Caffeine

Tools transform energy or effort at some cost. Like, a pulley makes something easier to lift, but requires moving a lot of rope, and a refrigerator or air conditioner generates more heat than cold, but does a good job of keeping them separated. Tools with worse tradeoffs tend to be abandoned, as inefficient incandescent light bulbs are lately being replaced with LEDs. But what if a tool’s mode of action happened to influence your own view of its usefulness? It might not be replaced when it ought to.

Drugs are a kind of tool. We call the tradeoffs “side effects.” Short term use of caffeine has well established cost/benefit characteristics: caffeine increases alertness and motivation at the expense of some mindfulness and lateral thinking ability. This makes it ideal for high boredom situations where you just need to crank out a repetitive task. If creativity, prioritization, or big-picture thinking is required, it’s not the right tool for the job.

Moreover, when caffeine is used every day, the scenario is a little different. Habituation means that the state of having caffeine in your system becomes the new normal. There is a huge pile of psychological research papers measuring how much caffeine improves memory, attention, and mood — but did these studies measure withdrawal relief, or actual improvement over not using or being habituated to caffeine at all? Unfortunately, it looks like the supposed benefits are mostly just withdrawal relief. A friend once described people in Seattle as “coffee dryads,” referring to the way a dryad from Greek mythology can’t get too far away from its tree or it will die.

So, chronic use of caffeine doesn’t necessarily increase baseline alertness. Moreover, chronic caffeine use has somatic effects, such as elevated cortisol and higher blood pressure. Cortisol can affect sleep, so in a caffeine-habituated state you may not be getting restful sleep, even though you may be tired all the time from adenosine overproduction due to caffeine adaptation. There’s even an argument that chronic caffeine use impairs emotional intelligence. In terms of costs vs. benefits, habitual caffeine use seems like a loser.

So, why does anyone continue using caffeine outside of occasional late-night driving? I think the answer is simple. Caffeine makes you feel productive, whether or not you are actually are. This is a brilliant strategy on the part of caffeine. If you convince your host you’re helping it, you get to stick around. As long as no one steps back and thinks critically about whether their caffeine use is helping them in the big picture — oh wait, caffeine impairs big-picture thinking! — and especially if withdrawal is painful and prolonged, caffeine’s got it made.

Coffee at Victor’s in Redmond, WA circa 2007.

I was a coffee snob for a while. I almost got started buying green coffee beans to do my own small batch roasting. Later, I went through a phase of infatuation with matcha green tea. But it was a nuisance habit. There were mood swings, sometimes severe. I remember feeling frustrated about not being sure when I was genuinely in need of sleep, versus when I just needed more caffeine. It became annoying to get headaches and realize that I’d forgotten to consume any caffeine the previous day. If I drank unsweetened coffee or tea between meals, it had the effect of crashing my blood sugar, so I had to either plan my doses or increase my calorie intake by sweetening or snacking. Eventually it occurred to me that time seemed to be going by faster under the influence of caffeine. When I noticed that, I realized I was being tricked. I felt more engaged, but when I evaluated objectively I realized I was actually getting less done. It was the exact opposite of productivity.

And quitting is hard. Leaving aside the unpleasantness of opting out of social norms, caffeine withdrawal is brutal. The last time I quit, even after the headaches were over, I felt sleepy for what seemed like weeks on end. I actually wondered if I would ever get back to normal this time. Steve Pavlina has some good suggestions for giving up caffeine gradually, but I’m a cold turkey kind of person.

I’m pretty sure caffeine use isn’t bad for your health. In fact, drinking green tea is considered to be insanely good for you, last I checked. Part of me is envious of people who don’t seem to have any trouble with caffeine, but I’ve been on and off the roller coaster enough times, so for the most part I don’t miss it at all.