The false god of coffee

This year I decided to stop drinking coffee, my only source of caffeine.  Anyone who knows me will recognize this as a radical step. I’ve been drinking coffee since age 10, and I’d developed quite an obsession for the perfect cup.

In the past, I’ve experimented with quitting a few times by simply going cold turkey. Each time, the physical withdrawal, basically headaches, was over within 10 days, but after a month or two I would become convinced that coffee was good for my concentration and start drinking it again.

coffee making.JPG My reason to quit this time was the growing suspicion that coffee was causing mood swings and crashes that are bad for my overall sense of well-being. For this experiment I decided to stop very gradually. I thought that if I allowed the psychological withdrawal to occur gradually alongside the physiological, I would be able to observe my ‘coffee-desire’ without acting on it, and learn the skill I would need to avoid relapsing in future.

I made the same amount of coffee each day, using a vac-pot. Although I didn’t measure caffeine content, I did control many factors including grind, age of beans, water temperature and water/coffee contact time. From this controlled pot of coffee, I used measuring cups to discard an additional 20ml per week. I used notebook software to keep some records of my progress and I started with a 3 cup pot in mid-April ’09. Towards the end of July I wrote “I am increasingly wanting to abandon this project altogether”, but I continued and on 8th August I was down to a half shot glass per day, and decided I was done.

Over the past few days (starting around 12th Oct), I noticed myself increasingly thinking “I am having trouble concentrating and coffee might help”. These thoughts came to a crescendo on Wednesday. This time, I was armed with data.

As part of a separate experiment, I have been keeping track of the amount of time I spend working on projects.  I work in 25 minute intervals which I time with a coffee timer, and I mark an X in a paper journal for each interval that I successfully complete.  If I get distracted, I don’t mark the X, and if I can’t concentrate, I abandon it and don’t mark an X rather than sitting out the timer. I’ve been doing this since the end of June, so I tabulated the data and created a graph* of my hours of concentration per day, and overlaid a bar showing when I drank my last coffee.

concentration-vs-coffee-chart.png Causality is a complex issue. Obviously this is an n=1 experiment and I am intentionally doing other things that may well be improving my concentration, but one thing is very clear; the amount of time I spend concentrating has not deteriorated since I quit coffee, so I can easily reject the hypothesis “I need coffee to help me concentrate.”

I see this as a success for self-quantification.  Whether or not it provides a general insight into the effects of caffeine, it validates the utility of self-tracking for making individualized personal decisions.

I will be doing more experiments.

*At the QS MeetUp someone correctly pointed out that I had an error in the labeling of my x-axis on the chart I showed there.  This meant that I’d placed the “quitting bar” in the wrong place – near to september 4th, happily this doesn’t affect the conclusion, and the graph shown here is the corrected version.

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65 Responses to The false god of coffee

  1. Chris Finlay says:

    Totally digging the evaluation of a belief through quantification. Way to put it to the test!

  2. Mikele says:

    I love coffee, I used to wear the coffee molecule t-shirt, and drink over 8 espresso a day.
    quote “bad for my overall sense of well-being.”
    I had the same suspicion and now I am down to 2 cups in the morning.
    I feel better even if I couldn’t change my restless lifestyle.
    I would love to see the same graph in a longer time span. 2 years maybe..
    I wonder how much environmental conditions affect concentration.
    For example, in August, many people takes holiday, it turns into less emails, less phone calls, less blog posts in the feed reader, less noise on the outside (in a city at least).
    I personally am more productive in the night, with silence and everybody else sleeping, not and trying to contact me.
    Also, I expect that focusing on tracking concentration, affects and improve the ability to concentrate.
    Still, even if too much coffee doesn’t help in the long run… it taste so good ;)

  3. richard sprague says:

    Very nice ! Excellent example of QS.
    However, I wonder about your measure of concentration. Isn’t it possible that the rising level of concentration is simply your adaptation to the test? Perhaps in fact, coffee is degrading your concentration but adaptation to the test is improving, so net-net the results appear to vindicate giving up coffee….

