In the United States, caffeine has evolved to become a part of daily life. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that right now, you have a mug of coffee in front of you, a cup of tea nearby, or a pot of coffee in the background that your coworkers are drinking from.
According to one study, coffee drinkers in the United States consume an average of 3 cups of coffee per day—and US is only the 8th-most frequent coffee drinking country in the world.
If you’ve ever had caffeine in one form or another, you’re probably not surprised by the prevalence of the beverage—especially in offices, classrooms, and other settings that demand productivity. Caffeine carries a number of subjective effects, including heightened alertness, lower levels of fatigue, and of course, higher levels of productivity. After drinking a cup of coffee (or tea), you feel energized and motivated to accomplish your work.
But are all these effects, for lack of a better term, “real,” or are they just in your head? And are there any downsides to caffeine consumption you should be aware of? Is caffeine boosting or sabotaging your productivity?
The Benefits of Caffeine
Let’s start by examining some of the best benefits of caffeine:
- Improved memory. Multiple studies have shown that consuming caffeine is associated with a boost in your ability to remember things. Higher levels of caffeine mean that you’ll enjoy higher short-term and long-term memory, and regular caffeine consumption could improve your memory-related abilities overall. This is a good thing if you’re studying, paying attention to a seminar, or are trying to remember important details at a meeting.
- Better cognitive functioning. Consuming caffeine is associated with higher cognitive functioning as well, allowing you to solve complex problems and come up with creative solutions. This is especially helpful for challenges projects and especially hard problems. Some long-term studies also suggest that regular caffeine consumption is also associated with better cognitive function as we age.
- Reduced tiredness. Almost everyone realizes that a cup of coffee can help “wake you up,” but what’s really happening here? Fatigue, or tiredness, sets in when you haven’t gotten enough sleep or when you’re feeling mentally exhausted. Caffeine works by blocking fatigue signals, so you subjectively feel less tired. This is useful if you need to get through a tough workday despite a night of poor sleep, but as we’ll see, blocking perceptions of tiredness isn’t always a good thing.
- Better mood. Additionally, caffeine can elevate your mood; you’ve likely heard someone joke, at some point in your life, that they have a different personality before they’ve had their morning coffee. There’s some truth to this, as caffeine has the power to significantly improve your feelings of wellbeing and contentment. It even has the power to reduce pain, which is especially useful if you suffer from chronic pain, or if an injury or ailment is interfering with your productivity.
- May benefit your overall health. There’s some evidence to suggest that caffeine also has the power to boost your overall health. People who drink coffee regularly, in small to moderate quantities, are at lower risk of health complications like type 2 diabetes. Coffee, green tea, and certain other sources of caffeine also function as an antioxidant in the body, destroying the free radicals that can otherwise result in cell damage (and cancer).
There’s a lot to enjoy here. But there’s also a dark side to caffeine that we can’t ignore.
The Complicated Downsides of Caffeine
Let’s examine some of the drawbacks of caffeine use, and the ways it can actually harm your productivity:
- Perceptions of tiredness and sleep issues. First, let’s address a point we made in the previous section; caffeine only blocks your perception of tiredness. It doesn’t reduce or eliminate your need for sleep. Unfortunately, many people use caffeine as a kind of substitute for sleep, allowing their sleep habits to suffer. This is problematic, especially over the long-term. Additionally, consuming too much caffeine (or consuming caffeine too close to bedtime) can actively make it harder for you to get to sleep.
- Anxiety. Caffeine is a natural stimulant, meaning it increases your attention, alertness, and energy. But in this area, we need to be wary of overkill. A small boost in these areas can lead to higher focus and more engagement with your work, but if you get too big of a boost, it can lead to anxiety and restlessness. As you’re undoubtedly aware, increased anxiety and restlessness can distract you during the workday, and can complicate your life with unnecessary additional stress. These effects are more common in people who are especially sensitive to caffeine, and who consume caffeine in high quantities.
- Reduction in performance during off-periods. Some recent evidence suggests that while caffeine can increase your energy and performance while you’re consuming it, you can experience detrimental effects when you stop consuming it. In other words, you feel a boost while drinking coffee, but when you stop drinking coffee, you’ll experience a decrease in performance.
- Addiction. Even though we treat it like a staple of everyday life, caffeine is a psychoactive drug—and like most drugs, it’s addictive. Over time, you can develop a physical dependency on caffeine, marked by increased tolerance to its effects and a strong urge to consume it at regular intervals. If you develop a full addiction to caffeine and you try to stop consuming it, you’ll experience symptoms of withdrawal, which include anxiety, fatigue, and even more severe physical symptoms in extreme cases. Eventually, you’ll be unable to perform well without caffeine, and if you lack caffeine, you’ll suffer physical and mental consequences.
Simple Tips for Getting the Best of Caffeine
Caffeine is a complicated substance, capable of boosting and hindering our productivity at the same time. If you want to get the best of what caffeine has to offer, while minimizing the downsides, these are the most important tips to follow:
- Understand the amount of caffeine you’re consuming. Your first job is understanding caffeine dosages. Most people can feel the effects of caffeine with as little as 25 milligrams, and up to 400 milligrams is considered “safe” for a healthy adult. A cup of brewed coffee contains roughly 100 milligrams of caffeine, but be aware that other foods and drinks you consume may also contain caffeine. Take note of how each dose affects you, as your personal tolerance may deviate from the norm.
- Decrease (or limit) the amount of caffeine you consume. Most people could do with consuming less caffeine per day. Try drinking 2 cups of coffee instead of 4, and see how that affects your performance.
- Avoid caffeine before bedtime. Don’t consume caffeine in a way that affects your sleep schedule. Try to keep your consumption to the morning and afternoon, eliminating all caffeine consumption several hours before bedtime, at minimum. Also, don’t use caffeine as a substitute for sleep.
- Try to prevent the formation of a daily habit. If you can, avoid turning caffeine into a daily habit. Take 1 or 2 days off per week, and/or vary your levels of caffeine intake from day to day. This can help you avoid physical dependency and addiction.
Keep your caffeine consumption in check and try to capitalize on the best aspects of the drug—or avoid it altogether in favor of other productivity strategies.
Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of EmailAnalytics, a productivity tool that visualizes your email activity -- or that of your employees.