lot more productive.
Most people focus only on the positives of drinking caffeine; that it allows you to focus better, gives you more energy, and makes you feel great. But caffeine can also have big, short-term costs to your productivity in the form of over-stimulation, and in the case of a caffeine crash, in the form of a lack of energy, motivation, and focus.
Knowing the productivity costs of drinking caffeine, and taking steps to get more out of caffeine and reduce those costs can provide you with infinitely more focus, energy, and motivation to get through the day.