  4. I think that focussing on and tracking my concentration does lead to improvement. That’s a big part of my reason for doing it. I didn’t set out to show anything quantitative about coffee at the beginning of this. I just wanted to know what it feels like to be free of it.
    I mined the data as a way of putting my thoughts about restarting – which I think are part of the psychological addiction – into perspective. For me that’s the real value of self-quantification.

  5. Jono says:

    This is the reason I moved to decafe, as good as “normal” coffee without the crashing and the mood swings.

  6. Gary Wolf says:

    Robin’s last comment is interesting and instructive. The hypothesis he was testing was not: “coffee degrades concentration,” or even “coffee degrades my concentration,” but rather: “my concentration has degraded since I stopped drinking coffee.” But his analysis showed that he had been concentrating better in the quit period than in the pre-quit period. Whatever the causes of this – and they may be various – his intuition that he should start drinking coffee again has been nicely undermined.

  7. Ted Lemon says:

    I would attribute the change in your concentration to the fact that, by systematically tracking your concentration, you have automatically begun to learn what small factors either inhibit or enhance your concentration. Since concentration clearly matters to you, it’s no surprise that you’ve learned to avoid the things that break it, and seek out the things that enhance it.
    It would be interesting to continue this experiment for another year, without the varying coffee intake, and see if this improvement trend continues. I suspect it will.

    • Ian Eslick says:

      Yes indeed, the one factor not controlled for here is a practice or Hawthorne-style effect where concentration gradually improves but then plateaus while you were learning to track. If you went back on coffee for a few weeks and kept tracking, then you would have a better feeling for whether coffee had any effect at all.

  8. Jorge says:

    And how do we know he didn’t switch to adderall?

  9. Joel says:

    Caffeine is like any drug; it only works the way you intend if you dose it correctly. As research has shown, drinking coffee improves concentration when taken in small doses over a long period of time, versus what most people do, which is to drink a large cup of coffee in morning. Can you supply us with information on your intake patterns when you were drinking coffee.

  10. Sean Williams says:

    Great experiment. I gave up coffee 15 years ago and have never looked back. Who misses insomnia and panic attacks? Not me. But without data it’s hard to back up this wild proposal, especially among other writers. :-)

  11. Nosey says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate, it is also plausible that quitting coffee decreased the amount you are able to concentrate. The other things you are doing to increase concentration may have a larger effect than that.
    That being said, I found the same thing happened to me when I cut down my Dr Pepper intake. It’s way easier to stay focused now.

  12. Julie says:

    I don’t know…I quite enjoy having the concentration of a bee in a dandelion field sometimes….

  13. Matt Cheney says:

    By any chance are you using the Pomodoro technique?
    I’m curious as to how much of your improvement comes from this new work flow, as it coincides with the start of your caffeine experiment. It’s improved my work flow 2-3x over the course of a few weeks.

  14. Enoch Root says:

    To make this scientific, you have to start drinking coffee again and see what happens. :-)

  15. ben says:

    Another factor that might be taken into consideration might be efficiency. I know i can be easily distracted and perhaps concentrate less after having coffee, but i feel that my work rate or efficiency increases at the same time.
    Different types of concentration might also be impacted upon differently, i would like to see some qualitative data on what types of tasks you are contemplating when you have thoughts of returning to coffee. Perhaps concentration on creative tasks, problem solving or tasks where lateral thinking might be useful could be increased by coffee, whereas focused, detailed or sustained concentration may be decreased?

  16. elissa says:

    How cool: a venue for thinkers!
    What a blend: a little “quality” application of Socratic philosophy. I’m in!
    I’d like to crunch the numbers because it looks like your concentration is trending toward a measurable improvement.
    Examine away my new friends…. better living through 6σ… just beware of Ergo Sums.

  17. Scott says:

    You didn’t mention anything about sleep quality. I know that wasn’t tracked, but was there a qualitative improvement?

