The Law of Diminishing Returns – anyone who stayed up in Economics 101 learned about it, and anyone able to fog a mirror can recount supporting examples from personal experience. It follows the intuition that many things decline in potency as they are introduced to a system repeatedly. Diminishing returns can be seen across the board in nature and in human creation. A loan can help a business grow, but too much debt can weigh it down. Kids become spoiled when they are given too much, and stop appreciating gifts. Water beyond a threshold amount won’t help vegetation grow. It’s always fascinated me that lottery winners and accident victims can return to a baseline state of happiness after a period of months – essentially no better or worse off than before by this measure (see the famous paper by Brickman, Coates, and Bulman). Humans habituate, and that can feel like a blessing or a curse depending on the issue at hand. Our relationship with caffeine is no different.
When it came to my morning cup of coffee, the thrill was gone and I began to notice. There’s a wonderful shop down the street that I frequent with my girlfriend. We like the taste of the coffee, and it’s become a sort of morning ritual that we share. While we still rave about the taste, my magic cup of Joe was not doing much to wake me up in the morning. However, its absence would lead to ongoing tiredness and irritability throughout the day. Without my knowing, consuming coffee had transformed from an added benefit (a feeling of sharpness and clarity), to a preventative measure (warding off the fatigue that came without my fix). The FDA estimates that eighty percent of adults consume caffeine daily, with an average quantity equating to about two cups of coffee a day. I venture to guess that distribution skews toward higher intake, and that most Americans have adjusted to “depend” on caffeine for performance in their jobs and lives.
While I am not a huge fan of binge/purge habits, I wanted to see what more than 48 hours without caffeine felt like. With no intention of kicking my habit, I decided to try a ten day break. This was not a scientific undertaking by any means; I wrote some of my observations down, and the result is anecdotal if nothing else. However, I perceived a pretty large change in that period, even though I was rarely having more than two cups of the brown stuff on a given day.
Additionally, I’ll preface the account by saying that my diet stayed relatively constant over this time, and I consciously tried not to substitute my cravings with something else. I consumed carbohydrates, but had no sugary foods during this period, something I began undertaking before this experience. I was sleeping regularly up to this time, and went to bed at 10pm, plus or minus an hour each night. I was also abstinent over this duration as well. All in all, the experience was eye opening, enough so to spur a change in my view of coffees, teas, sodas, and the like. To me, these are now tagged as treats, dietary supplements, and dry powder to be used circumstantially. Before I saw coffee as a staple, and it was something that I did not take stock of. Here’s my ten day account, and an explanation of what changed my thinking.
The first day without coffee/caffeine was honestly no big deal. I’d have preferred a cup to no cup, but only because it had become second nature to fuel up in the morning. I was resisting an ingrained habit, and felt no physical difference on any conscious level. Work went fine, and I didn’t feel like I was at any sort of deficit. On the commute home, I did begin to feel a bit more tired than usual, but obviously this could be attributable to 79 other things going on. Ten days was going to be no problem at this rate. I fell asleep normally and only awoke once that I remember. That’s not out of the ordinary for me.
One down, nine to go. I got up from bed, but the process was a bit more of a labor than usual. Still, nothing where I’d point my finger to the heavens and say “LOOK WHAT’S HAPPENING!”. I’ve acquired a taste for the morning, but have always been inclined to stay up three hours later, rather than to wake three hours early. There were still no physical manifestations to my knowledge, aside from a morning fogginess. I got on the road, thinking about what type of fires would need to be fought at work. Things were surprisingly smooth that day, and it wasn’t until the afternoon that the infamous “caffeine withdrawal” began to set in. I noticed a mild headache about two hours after lunch. Who knows, maybe this was all in my head – us humans can engineer placebo recoveries, and I was expecting to have a headache a day or two in. For the remainder of the day, I carried on normally, and it wasn’t anymore than a mild nuisance. I did not eat a large dinner, as my appetite was not roaring. After relaxing for a couple of hours, I went to bed. I did get sleep, but I was up multiple times, tossing and turning. The sleep quality was not great.
Day three is when I honestly experienced the biggest transition. I woke up with a hangover-like headache. This one didn’t seem like it could be excused as figment of my imagination. I was again slow to get out of bed and foggy for most of the morning. The commute and early portion of my day was marked by low motivation. Instead of listening to music or a podcast, I drove in silence. I was craving junk food more than a tea or soda, and remember thinking, “I’ll just make a quick trip to 7Eleven and get a small bag of combos… that’s all”.
On a side note, I’m convinced that the stuff they fill those combos with is the same agent that townships use to fill potholes in their roads after a long winter – which somehow serves as no deterrent in my mental fantasies.
