The buzz on caffeine

James Tonn — №18 with Scott Belsky

Some feel coffee is a dangerous drug, while others feel the black gold is nature’s sublime solution to Monday mornings. Caffeine is controversial on many levels, but especially when it comes to productivity.

Caffeine has fuelled empires

Green tea fuelled China’s dynasties for millennia. Black tea fuelled the British Empire during its rise. Coffee fuelled America through the industrial revolution.

However, we would all agree that today we have different needs than previous generations. We’re not warriors or soldiers charged with physically demanding tasks requiring endless perseverance and brute strength.

In our modern North American business world, we’re not machinery operators enduring sixteen hour days, as was common at the turn of the century. During the industrial revolution, with the rise of automated machinery, the weakest link in productivity was the human operator. It is not a coincidence that coffee and tea have long been served throughout the work day.

After the Great Depression, specifically after World War II and during the time of rebuilding, a phenomenon called cola swept the globe. This new cold caffeine was for all occasions and for all ages, and led to the energy drink madness we know today, where we are consuming more caffeine per serving than any culture throughout history.

The changing face of productivity

With 90% of adults in North America consuming caffeine daily, society is now more dependent on caffeine than ever. But productivity has changed.

To me, it seems that productivity throughout most of history, in various cultures, was different in a subtle, but fundamental way: efficiency and effectiveness were split.

The ruling class was charged with efficiency: strategic planning, creative problem solving, and decision making. The working class was charged with effectiveness: executing their orders with persistent production and reporting any problems along the way.

Today, whether you are a CEO or an employee, an entrepreneur or a government worker, your productivity requires you to be both efficient and effective. As a leader, you sometimes need to plow through long reports and hundreds of emails. As a worker, when you report a problem, you’re expected to also give a proposed solution.

Caffeine and productivity

Ever notice that you work quicker when caffeinated? However, when brainstorming your company’s strategic response to a major problem, a key decision that could cause bankruptcy and leave many without jobs, speed is not the issue.

Ever notice that you are less distracted by minutiae when caffeinated? However, when needing to be a good listener, reading body language, and responding sensitively to someone’s needs, your disregard for small details could get you fired.

Productivity buzz or drain?

Caffeine is great for work quantity, not work quality. It has the effect of temporarily restoring alertness, but we need to play to our cognitive strengths.

Caffeine can increase productivity when doing tedious work. For example:

Conversely, caffeine can negatively impact qualitative work that requires high cognitive function, such as:

Getting optimally wired

If you decide to utilize caffeine to increase mental performance, here are some caffeine usage guidelines I’ve found helpful to optimize getting wired, based on neuroscientific research:

  1. Take small, frequent doses

    Optimal dosage is within the range of 20–200 mg of caffeine per hour.

    For reference, a Starbucks tall (12 oz) coffee has 260 mg of caffeine. The same amount of black tea has 63 mg, while a Coca-Cola Classic has 34 mg (not recommended due to the sugar).

    One favorite is Yerba Mate tea, which has 127.5 mg, but includes many other “feel good” chemicals and antioxidants.

    Keep in mind your body weight and tolerance when finding your personal dose.

  2. Use efficiently

    Sipping the beverage throughout each hour will avoid a caffeine spike and quick decrease.

    Caffeine’s effect can also be extended with the help of a little grapefruit juice, sugar, and/or fat. “Regular coffee” with one cream and one sugar can help, and I love a shot glass of pure grapefruit juice with no sugar added.

    A little sugar and fat helps the absorption of caffeine. Grapefruit juice contains a compound called narangin, which slows the clearance of caffeine from your system.

  3. Use effectively

    Your body can build a caffeine tolerance and even dependence over time.

    Going without caffeine for anytime between two and nine days will allow your body to reset; when caffeine is reintroduced,its effectiveness is increased. I try to do this once or twice a year.

  4. Everyone is unique

    Caffeine’s effect can be radically different for different people.

    Personally, I feel I am in the middle of the spectrum: one to two coffees per day goes a long way. It helps me focus, though I can’t have it in the late afternoon or I’ll be up until 2 a.m.

    My wife, Mollie, is extremely sensitive to caffeine. It makes her jittery and her heart races. Even if she has a black tea in the morning, it will seriously affect her sleep that night.

    My friend Eric will have his sixth coffee of the day after we play hockey at 1 a.m., and it has virtually no effect on him.

    Take precaution and understand how caffeine affects you personally.

I’d like to raise a toast

So raise your caffeinated cup: I’d like to propose a toast.

This cup has engaged warriors and fueled the rise of empires. It has brought joy and comfort to the poor and to the rich and has even inspired revolutions.

So drink up. Drink well. And let it stimulate you to focus on the task at hand and to do more with less.

Photo: Flickr / GenBug CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

James tonn

James Tonn

James Tonn is the Co-founder and Executive Producer of Podium Publishing, which has published numerous best-selling audiobooks. In his spare time, he consults on large scale, complex infrastructure projects. James, his wife Mollie, and toddlers Oliver and Theodore live near Toronto, Canada. Also, James belongs to the Productive! Magazine team as one of our great editors.

Find James on LinkedIn