How To Maximise Your Productivity With Caffeine

Caffeine is the most popular drug in the world, but what does it actually do?

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Ahh Caffeine. The lifeblood of the corporate world.
Virtually everyone uses this natural stimulant in one way or another to keep themselves going at work. In fact, 80% of the world’s population consumes a caffeinated product each day. Some insist that they can’t get started in the morning without one, some drink 6 cups a day and some use energy drinks to stay awake and alert well into the night.
But, caffeine isn’t the the magical elixir of wakefulness that we treat it as. Anecdotally, most people that I’ve spoken to about their caffeine habits are using this mild psychoactive in such a way that it would actually have very little effect, though it still works for them because of the placebo effect.
If you’re one of those people then be warned; we’re going to go into the science behind caffeine, and very possibly shatter the illusions around what coffee actually does. You might not be able to rely on coffee to get you up in the morning after this read!

How Caffeine Really Works

Caffeine acts as an “adenosine receptor antagonist.” Adenosine is a substance in your body that promotes sleepiness. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptor to keep you from feeling sleepy.
If that makes sense to you then great! You can probably skip this next bit. If you want a clearer explanation of the above, here it is:
First we need to understand the problem that caffeine tries to solve, and that’s alertness or sleepiness- we use it to wake up, or stay awake. But what’s actually happening in your body when you’re getting tired?
Basically, your body produces a substance called adenosine when you’re beginning to tire. Adenosine binds itself to a receptor in your nervous system which is specifically shaped to attach to anything that’s floating around which is shaped like adenosine. These receptors are aptly named ‘adenosine receptors’. This process of adenosine binding to a receptor sends a tiny signal to your brain that you’re tired. This is how your body and your brain communicate. Your brain doesn’t automatically understand how your body feels- it has to be told through these little messages. The more tired your body is, the more adenosine it produces and the more messages are sent, which tells your brain that you’re more and more tired.
Then, in comes caffeine. Caffeine is a substance that is shaped very similarly to adenosine and can bind to an adenosine receptor as well, but when that happens, the signal that you’re tired isn’t sent to your brain. So, even if your body is producing a ton of adenosine because it’s tired, if the adenosine receptors are already bound to caffeine, then the signals that your body is tired will never reach your brain. Your body is still tired, but your brain never gets the message. That’s how caffeine works.
Caffeine reaches a peak level in your blood within 30–60 minutes of consumption, and has a half-life of 3 to 5 hours.
Once again, if you understood that then you can skip this explanation where we’ll break down how this all works.
When you drink a coffee, tea, energy drink or even eat dark chocolate, you’re intaking caffeine. For that caffeine to do what it does and prevent you from feeling sleepy, it has to get into your bloodstream. Your body has to break it down, digest it, and absorb it. The time that it takes can vary by individual but it’s at least 20 minutes. The amount of caffeine in your bloodstream is at its highest up to an hour after you drink a coffee. After that, your body starts to eliminate the drug from your system- and the rate at which it does this is also important for us to know how best to use caffeine.
Usually it takes 3–5 hours for your body to eliminate half of the caffeine in your bloodstream (no matter how much caffeine there was). So let’s say you drank a cup of coffee. After 4 hours, you might have half a cup’s worth of caffeine in your bloodstream. After 8 hours, you have a quarter of a cup’s worth of caffeine still in your bloodstream.
The key points to take away from all of this are:
  • Caffeine doesn’t give us more energy, or make us feel more awake. All it does is inhibit our ability to detect when we’re tired.
  • Caffeine takes atleast 20 minutes from the point of consumption to have any effect on us.
  • Caffeine stays in our system (and continues working) for quite a long time. In significant amounts for around 8 hours.

So What Does This All Mean?

From understanding exactly how caffeine works, we can design a framework to make sure that we get as much benefit from as little caffeine as possible. Here are a few of the guiding principles that I use to decide when to get the kettle on.
  • Wake up without it
Caffeine (contrary to popular belief) doesn’t wake you up or make your tiredness disappear. Since caffeine can only really prevent us from growing tired, we have to be awake and alert in the first place. I could write an entire article about the techniques that I use to increase my alertness in the mornings (in fact, I think I will so keep an eye out) but essentially, if you used to use caffeine to perk yourself up in the mornings, try some light exercise, fresh air or cold water instead.
  • No caffeine 8 hours before bed
If you fit into the normal 9–5 work pattern then this is probably around 2pm for you. Intaking caffeine in any form after this time means that a significant amount of it is likely to be in your system come bedtime, and that could affect your ability to fall asleep. If you have concerns around replacing the habit, look at herbal tea in the afternoons and evenings, instead of tea and coffee.
  • Drink it 30 minutes before you’ll be tired
Off the top of your head it’s pretty hard to know if you’ll be tired in 30 minutes, but if you’re fortunate enough to live with a somewhat consistent routine then it’s easier to notice. Pay attention to when you feel your energy start to slump each day, and schedule in a coffee 30 minutes before that. For a lot of people who work 9–5 this slump hits around lunchtime. If you anticipate it, you can use caffeine to carry you through it.
  • Give it a 3–4 hour gap between coffees
Since more than half of the caffeine that you intake will still be functional and in your bloodstream up to 5 hours after you ingest it, you should only really need a coffee every 3 hours at most. This means that over the course of a normal work day, you’d only expect to fit in 2 or 3 coffees, which is a reasonable, healthy amount.
  • Drink it in between meals
Anecdotally, several people report caffeine having appetite-suppressing qualities. For this reason, drinking it in between breakfast and lunch (rather than with each meal) will make it easier for you to avoid snacking through the day.
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Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

My Coffee Routine

For several months now I’ve paid attention to my energy levels throughout the day and experimented with caffeine to see how it affected me. I’ve settled on a routine which leaves me feeling pretty consistent every day, which is ideal. Different routines will work best for different people, so I don’t think that there’s any one true solution, but here’s what I do:
I know that I’m a morning lark, not a night owl. I’m at my most alert and productive during the first few hours of my day. I tend to get the afternoon slump a little bit earlier than most people too. So, after I wake up, get ready for the day and work through my morning routine, I sit at my desk with breakfast and work for a couple of hours. After that time has elapsed I’m usually not tired yet but I know it’s coming, so I slow down, brew a large pot of black coffee, and go through some low-energy admin tasks while I drink. I tend to have 1.5–2 cups because one never feels like enough. Once I’ve polished off my pot of coffee, I take a break. Usually 20 minutes of meditation but this could be a quick walk, a nap, some chores- just something to get me away from my desk while the coffee kicks in.
Then, I sit back down at my desk and thanks to the coffee, I have a second wind of energy, and I crack on for another couple of hours on whatever important, high-energy objectives I’ve set for my day. After that, my energy levels are usually hit and miss. Some afternoons I’ll be fried by this point, some I’ll feel fine. All that matters to me is that I had a successful early portion of my day- I don’t put too much pressure on myself after about 1pm. I also don’t drink any more coffee. It’s pretty important to my routine that I set myself up for a good night’s sleep, so if I do want a hot drink in the afternoon, it’ll be a peppermint tea which I find perks me up, refreshes and hydrates me.
The bottom line for me is that caffeine doesn’t give you more energy, it masks your awareness of your growing tiredness, and so it would be pretty easy to push yourself too far because a constant caffeine intake keeps your mind off of the same wavelength as your body. Common though it is, it’s important to remember that it’s a psychoactive drug. Most of the time, I’d rather know how my body really feels, and react to that, than to rely on a stimulant to cover it up.