I recently gave up caffeine for a month. As an ardent tea drinker and regular coffee meeter, this was a major step. It had quite an impact on my work, so I thought I’d share this very simple hack to help you review your relationship with the world’s legal drug of choice and, perhaps, improve your work.
At the start of the year, I noticed I’d developed a twitch. Referring to everyone’s trusted medical companion, Google, I discovered a potential cause could be over-consumption of caffeine. It was the first time I’d ever really stopped to consider my relationship with what is actually a psychoactive stimulant and I suddenly realised how much I was consuming.
Recommended ‘moderate’ caffeine intake is described by various sources, including the Food Standards Agency website, as 300-400mg per day. At this level, caffeine can have beneficial impacts including the ability to focus, peak physical performance and defence against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Exceeding that amount can have the opposite impact – as this over-dramatic piece from inc.com shows- with effects including restlessness, irritability, anxiety, insomnia and muscle spasms or twitches.
I used resources including this piece from The Guardian to estimate my average daily caffeine intake. It wasn’t great.
Roughly, one 300ml cup of tea contains around 60mg of caffeine. At home, I was habitually drinking 2,400ml of tea per day, taking me to around 480mg of caffeine – way above the daily recommended dose. Added to that, if I was out at meetings, I could easily consume 5-6 coffees per day. Some days my caffeine intake was as high as 1,000mg of caffeine.
Caffeine, like any drug, is addictive and when it becomes a habit, it’s easy to get deeper into. I decided to kick it, just to see what effect it would have on me.
Step 1: Cold Turkey on Caffeine.
Not the recommended route, but I took it. Very quickly the crushing headaches kicked in and lasted for four days. The persistent thump was bad enough to affect my vision and I constantly felt like my brain was pushing it’s way through my skull. More intense than any hangover, it made it very hard to work. Although I drank lots of water in a scientifically unproven attempt to flush things through, I took no painkillers as most of the ones I found contain (you guessed it!) caffeine.
This was painful and very hard. Much like quitting smoking, both the physical craving and the habit needed to be dealt with. I invested in some naturally caffeine-free Redbush tea, in a bid to fool myself with a placebo and waited it out.
Step 2: Breaking Through.
After the fifth day, the headaches became noticeably lighter, as did my raging cravings for caffeine. At this point the taste of the Redbush tea suddenly became enjoyable and I started to feel relaxed by drinking it. In less than a week, I’d completely severed ties with caffeine.
Caffeine in itself would be an incidental additive in any caffeinated drink I came to consume once the month was up. I’d broken the cycle and that felt good.
Step 3: Rethinking the Drinking.
I discovered that after waking up, drinking a pint of water and fully hydrating myself did far more to kickstart my day than a caffeine hit. Over the course of each day, I replaced most hot drinks with water, drinking only around three cups of Redbush but thoroughly enjoying each.
My sleep improved, my concentration improved and the all-out anxiety over my impending financial meltdown and ability to find any way to earn a living backed off into mild panic. The twitch remained though, alongside general stress, but I was more disposed to take clear action to improve my situation than if I was buzzing in a corner hallucinating in panic!
During my caffeine-free month, at meetings I drank Redbush tea and where that was unavailable, I drank water. The irony was that this actually helped me to concentrate and stay present in conversations. I discovered that caffeine peaks in the bloodstream 30-60 minutes after consumption, so by consuming it during a meeting, all I was doing was fuelling myself for the journey home.
By the end of the experiment, I’d managed to tune in to my own productivity. Rather than working more hours to make things happen, fuelled by caffeine, I knew when my body and mind was ready to work. This helped me create more sensible working patterns and feel less guilt when taking an hour out here or there. It’s an approach to work I’m continuing to develop and will share in due course.
Step 4: Going Back.
After the month was up, I decided that I’d allow myself a limited amount of caffeine again, but be very mindful of staying within the recommended limits to receive the positive benefits. I realised that if I made my relationship with caffeine a more strategic one, I could use it to my advantage.
I started drinking a single cup of caffeinated tea mid-morning, mainly for enjoyment and the slight dopamine boost it provides, to counteract the before-lunch lull in energy. Water continues to be my staple, providing genuinely beneficial effects and increasing physical exercise in my regular walks to the bathroom. When coffee comes in to play, it’s usually as a boost, designed to peak in my bloodstream just when I need it to allow me to focus.
It’s also a treat. Sometimes, there’s nothing happier than an amazing cup of coffee and at weekends I love making a pot of tea and drinking my way through it. That’s allowed. Improving my relationship with caffeine has been a great thing and continues to have a positive effect on my day-to-day functioning, but as with anything in life, there’s no point depriving yourself to misery unnecessarily.
Moderation is a good thing and in this case it’s measurable… 300mg of caffeine per day.
As for the twitch, it turned out to be largely unrelated to my caffeine intake. Further investigation found it to be linked to nervous tension, which I suffered a lot with during the early stages of The Work Project. Stress and anxiety play a part in many of our working lives; I found some very positive ways to control it, which I’ll be sharing in later posts.
Read Next: 5 Ways to Change Your Relationship with Caffeine and Reap the Benefits. Including a very unexpected learning!