Nothing has ever awakened my senses more than the sweet aroma of coffee. Who can resist the cocoa flavor, nutty texture, and overall “happy feeling” you get when you take your first sip?
Not many. For hundreds of years, coffee has spread its rich flavor around the globe—so much that many of us can’t live without it.
In a survey of 2,199 Americans, 62% of them agreed that they “cannot function” without a cup of joe. And if you think the U.S is addicted, look at Finland—the top coffee-consuming country at 8.3 kg per capita.
Many of us drink coffee to increase productivity and focus, but how much coffee is too much? Below, I’ll go over what happens when you drink coffee, why it’s so hard to give up, and how it affects your productivity.
What happens when you drink coffee
Your daily itch for a cup of java goes deeper than its bold flavor. Likely, you’re not addicted to coffee—you’re addicted to caffeine.
So what is it about caffeine, and what happens to our body when we sip on this magical drug?
In one sentence, caffeine stimulates your nervous system and releases “feel-good” sensations. But how?
First, let’s talk about Adenosine. Adenosine is a sleep-inducing molecule that tells your brain when it’s bedtime.
Caffeine blocks adenosine from doing its job. So caffeine makes you feel alert, opposed to sleepy. Plus, it makes us more sensitive to dopamine—our happy neurotransmitter.
So, caffeine blocks your sleepy neurotransmitter, adenosine, and kicks dopamine into gear. Feelings of alertness and happiness? Who wouldn’t drink these mystical beans?
Unfortunately, our body develops a tolerance for caffeine. This means you’ll have to consume more to combat fatigue. One cup becomes two cups, and then four. And suddenly, you’re barking at the barista for three extra shots of espresso.
If you’re a coffee addict, you’ll feel these effects after a day of skipping caffeine, or even a few hours! At least, that’s what happened to me.
For years, the mere thought of drinking coffee motivated me to roll out of bed and type away at my desk. I never missed a day of coffee because I was afraid of feeling unproductive and snapping at people I work with.
That is until five months ago when I gave it up.
What happens to your body when you quit coffee?
I’m not going to lie; quitting coffee sucks. Why would anyone give it up?
Coffee is helpful if you drink it in moderation; otherwise, it may take a toll on your focus. Your body can’t focus on work when it’s busy fighting off caffeine addiction symptoms, like anxiety, sleep problems, and dehydration.
The more coffee I drank, the less productive and more anxious I was. My stomach felt jittery, and my energy took a dip every afternoon.
It wasn’t until five months ago when enough was enough. I craved coffee all day and scheduled my work routine around getting my fix. I also became a pro at sleeping late and waking up restless at 3 am.
After realizing how much I relied on caffeine, I decided to give up my beloved fix. And when I learned that coffee withdrawal can last from 2-9 days, I figured, why not give it a try?
And they were right; the first 2-9 days of no coffee was the worst. My brain was foggy, I had constant headaches, and I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I put on a dark shade of glasses for a week—everything felt “meh.”
It wasn’t until two weeks later when my withdrawal symptoms withered away. The brain fog disappeared, I slept better, and best of all, my productivity was at an all-time high.
One month later, I visited my parents (who are avid coffee drinkers) and woke up to the smell of sweet coffee beans. The familiar craving for coffee came back, and I poured myself a cup.
Yeah, I caved. But guess what?
I felt the effects of caffeine so strongly that I couldn’t finish one cup! To put it in perspective, I was drinking two to three cups before I quit. And now I couldn’t drink one cup without feeling the jitters.
I left the rest of my coffee at the table and haven’t had a cup in four months.
My levels of productivity feel better than when I was addicted. Now I can write for three or four hours a day without feeling tired and anxious.
I never thought I’d say this, but it feels great to be coffee and caffeine-free. A few more reasons giving up coffee feels great is:
Your body resets
Giving up coffee allows your adenosine to reset and fix your sleep schedule. Your body will bounce back into working order when you take away the loads of caffeine you consumed.
You might find yourself with more energy, better sleep, and more stable moods.
Coffee is no longer a crutch
Like many others, I relied on coffee to sustain my energy until the late hours. I loved the taste but hated how much I depended on it. Going a day without coffee meant feeling tired and downright grumpy.
When I gave it up, I ditched my routine of waiting around the kitchen for my fix and went on morning walks to soak up Vitamin D, a natural energy booster.
My walks induced more creativity in the mornings, a big turnaround from the original groggy mornings. I was no longer waking up with the thought of making coffee; my mind was free to think of other things.
You’re less anxious
I don’t know about you, but one too many cups of coffee left me anxious and less productive than before.
According to a study of school children and caffeine, consuming high amounts of caffeine is associated with anxiety, depression, and stress.
Note how I said “high amounts of caffeine” rather than “normal amounts of caffeine.” Your genetics, environment, and diet determine your caffeine limit. Going past your threshold can stress your body out.