I was able to rally in the afternoon and get all my work done for the day, but there was no sort of “boost”. Any work that I did felt more like a grind done strictly by exercise of willpower. I’m obviously not comparing this to any sort of real tribulation – only underscoring the difference between one day and the next. I again went to bed but had trouble falling asleep. The headache persisted, but I eventually conked out at some un-Godly hour.
The morning haze was definitely becoming my new normal, punctuated by the headache. Day four was very similar to day three, where I was very slow in the early hours, but able to rally for the afternoon. The headache was at least as bad as the prior day’s. I really began to look forward to meals at this point. I also started looking actively into my habit of consuming caffeine. Our office has free coffee and tea, and I was able to get by on a warm cup of mint tea, which had absolutely zero caffeine. While I tried not to substitute one thing for another, this warm drink in a paper coffee cup was actually of some coping value, helping me to remember that psychological and physical dependence commingle.
I had a bit more of an appetite, and exercise actually felt like an escape rather than a chore. I love the results of staying fit and being outdoors, but can’t always say that I remain gung ho about getting my runs in. Even though I didn’t feel euphoric from it, I did notice a greater desire to exercise from this day on. It was a third night of restless sleep, but I was definitely more tired which helped me to drift off.
I was approaching the mid point, and had a third day of headaches. I was used to the fogginess at this point, but my expectations seemed to shift, and I was able to move beyond the cloudiness. It wasn’t much of an improvement, but I somehow felt better equipped to deal with it, and it was easier to accept that I simply wasn’t going to relieve this by consuming caffeine. It was very much a pressure ache in my head, which I found out afterwards is due to the influence caffeine has on one’s blood vessels in their brain. Caffeine causes these vessels to constrict, and without it, more blood rushes into these annexes and can actually cause a sensation of pressure.
I was more productive this morning, but by no means felt like I was on fire. This was still very much a grind. The remainder of the day could be summed up by flatness. I was not much in the mood to do anything. However, I did manage to get better sleep that night, only waking once to my knowledge. One thing that arose as a stable observation by this point was that my evenings felt more calm and stable. My day was not punctuated by a quick jolt to start that lasted into the afternoon. I did begin to feel like I was naturally getting tired as the day grew late, rather than going to bed by circumstance in order to fall asleep at a certain time. I still had less energy throughout the day, but there was less of an afternoon crash – more of a smooth arc.
Half way down. By day six, I was much more accepting of the groggy mornings, though they were not marked by any climb in sharpness. The headache began to subside, and I was not craving caffeine as consistently. My mood was also improved to some degree, which I was grateful for. This may have been due in part to the weekend arriving – there was room to break up the routine a bit. I do believe that we can will ourselves to do great things, but diet and other influences can prime us for certain outcomes. I began to appreciate what caffeine had done to my baseline, and how much of a deficit I fell to in its absence, Re: Diminishing Returns. I did not feel a great deal of energy with my daily cup, it only felt normal. But sans coffee, there was certainly a price to pay. I was more comfortable in my own skin in the evening, and it felt like I was reaching a new plateau. Sleep was also becoming easier. I wasn’t just tired, I was actually falling asleep.
Seven was similar to six. My headache was all but gone by now, and I’d say that I perceived myself to be about 20% sharper in the mornings than at my low point. I was still waking up early on the weekends naturally, but as usual didn’t exactly spring from bed. I had a great Sunday relaxing at home and catching up on some chores. I also made myself a rib eye steak, which was a nice treat. The caffeine thing was becoming more of an afterthought. I had a decent night’s sleep, but woke up a few times. One thing that I also noticed was that my mouth wasn’t aching in the morning. I had been clenching my jaw in my sleep (according to my girlfriend), but this seemed to be mitigated for the duration of the ten days).
Day eight was yet another improvement to day seven, especially in the department of cravings. I really felt like I could continue telling my inner voice “no” to caffeine for an indefinite period. This is compared to a week before, when the cravings were much more to the front of my mind. I had the day off again, and enjoyed a great run and some more relaxation. My day was much smoother, and I was feeling very settled in the evening. I had great rest that night – slept like a baby. Who knows if that was due to caffeine or any number of other things.
It was getting down to the wire, and I wondered whether I would try for a longer period, like a month without caffeine. I will say that I did still have fond thoughts of a warm brew in the morning, especially on a Tuesday morning after a long weekend. My girlfriend asked me if I’d join her on Wednesday to get coffee with one of her students, so I decided that I’d end the streak there. I will say that I was still not sharp with energy in the morning, however, I felt like I could will myself into focus by this point, and was accomplishing much more in my early hours. I was looking forward to my meals and runs at this point. Still, it wasn’t like I had entered some laser focused state. I still got tired, would space out occasionally, and have the normal mood swings. The key difference, and again this is anecdotal, is that I felt similarly now to how I had right before I started drinking coffee. No headaches, fewer cravings, similarly productive. The only difference was that I did not have that discreet jolt in the morning, and it took a little longer to get amped for the day. Still, I was appreciating that a new baseline was forming, and I wasn’t depending on a supplement like caffeine for it. The day closed out normally, and I enjoyed another good night of sleep.