  18. Stan says:

    You said you started the experiment in Mid-April, but the graph starts in late June – so you are comparing your post-quitting concentration levels with levels of concentration you are experiencing while already on a reduced amount of caffeine compared to what would be your normal intake. Where some of the withdrawal symptoms may have a negative effect on your ability to concentrate. So (in my mind) – to have some scientific significance the experiment should track your concentration levels for , say, a month at full intake, and then for a month after some period after quitting (when you are over any cravings).
    However, please feel free to NOT to start drinking coffee again just for the sake of the experiment ;o)

  19. A quick follow up to some of the questions from the comments:
    Re: Sleep quality
    I don’t track it. Subjectively it improved dramatically at first, and then levelled off to what is still markedly better. Interestingly, I remember my dreams a lot more, however as I say, I can’t attribute this directly to coffee. There are numerous other changes going on in my life.
    Re: Pomodoro technique
    I don’t use the pomodoro technique as written, however I was tracking 60 minute periods and switched to 25 minutes after reading that this was the ‘best practice’ discovered by the pomodoro people.
    Re: Adderall
    I know this was a joke, but I’ve been very careful to avoid other stimulants or sources of caffeine – I had already cut these out years ago.
    Re: Intake pattern
    I was drinking all of my coffee in the morning soon after getting up, usually over the course of an hour or so. I had heard about the dosage issue, and seriously considered spreading it out over the day as an alternative, however I really wanted the subjective experience of beeing free of the addiction.
    Re: Scientific Validity
    Just as a reminder – I’m not drawing a scientific conclusion about coffee. I used the data as a counterpoint to the thoughts I was having that quitting had degraded my ability to concentrate.
    That’s what makes this whole field interesting to me – the idea that we can use self-tracking data to augment our thoughts and make different personal decisions, even if we are not able to do public science.
    Data here:

  20. Roy says:

    Excellent. I had been trying to measure similar effects myself. My concern is that I tend to use coffee as booster during the day, rather than part of my morning provisions. As you mentioned, that is a slightly different mechanism. However, it does result in a higher tolerance just the same. I’m imagining my baseline performance would be lower, but my peak performance would be at points where I really have an opportunity to be productive.
    Kind of a trade off there. If I could spend my crash time in meetings and my focus time coding or working on projects it might be worthwhile to have the lower baseline. Or maybe not. Currently I am sans caffeine. Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

  21. mitjak says:

    Can’t say I ever thought coffee helps one to focus. To stay more awake perhaps. For as long as I’ve drunk it it always gave me jitters the first our or so, especially if coupled with a cigarette or two. Nowadays I try to stick to tea which may not have a refreshing awakening effect but has a far more positive effect on concentration.

  22. Peter says:

    I can’t believe a coffee aficionado like yourself would consider giving up the sacred elixir. I only drink one or two very high quality cups in the AM, typically very early, which gives me my initial rush of concentration and focus. Plus I enjoy the flavor of a well-made cup from choice beans. I never drink a cup after 9am and certainly never during the day. I sleep like a log because if I had excessive amounts of caffeine in my bod, I would probably have trouble sleeping. I hope you can find the happy medium as I’m sure you miss the ritual of making your cup on a daily basis.

  23. james says:

    Too bad it’s a worthless “study”.
    Why even bother when it has 0 validity..
    Double blind it ?

  24. Mark says:

    Great article, but I want to call you out with a “I see what you did there” on your deliberate choice of the title for this piece. The hoakiness — I feel like I’ve walked past an evangelical booth at the county fair — is disappointing.
    Kevin, as you well know, but I assume won’t admit, -all- Gods are false. Maybe weaning yourself of that other one would be a good next project.
    It would be wonderful if you could spare us the “let me just get in one subtle little witnessing turn of phrase here” in future articles. Of course, it’s up to you. But it would be wonderful.

