Coffee was my favorite drug. But after discovering an entire body of scientific research against its use, I was tempted to quit.
I am a bit of a self-help junkie. Like most of us here. We jump at any prospect of better performance, focus, and overall well-being. But quitting coffee is rarely mentioned. If ever.
But it really should be.
Before we get too far, the real problem is not coffee itself. But the chemical known as caffeine. Caffeine is a mildly addictive stimulant. It’s in more things than just coffee. But there’s a lot of it in coffee. It’s where most of us get it.
Becoming caffeine-free might be the most important piece of self-help advice you ever hear.
I wasn’t an extreme coffee drinker. I would drink 2 cups a day. Generally when I started my day and later in the morning. I understand that everyone’s body is different. But I firmly believe we all experience these symptoms to some extent. Even if we don’t notice them.
The change in performance and well-being after quitting is significant. A lot more so than I thought it would be. Here are the changes I noticed.
Energy spikes & dips
I strongly associated coffee with being productive and working. But there was always a problem that I noticed. Previously, I thought that there was just something wrong with me.
That problem was the inability to stay focused on a single task.
Most work is boring. But it does require a certain amount of focus. Even the fun stuff requires you to make an effort. My problem with coffee was that I was too high energy to put all of my mental focus on a single thing. I was too stimulated to focus.
Coffee made me crave stimulation. Both physically and mentally.
I would regularly take breaks to walk, move and stretch. I would start 3 different projects in one sitting. I would break my schedule because what I had planned wasn’t exciting enough. I would regularly multitask which I know is counterproductive as hell.
And then, the time came. Noon. The energy was gone. I’m done. Burnt out. I’m not only exhausted, but also a little sad. I’d look back at my schedule and realize I’d only done half of what I intended. I felt like an idiot.
I’d fight the urge to take a nap the rest of the day. But oftentimes, couldn’t resist. I’d reason with myself. If I just take a nap, maybe I’ll have energy later.
The shocking part was how normal this had become. Here I was, a man in his early 20s who can’t get through a day of office work without a nap.
I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, eat out a lot, or drink soda. I run regularly, go for multiple walks a day, and have a healthy BMI.
If my body was a machine, I was getting a lot less bang for my buck than I was putting in. And I couldn’t figure out why.
Now that I’ve been exclusively drinking milk, water and herbal tea, things are great. I have consistent energy all day long. Sure, I have small dips later in the day. But it’s nothing like before. And it happens much later.
I think of energy like a spectrum. At the high end there is the extreme stimulation. Like running sprints or hitting flow state. At the other end, is under-stimulation. Sleeping or meditating.
The problem with caffeine is that it boosts you all the way up to the highest end of stimulation. It isn’t gradual. Doesn’t happen naturally. It just spikes you to the top without any real effort.
Without drugs, the only way to become highly stimulated is by becoming deeply engaged with something. I’m not too stimulated when I first sit down to write. But after a few minutes of getting into it, I gradually become more engaged.
After my experience with caffeine, I avoid anything that artificially changes my energy levels.
Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a terrifying feeling. It can make you irrational. Do stupid things. And completely ruin your day.
Caffeine is known to increase anxiety. And I experienced such a terrible dumpster-fire of emotions throughout the day. I realize everyone’s experience will be different. But I’ve had quite a few bad episodes with coffee that went something like this.
I would drink my cup of joe. Start working. The energy spike hit me about 20 minutes into it. Then, I’d have FOMO because I had “so much energy but so little time.” It was almost euphoric. I’d get anxiety about not finishing another side project. Switch gears. Work for a while. Then came the crash. And the rest of the day is a black abyss of lethargy and scrolling through Instagram.
That wasn’t every day. Far from it. But something like this must have happened at least once a week. Maybe more. It’s particularly damaging when you work for yourself.
Without coffee, I can hit flow state with ease. I don’t find it difficult to focus at all. And I never have FOMO about my own energy anymore. I gently surf the wave of energy throughout the day.
You may find this surprising. But your gut bacteria plays a big role in your mood. And you know what influences your gut bacteria? What you eat and drink.
When I drank coffee, my stomach almost always felt terrible. I never questioned the coffee though. Everyone drinks coffee. So, I have to drink it too. There is no other beverage so associated with work and productivity. And I continued to drink it even when it made me sick to my stomach.
Ever since quitting, my stomach feels better than ever. And my mood has improved a lot too. It’s noticeable. I laugh and smile more. Have more patience. More stoic. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say it was a 15% improvement on my overall mood.
I realize this is very subjective. And can vary a lot from person to person. But hell, I’d give up anything if it meant being in a slightly better mood. Might be worth it for you to experiment a little.
The Real Harm
The major problem with coffee is that no one ever questions it. It’s a staple that you’re supposed to drink. And we drink it during the most important part of our day — work!
Work is extremely important. Not only is it how we put food on the table. But it’s also the best form of self-expression.
Anything that hurts our ability to work effectively is a big no-no.
I drank coffee like this every day for years. Every. Single. Workday. How much focus time did I miss out on? How many days were completely wasted because my energy levels were going up and down like the price of Bitcoin? How much negativity did I bring into my personal relationships because my gut was full of caffeine and making me grumpy?
Coffee is the scariest kind of drug. One that’s powerful enough to disrupt so many aspects of our lives. But not enough to be deemed a threat.
Those are the worst kinds of drugs.
Because we habitualize them. Make them part of our every-day lives. Normalize its consumption so much that not taking it is seen as strange.
Crack can kill you. We all know smoking crack would be terrible. And as a result, most people avoid it. But the dangers of coffee & caffeine are subtle enough to be ignored.
Is coffee evil? Of course not. It is a chemical substance that has a particular affect when consumed.
Something I’ve always found useful is to separate a substance from the natural effect it has.
I don’t drink alcohol. It’s not because I hate alcohol. It’s because I don’t want to be drunk. It’s not the substance I dislike but the effect the substance has on me.
Same thing with coffee. It disrupts my energy, makes me anxious, and hurts my stomach (and therefore, my mood).
Next time you go for a cup of joe. Think to yourself. Do I really want to spend my day with caffeine in my system?
Even if you decide yes. Be very mindful of how exactly you consume this substance. Just because it is normalized and perfectly legal does not mean we should overindulge.
Maybe we shouldn’t indulge at all. I know I don’t plan on it.