This was the last day, and I honestly felt similar to days eight and nine. I was looking forward to that coffee which was now only a day away, but that want was more of a detached observation, than an emotional longing. It was now about three days since I began to feel like I could keep telling myself no to caffeine without too much trouble (who knows, maybe this was no different than a smoker saying they could quit anytime they want, but they don’t care to right now). I still felt only about 20% sharper in the early morning than my first few days without caffeine, but aside from that, I measured the experience to be positive. It no longer seemed to have much of an influence on my work, ability to have fun, or appetite. I wrapped up a pretty stressful day at work and wound down for the evening by watching a show on Netflix. I again got about eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, which I’ll take eight days a week.
Day 11 – The Surprise
My ten days with no caffeine were a slow transition. They often say that cold turkey is not the preferred way to kick a habit, but I believe that the lower energy and focus was an inevitability whether I staggered it or dove in. Day eleven put things into perspective for me. I saw how much I had habituated to caffeine consumption, and how our bodies and minds enter new default states very subtly.
When I got to the counter on Wednesday morning and ordered my cup, it didn’t even feel like ten days had passed since my last visit. I got a small cup of the usual roast and topped it off with some half & half. After that, the three of us parted ways, and I got on the road.
I didn’t even finish my small coffee – in fact, I only drank about half. Still, the sensation was downright crazy. I don’t know if that drink was laced with something, but I felt AMPED on that ride in. I was blasting music in the car and felt distinctly euphoric. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, and I know it’s “only caffeine”, but I honestly wanted to stop the car at multiple points and just sprint. It was weird how much energy I felt on that ride in. All of the sudden, business ideas that I had dismissed in my mind returned fully redeemed, and I was excited about them. I also looked at my recently listened to songs in my phone, and just about all of them seemed like great next picks. I’ll contrast that with the weeks before, when I had fallen into a rut musically, and I struggled to find anything that still felt fresh or enjoyable. I texted my girlfriend, saying, “I feel like I’m high on meth and my hands are practically shaking. I kid you not when I say I think I could run up a mountain.” Whether in my head or not, that was a truly memorable morning, and I still think about it.
In closing, this was not strictly about caffeine to me, and had more to do with the many excesses in my life that have led to warped expectations. Other things in excess like carbohydrate consumption, debt, masturbation, and internet usage can leave us vulnerable to large downsides. When over-consumption becomes our equilibrium, we need to continue upping the ante to feel the same as before, however, our bodies and minds are adept at readjusting, and most things seem to naturally lose their potency on us over time without moderation. Coffee was just one of these taken-for-granted habits in my life. I don’t think that caffeine is bad wholesale, but there’s plenty of literature indicating its vast over-consumption in our society. With a plethora of ways to ingest caffeine, be it via energy drinks, sodas, teas, or powder form, it appears to be used as a panacea, rather than a strategic resource.
So much of life is relative, and I believe that the efficacy of that small coffee after a break period was far more beneficial to me than two cups of coffee in a continued streak, where I felt little to no positive effect. From now on, I’ll be viewing caffeine as a treat, and will be saving it for more special occasions. At the same time, I don’t have some doomed-to-fail ambitious scheme where I’ll only have eight ounces of coffee per 96 hours without exception. Regardless, I look forward to moderating other habits, so they can truly be savored, rather than depended upon for my happiness. The ascetics are onto something.
One last note. It’s my belief that people fall prey to the narrative fallacy, where we take messy data, or a chaotic series of events, recount the events in our brain as a nicely wrapped story. For instance, it’s convenient for me to write about a ten date break from caffeine, and for it to suck in the beginning, become easier throughout the period, and concluding with some amazing revelation. I don’t put myself above anyone else in creating these narratives (which we have evolved to learn and communicate through), so take my representation of the past with a grain of salt. My written accounts throughout the days may have relieved some of this, but there were certainly highs and lows over those ten days, and plenty of details omitted. With that said, I still feel that the differences that I noticed were stark enough to share, and convince me of some validity to this whole ordeal. Ten days is completely arbitrary, and who knows how I would have felt after twenty-fifty-one hundred. However, I experienced a transition, and felt a tapering off of its effect. In my view, the Law of Diminishing Returns struck again.