The Coffee Experiment
mood & emotion
Robin Barooah weaned himself off coffee and found that his concentration actually improved. He explains how he did it and what he discovered, which covers news about self-testing and self-monitoring.
Notes | phone
So what I’m going to do is tell a story that I told before in QS meetups, and so some of you may be initially like, I’ve seen this before, but hopefully I’ll have a few new things to add because the story is a lot longer than the one I’ve told in the past; I’ll still keep it short.
So what you see on the slide before you is a way of making coffee. It is a way of making coffee and it is highly labor intensive, and some people think of it as the best way to make coffee. It’s called a Vac Pot and this is by way of illustration of the fact that I’ve been obsessed with coffee since I was about eight years old, and I tricked my Dutch – the person who looked after me when I come home from school but my parents weren’t home yet into giving me my first cup of coffee at that age because the small was so enticing to me.
And then I tricked my parents saying, I’ve had coffee at my sister’s house, you know and from that point forward I was clearly addicted, and it played a very very big role in my life. There was a point where I would make a mug of expresso and drink that in the morning. I spent month’s everyday going to Starbucks and asking for an eight shot Venti latte and I’m not kidding, and then having another press pot in the afternoon so I was very very caffeinated.
And I was okay with that, and I didn’t really pay much attention to it except that it was part of my life. When I was at college I would actually have a cup of coffee in bed before hitting the pillow and go to sleep.
So until about 2006/2007 when I went through probably the worst year of my life which involved being in a very very stressful situation – nothing to do with coffee itself, but just life events conspired to give me a very hard year. and I came out of it in a state where I wasn’t very functional, and so I started to examine many aspects of my life to see if any of them need to be change to support me in recovering and whether any of them were possibly causal in this.
So early on I decided to see what it was like to be me but without the coffee. So I continued to make coffee using this method. What I did was every day I would make a measured amount of coffee using exactly the same method, and every week I would reduce the amount of coffee I drank from the pot by 20 milliliters, so it was very very very gradual.
The reason I did that was that I tried to quit before and the psychological sense of needing to just drink coffee would catch me and I would be back drinking it before I even knew what happened. I thought a gradual tail off, I would be able to control the emotions and the thoughts in a slow and steady way and be able to get over them.
So it took about four months to get to where I would have a half shot glass of coffee and I would decide, okay, I’m done now this is ridiculous, and now I was done and I felt pretty good. I felt more relaxed. I felt softer in myself and you know it was all good.
About a month later I started to think, god I’m so unproductive, I really need a cup of coffee – no, seriously it was like I’m lethargic, my day isn’t going well, I’m just not getting any work done. You know I’ve got to change this.
Instead of drinking the coffee, what I realized is that I had been tracking my productivity, not on purpose. So this is a notebook, which you can see those little highlighted areas those are X marks, my sort of to do lists, my notes about the project I was working on and the X’s are periods of 25 minutes where I was able to concentrate on my work without interruption and without like losing focus., and so I was just recording those. So if I was ever interrupted I would just not record one.
So two marks in a day doesn’t seem like a lot, but it wasn’t all the work I was doing. This is just an indicator of how well I was concentrating, and there are productivity methods that people use that are similar to this. This sort of emerged from my own practice. But I realized I could tabulate this data and see how productive I’ve been.
So there you go and that’s what I tabulated and you can see that basically there’s a before and after. During that before period was part of the time I was tailing off, so I was gradually reducing the amount of coffee. But one thing that I instantly could see was that after I stopped drinking coffee my productivity did not fall apart, even though in my head I was convinced, absolutely certain that I needed coffee in order to be able to concentrate.
So it’s a complicated, noisy bit of data, and there are so many problems with scientific method and whether it’s controlled or whether it applies to anyone else which it probably doesn’t. I think each person will have their own experience, but for me this answered the question very very concretely is my belief that I need this in order to function correct or not.
So that’s where I ended when I first gave this talk in 2009 and at that time I was starting to do something else. I was beginning to track my meditation practice. Now that was also part of recovering from stress, and I was convinced that if I could meditate regularly it would help me recover, and I mean obviously there is a lot of evidence and a lot of this is a strongly held belief by many people that meditation is good for stress, and there’s lots of measurements that shows that it’s good for stress.
But I was having trouble keeping a practice going, so I use this iPhone app, it records your meditation and it records data to show what your practice looks like. And I thought of it as a motivational tool. You know, it’s quite common to provide feedback on your practice and you can see how well I’m doing and that’s motivating, and that’s why I started to do this.
So that is a chart of the first year essentially, so that’s from October 2009 to November 2010, so it’s just over a year. and what’s interesting there is you can see some big gaps where my practice fell apart and some big peaks. And the big peaks were, I’m going to be deciding I’m going to be the ironman of meditation, and I like joined a competition where people were trying to meditate 90 minutes a day and that’s what that massive peak is. And that actually destroyed my meditation practice. It was a terrible thing, you know don’t do it.
But then there’s a gap, and that gap wasn’t just that I couldn’t be bothered. That gap, infact all the go to zero gaps were actually quite serious depressions, and where you know I was talking to my friends. I know they were depressions from circumstantial information, other people being able to tell me, and the fact that these were very physiological kinds of depressions. It wasn’t just negative thoughts, it was I was just totally lethargic, I just can’t move. It’s not the belief that I’m lethargic. I’m just like going through each day with no energy at all. Feeling incredibly low, getting like low blood pressure kinds of symptoms, getting standing up and feeling dizzy, you know all of that kind of stuff.
And I was determined I wasn’t going to start drinking coffee again, because I’m the guy who quit drinking coffee. And so there was a kind of an ego thing, like I’ve got to keep doing this because what will people think. You know I had told everyone I had stopped drinking coffee.
But eventually I had started to see, and I think I was seeing it because of the situation that I was in and what I was thinking about. More and more reports about coffee is actually protective against depression, and so I started to see that in things I was reading. And it probably was always there and I just wasn’t noticing it because I didn’t care about it. But now I was depressed and I had stopped drinking coffee and suddenly this thing was relevant to me.
So that is almost a year following me deciding after one year, three months and eight days that it was time to start drinking coffee again, and during that year I did get depressed again but I didn’t become nonfunctional, right. so it wasn’t that the pattern of depression disappeared altogether, but the level, the depth of it and the interference in my day-to-day life just was much reduced. So these are on the same scale. They don’t look like they are but this is a continuous timeline. So if you take that second section and put it next to the one in your mind you can see there’s a change. Whatever interpretation you put on it there’s clearly a qualitative difference between these two timeline. So we can all have our own interpretation, but everyone can see that there’s a difference there.
And so then on October 23, 2011, my father died unexpectedly on the other side of the world. And for a few days I managed to keep my meditation practice going. I carried on drinking coffee but you can see in that blue section at the bottom, you know, there was a lot of factors. Not just the death in the morning. I had to go to the other side of the world, away from my support network in the US and deal with a lot of complicated stuff that I’m bad at. And you know I had this experience which was the exact opposite of what i really wanted to be doing in my life. And I was trying to meditate and I was trying to actually be functional, but I was in a very very deep depression for most of that time. You know I sought of fought it, but it’s there and you can see it in the data.
And then at about May you can see there’s a change. And the right hand side of the bottom section of that graph actually leads up to pretty much today. The last part of that data is about three days old. I mean I crunched it yesterday to produce the slide, so this is fully up to date. So something changed in about May.
Unfortunately it’s a very complicated story to tell what did change. So I’m not going to be able to go into it now. But there is a distinct difference in those two patterns. And that is feeding me as a human being in kind of understanding the story of my life.
So I think I’m done, thank you.