Caffeine is a Double-edged Sword on Your Productivity

Written by
Macgill Davis

Caffeine is the most widely used drug on the planet, so ubiquitous that we often forget it’s a drug at all. In North America and Europe, over 80 percent of adults consume caffeine daily. Due to its popularity, caffeine is also one of the most widely studied drugs in history, the subject of over 19,000 research studies. 

Caffeine is the most widely used drug on the planet, so ubiquitous that we often forget it’s a drug at all.

With this abundance of data, we have a thorough understanding of how caffeine affects the body and mind, and thus productivity. My love of coffee makes me wish caffeine a pure win for productivity but the reality is a mixed bag. While caffeine has clear short-term positive effects on productivity, it can simultaneously enable poor work and life habits, especially by inhibiting sleep, that lead to long-term productivity dips.

While caffeine has clear short-term positive effects on productivity, it can simultaneously enable poor work and life habits, especially by inhibiting sleep, that lead to long-term productivity dips.

To fully understand the side effects of caffeine, we must first understand how caffeine acts physiologically. Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical stimulant called trimethylxanthine that shares a number of traits with cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin. In the brain, caffeine works to inhibit the uptake of adenosine, a chemical that causes drowsiness. With adenosine receptors bound to caffeine, the opposite effect occurs and you experience a boost of energy. Caffeine additionally causes a release of dopamine that leads to improved mood. Ultimately, consuming caffeine leaves us feeling focused, alert, and happy.

The studies show the consistent positive impact of caffeine on productivity. Caffeine has been linked to improved cognition, memory, and even motivation. The boost in energy and mood helps you get more focus work done and tackle more difficult tasks. In the short-term, caffeine is a clear productivity win.

Caffeine has been linked to improved cognition, memory, and even motivation. The boost in energy and mood helps you get more focus work done and tackle more difficult tasks.

When we move from a daily to weekly or monthly time horizon, the impact of caffeine becomes less positive. Studies show that too much caffeine consumption can make you anxious and irritable. Caffeine also increases your heart rate which can cause tachycardia or cardiac arrhythmia. But caffeine’s largest and most common negative impact comes in relation to your sleep.

The half-life of caffeine once consumed is about 6 hours and many people drink caffeine well into the afternoon and evening. While in your system, caffeine continues to inhibit adenosine which is critical for deep sleep. Thus, drinking caffeine in the afternoon or evening reduces the quality of your deep sleep. Worse yet, this often creates a negative feedback loop, where lower quality sleep leads to increased caffeine intake the following days, which in turn inhibits catchup deep sleep. While deserving of its own blog post, quality sleep is undoubtedly one of the most important pillars of staying productive and healthy. 

Thus, drinking caffeine in the afternoon or evening reduces the quality of your deep sleep. Worse yet, this often creates a negative feedback loop, where lower quality sleep leads to increased caffeine intake the following days, which in turn inhibits catchup deep sleep.

Overall a moderate amount of caffeine consumed in the morning is healthy and has clear benefits to productivity. Too much caffeine, or caffeine taken too close to sleep, reduces productivity and can have harmful effects on health and mood. The danger of caffeine is that it enables you to overcome sleep debt in the short-term to stay productive. Doing this too often creates unhealthy and unsustainable work and life habits. To quote Sean Covey: “Depending on what they are, our habits will either make us or break us. We become what we repeatedly do.”

“Depending on what they are, our habits will either make us or break us. We become what we repeatedly do.” - Sean Covey

Macgill Davis is the cofounder of Rize - a simple, intelligent time tracker that improves focus and builds better work habits.

Sources

  1. Photo by Lexi Sirikiat
  2. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/jcr.2013.0016
  3. https://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-does-caffeine-keep-us-awake-hanan-qasim
  4. https://science.howstuffworks.com/caffeine4.htm
  5. https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0025851
  6. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/jcr.2013.0016
  7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0273230017302210?via%3Dihub
  8. https://science.howstuffworks.com/caffeine5.htm

Do not miss out!

Join our list to get the latest on productivity tips, new tools, and insightful interviews with high-performing individuals.
Thank you for subscribing.
Please check your email to double opt-in.
Oops! Something went wrong. please try again.