  25. Gary Wolf says:

    I’m just going to pipe up here again to say how much I like this self-experiment. Now that it has been up for a while on the site and is being tweeted around, we are getting some typical “drive-by” comments. These always give me mixed feelings. They mean a post is being read widely. The interest in Robin’s post is taking QS out beyond its cozy circle of self-quantifiers. That’s good! But when people stumble across something like this unexpectedly, they often bring some intellectual “reflexes” along that interfere with reading and thinking.
    One of these reflexes is a fetish for “blind” research studies. The role of blinding in research is to reduce the effects of bias. We know that placebo effects are real, so if the study is not blind to the subject of the experiment, placebo effects can mask other effects (or the lack of them). We know that the expectations of researchers can unintentionally influence results also, so by blinding the researcher we address this source of bias. Thus: double blind. Double blind is a valuable protocol.
    But to say double blind is valuable is NOT THE SAME as saying: “never seek any knowledge whatsoever unless your investigation can be performed as a double blind study.” There are some experiments that can never be performed in this way. There are others that, while they could be performed, wouldn’t be, because the time and effort would outweigh the knowledge gained. There are other types of research designs, and other ways to address bias. One of the easiest of these ways is to have a wise modesty about your conclusions. Robin’s “the false god of coffee” is just an investigation of his subjective belief that he was concentrating better when he was drinking coffee. He _went back in time_ to investigate this, using data that he had gathered already. He got a definitive answer: he was not concentrating better when he was drinking coffee. QED.
    He is not saying that you will all concentrate better if you quit coffee. To find the answer to this question, you may want to perform your own experiments. But it is reasonable to wonder about this, given Robin’s experience.
    Knowledge is gained incrementally.

  26. ThomasR says:

    Btw, one can take caffeine pills (‘NoDoz’,'Proplus’, etc) to aid in withdrawing from coffee.
    A 50mg tablet is sufficient to completely eliminate the headaches for 24 hours. It’s the equivalent of half a cup of coffee, but without the ritual.
    Take one per day for the first five days after quitting.

  27. markus says:

    Wow, these comments are ridiculous.
    I think you’re quite correct, coffee causes emotional instability. I love going to the coffee shop, flirting with the coffee girls and getting a nice strong espresso, but I think I have to quit.

  28. Daniel says:

    Perfect timing for me!! I’ve been wanting to quit myself for over a year now and last night I had a pretty ugly brew. I cook mine on the stove top ala turkish style and I used waaaaaaaaaaay too much, made myself quite sick. Congratulations on quitting man! And yeah, jesus, what’s up with the dregs in the comments, fucks sake people.

  29. Jim Pivonka says:

    The essence of science is not experimentation, or particular experimental methods, such as blind & double blind methodologies. It is not statistical correlation.
    The essence of science is observation, using the best methods available which will permit repetition of the observation. Sometimes that involves experiment, sometimes double blind methodologies, sometimes accumulation of large data sets and the use of these to detect correlations among various conditions. Improvement of, and definition of rigorous methods of observation, of taking measurements, has been important to science.
    But the main point is to do the observation.
    Based on formalized, rigorous observation and descripiton of observed condition, we move to posit a chain of causality. Which can be tested by attempting to demonstrate its falsity.
    A useful hypothesis or theory permits us to predict the behavior of the things we are observing across a wide rage of circumstances. The model is known formally, in some circles, as logical empiricism. It incorporates the essential characteristics defining scientific statements and”knowledge” – predictability and reproducibility.
    Particlular formalisms used in making observations (blind, double blind, statistical correlation, etc.) are neither necessary nor sufficient to science. The necessary and sufficient condiitons are rigorous observation, full description, definition of posited chains of causation which are testable (falsifiable), and results which make possible repeatable (replicable) results and which have predictive value.

  30. random_nutter says:

    If you really want to hit this one out of the park, continue the experiment, but start drinking coffee again. You still won’t be able to factor out the psychological effect of the “coffee is bad for you” culture, but you will eliminate the convolution added to your concentration curve by your recovery from withdrawal. You should also record the amount of sleep you’re getting.
    I’ve often felt that the root of the “coffee is bad” culture is not due to any deleterious effect of caffeine itself, but rather, due to sleep deprivation that caffeine can cause if ingested too close to bedtime, or mask if taken during the day. People who cut their caffeine intake probably feel sleep-deprivation more keenly and therefore get more sleep. It’s a reasonable hypothesis that caffeine, while not necessarily bad on it’s own, is not a perfect substitute for sleep.

  31. Goran Zec says:

    It’s almost three years now since I’ve switched from coffee to tea; I would recommend it. I most often take sencha (japanese, non-fermented, steam-treated green tea), which is fairly cheap and tastes great once you learn which one to buy (bulk, well-packaged, not too close to the expiry date and no pure – jasmine usually just masks bad tea) and how to make it (initially cold, filtered water, heated to 65 degrees Celsius, steep for a minute or two). And tea can be reused, the second time it’s practically without caffeine, but still a lot of flavonoids. The uptake of caffeine is milder and there are no crashes or mood swings. It will never make you euphoric the way coffee can, but it does help you concentrate. It refreshes, does not make you jittery. One big benefit is it does not make you hungry as coffee does when you crash after a coffeine spike.
    I also found that avoiding flavour enhancers in food (monosodium glutamate) helps you restore your sense of taste and appreciate subtle tastes and fragrances more.