Going back to how adenosine overproduces when caffeine blocks its role—it’s easy to move from a cup of coffee to two to three cups without realizing it.
As someone addicted to caffeine, I drank way more than my threshold and suffered from it. If I were to go back, I’d stick to one cup a day.
And if you’re thinking, “This sounds great and all, but there’s no way I’m quitting coffee forever,” you can always take a break for one or two weeks to let your body recover. This way, you won’t spiral into coffee addiction.
Does giving up coffee improve productivity?
There’s no perfect answer to this question. What matters is how much coffee you drink.
Although my productivity has increased after giving up coffee, I was also addicted to caffeine, meaning I drank coffee to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
This study shows how your body can stabilize normal amounts of caffeine—with the caveat that what is “normal” differs for everyone. Plus, coffee beans can offer fantastic benefits, like lower risk of heart disease and Alzheimers.
Overall, coffee can help you focus as long as you maintain healthy levels of caffeine.
So how do you know how much caffeine you can consume?
It depends on your caffeine sensitivity and environment. Some questions to help you find out how much coffee you should have are:
1. How much sleep do you get per night?
2. Are you prone to feeling anxious?
3. How do you feel after drinking one cup of coffee? Two cups? Three?
4. Do you get headaches often?
5. Does drinking coffee make you feel alert? Or does it leave you wanting more?
You’ll also want to consider what you put in your coffee. A peppermint mocha will affect you differently than coffee with milk. And who knows, added sugar and artificial sweeteners might affect your focus more than caffeine itself.
And think about other caffeinated beverages and foods you consume every day. Do you drink green tea in the afternoon? Or what about dark chocolate? You might be consuming tons of caffeine without realizing it!
5 tips for quitting coffee
Quitting coffee is easier said than done. If you decide to take on this challenge, you’ll need a plan. The following three tips helped me endure the withdrawal process and quit caffeine addiction for good.
1. Plan ahead
You might be tempted to go cold turkey after reading this post, but I advise you to plan your withdrawal process ahead of time.
Look through your calendar and choose when you don’t have pressing deadlines or a busy week. If you quit coffee during a stressful event, you’re more likely to say, “I can’t do it!” and run to Starbucks.
You can also wean off coffee to avoid intense withdrawal symptoms. Maybe tomorrow you’ll drink a half cup less, and then another half cup less the next day, and so on.
Weaning off coffee didn’t work for me because of my lack of willpower. But I’d at least give it a go and see what happens.
You should also decide how long you want to give up coffee. If you only want to kick the addiction, one to two weeks is sufficient. But if you’re going to quit for good, you’ll need to go as long as it takes to lose interest in coffee. For me, it took over a month.
2. Find an alternative
Just because you’re quitting coffee doesn’t mean you can’t drink anything. It felt so much easier to stop when I found an alternative drink to replace it.
Head to the store and look for coffee-like drinks and decaffeinated tea. Grab a few options and see what you like! Just make sure it’s low-sugar and decaf.
3. Go outside
As I mentioned before, vitamin D boosts energy levels. When you’re feeling tired, head outside for a brisk walk. Listen to a podcast, upbeat music, or the nature around you.
If you’re not up for a walk, lie down outside and bask in the sunshine!
It also helps if you work in natural light. Consider moving your desk near a window to soak up the sun’s energy as you work.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “It’s wintertime, and I get almost no sun,” then take 20-minute breaks to stretch, talk to someone on the phone, or dance around the office. Do whatever you need to raise your energy and mood.
4. Get some sleep
Large amounts of caffeine can disrupt your sleep cycles. You’ll quickly realize how much sleep you need with coffee out of the picture.
My sleep cycle changed drastically after quitting coffee. I was going to bed much earlier than my usual 11 p.m. bedtime. The first few nights, I woke up in the middle of the night but slowly got used to my new schedule.
Listen to your body and go to sleep when you’re ready, even if it’s earlier than you’re used to. You can take melatonin or drink a sleepy-time tea to help your body adjust.
5. Repeat when necessary
If you plan on going back to coffee, notice how you feel when you drink it again. Choose an amount of caffeine that feels good to you and for your productivity.
Before quitting coffee for good, I attempted to take a week off from it every six months. Admittingly, my love for coffee kept me from continuing this plan, but I’ve heard it works out well for those with more self-control than me.
Keep this in mind when you drink coffee again. Would you be able to give it up again in a few months? If not, why not?
Over to you
If you’re feeling daring, conduct a test and give up coffee for two weeks. Give your body a break, use the tips I mentioned above and see how you feel.
If you endure through the withdrawal phase and still feel sluggish, there might be something else affecting your energy.
You can also try Toggl Track’s time tracker to help identify your peak work hours and keep you on track when you’re feeling unproductive. Coffee may help you focus, but it’s not the only helpful tool out there.