  32. Max says:

    I too get the mood swings and loss of energy when I am in my caffeine addiction phase. I also start back up for the same reason (the first few cups after being clean for a few weeks makes you feel great). I feel like I am a much happier and more productive person without caffeine, assuming I get regular sleep.

  33. Gary Wolf says:

    I was away over the weekend and let some goofball drive-by comments slip through. They’re down now. Just a reminder, as they say over on boingboing: speech is free, but these comments are moderated.

  34. JL says:

    Can you share more about this 25-minute interval method that you practice? It sounds cool.

  35. Hector says:

    I have some doubt about your experiment… I believe the time of “concentration” seems to increase… I believe this is due to your lack of concentration… I believe the time chart proves nothing… If anything, it proves that your concentration has decreased due to your lack of coffee and therefore it is taking you longer to complete certain tasks that involve concentration..

  36. Vince says:

    At least in my own case I would say that carbs have a far bigger impact on my energy level (and to some extent emotional well being) than coffee ever has.
    I like the coffee ritual.. I drink it for the taste as well as the caffeine.. and as my only addiction it’s relatively harmless. I wouldn’t lose my will to live if I couldn’t have coffee (cf. heavy smokers), but I’d definitely miss it.

  37. Vince says:

    By the way… expect more commentary with the NY Times article that came out today.

  38. Garry says:

    Are you still continuing with this mini-research? I would be interested to see what happens next summer since a huge confounding variable in the data presented is change in season. Who wants to concentrate on work when the weather is nice?

  39. Luke says:

    Is it possable that like stimulents used to treat ADD coffee helps those with short attention spans concertrate but does not have the same effect on those with longer attention spans? For that matter do adderall and riddelen really work like that or is it a popular myth?

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  52. John Campbell says:

    Hi Robin, would love to hear how things have gone for you – have you stayed off coffee, and how has it felt, and how has it affected your productivity and creativity? Very best, and thanks for the great study above on ‘no loss of productivity’ which I still use with people.

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  54. Shannon says:

    I must have ADHD; I find my coffee (caffeine) keeps me more focused and productivity up. When I have given up coffee, soda, near deadly doses of dark chocolate, even well past the time frame for addiction I don’t sleep well, I’m irritable; I jump from subject to subject in conversation never completely saying anything, etc. Now that I have learned to consume “The Black Cup”, I can have the best of both worlds a fit healthy body and caffeine. I went off the hard stuff for two years when I was attempting to become a natural body builder and it messed me up bad, I almost lost my job due to poor productivity…I’ve never before nor since been labeled poorly productive. Looks like all of you have given me something to quantify for myself. Hhmmm?

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  57. dan says:

    i love the social aspect of coffee. for over 25 years i have been going out to coffee houses etc to socialize, do work, focus on stuff i love to learn,read, surf the web etc.. so for me, coffee is embedded in all types of positive learning and social experiences irregardless of its actual effects.

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  59. Lee says:

    I sure enjoy coffee, and have followed the debate (good for you vs. bad for you) for a long time. For now at least, I’m going to stay with moderate consumption on the theory that if I give up everything I enjoy I’ll be the personification of the old saying, “he died when he was 50, but we didn’t bury him ’til he was 80.” ;-)

    For those that may be interested, the website Bulletproof Exec, aside from being a very interesting website, has some interesting thoughts on coffee. I am not associated with that website in any way.

  60. Alex Cooper says:

    Hey, nice data. I was just googling around after doing a similar n=1 experiment on myself, but instead on sleep and coffee, and looking for inspiration for the next experiment. Pity I didn’t read this a few weeks before I got the results and decided to quit.

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  62. Alexis says:

    I also stopped drinking coffee more than a year ago and have noticed that my mood is a lot better.

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