Spurning the "false god of coffee"

Robin Barooah gradually weaned himself off coffee and found that his concentration actually improved. He explains how he did it and what he discovered on the Quantified Self blog, which covers news about self-testing and self-monitoring.
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.

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."

The false god of coffee


  1. Interesting. I’ve never really felt that coffee is helping me concentrate. More so, it’s blowing out the cobwebs first thing in the AM. I admit I don’t really love my unwillingness to go without coffee, especially as one who practices strict abstinence from alcohol and (other) drugs. Kudos to you folks who can stick with a self-monitoring system, though. I’m sure I’d get distracted while trying to track my level of distraction.

  2. I love the irony of him using a coffee timer to track his work habits.

    It’s delicious, just like a warm, steaming cup of coffee. mmm…coffee…

  3. I don’t have grounds to disbelieve this post, but I’ll filter the information and try to come to a meaningful conclusion. I tried to quit, but after a few hours I felt as if I’d been mugged, just felt illy, as the kids say. If pressed, I suppose I could do it, but I’d rather quit eggs, and measure my progress with the appropriate device. Not to be too much of a drip, I just don’t get the point.

  4. No way. This is an obvious example of a self fullfilling prophecy and subjectI’ve measurement. I don’t trust the presented data at all.

  5. I agree with VoiceUXGuy about the cobwebs, but I’ll add that coffee is a source of enthusiasm or motivational energy, and not something that directly improves focus/concentration. Then again, I suppose the neurological effect of caffeine is slightly to wildly different across the human race, as it is for most drugs.

    Do people just like the idea of quitting a habit, no matter what it is? Curious, is all.

  6. Well, if I ever need to turn my brain off and concentrate on menial labor, I will definitely think about quitting coffee.

  7. The question isn’t one of “does coffee affect concentration,” but rather, “does coffee make me a better human being?” I think the answer to the latter question is a resounding “yes.”

  8. Oh, how people get so conflicted over their coffee! Bragging about how much they drink, or how little they drink, or how they’re weaning themselves off it like it’s mother’s milk.

    I know my own coffee consumption dropped off when I began roasting green beans probably because I stopped regarding at it as a caffeine tool and began looking at it as a complex and varied food. I no more want to drink five cups of coffee a day than I want to eat five sandwiches a day.

  9. I listened to a discussion about caffeine on an SGU podcast episode a while back. Basically, caffeine blocks some receptor that is responsible for keeping you calm. So when you drink caffeine, you get a boost of energy because that receptor is not able to function properly.

    If you drink more caffeine, your body will compensate by creating more of those “calm” receptors. The tolerance can kick in in as little as a few days. Pretty soon, you have so many more calm receptors that you have to keep drinking caffeine just to go back to where you were originally.

  10. Just as soon as another deity matches the track record of Coffee, I will consider apostasy.

    But until then I will continue to worship my Brown Goddess.

    — MrJM

  11. Thanks, but I can do a fairly decent job monitoring my emotional vs chemical states, so I will continue to adjust my chemical state as I see fit.

  12. I call shenanigans. Coffee deprivation has been performed on a grand scale in the state of Utah with zero improvement in concentration or mental ability in general. Quite the opposite it seems. Of course the experiment there is somewhat spoiled because of complicating factors such as the population also suffering from alcohol removal anxiety.

  13. I’m convinced that the “cobwebs” that so many people feel need to be blown out with coffee in the morning is actually just withdrawl — that’s why caffeine is so effective at clearing them up. Switch to decaf (and cut out the Mountain Dew), and you’ll notice after giving your body a month to adjust that you never really needed the caffeine in the first place.

  14. I gave up caffeine (for the most part) several years ago. I don’t know if it improved my concentration, but it definitely helped in other aspects. I no longer have trouble sleeping at night and I can make it through the day without needing a “pick me up”. I still drink coffee, it’s just decaf.

    Now I only drink a soda or regular coffee when I really need to stay awake, like driving late at night.

  15. This is absolutely in line with my experience.

    This from a former coffee addict of the 4-8 cups-a-day variety. After I quit (…and after three days of hellish withdrawal) I felt more awake, all day, than I had in years, and have continued to feel so. I am a dramatically more productive person since quitting.

    There’s also the added bonus of a built-back-up-to-scratch caffeine tolerance, making the occasional emergency stay-up-late cuppa’ a far more effective stimulant.

  16. That’s an experiment without a control.. he knew he was off the coffee.. (and is obviously a bit biased based on his title..)

  17. That’s all well and good but I need to occasionally get up from my desk, otherwise I’ll slowly merge into it. Plus, coffee tastes good, especially at the little cafe down the street run by an Italian woman and her husband. They also bake their own cakes and muffins.

  18. Coffee tastes good, and a caffeine buzz feels nice.

    Screw anti-drug types. I pick my drugs because I like them. They’re tasty, and I feel good after taking them.

  19. the amount of time I spend concentrating has not deteriorated since I quit alcohol, so I can easily reject the hypothesis “I need alcohol to help me concentrate.”

    To be clear – I changed one drug in for another there.

    If you ever believed you needed coffee/alcohol/sex/etc…, then you had a problem with coffee/alcohol/sex/etc…


    If you now need to spread the gospel, then you probably still do have a problem with it.

  20. I. uh. Just started cutting down on my coffee this morning. (before I had read this article)
    Down from about 5 during the day to just one in the morning as a ‘I must be able to see in order to work’ kick.
    So, boingboing; I’ve also been trying to repair my knee through diet and exercise; something about the bodies regenerative abilities sure would strike a chord. ;)

    n e way. Google ‘Spiders on drugs’. As part of a question, Stephen Fry and the QI team showed a comparison of two pictures taken of webs built by spiders on different drugs; caffeine and LSD.

    One web had way more spirals and the other looked like it had been spun by Charlotte after a night on the blue-bottles. Guess which was caffeine.

  21. I gave up caffeine 6 months ago because I was having trouble sleeping. After a couple of months of being ‘clean’ I noticed another extremely positive side effect. I had suffered from anxiety that negatively affected my everyday life, and it was now almost completely cleared up.

    After this I did some digging (google) and discovered that some non-trivial percentage of the population are sensitive to caffeine and it is known to cause excess anxiety in these cases. The funny thing is it never really felt like it was affecting me any different, I only noticed the negative after being off of it for 2 months.

  22. Whether you think you’re dependent on coffee or not, whether you like it or not, please consider the social impact of the product you consume every day.

    The coffee trade is one of the more destructive industries that we support daily. Coffee farming contributes to massive tropical deforestation, and first-world coffee demand puts huge pressure on small farmers in Latin America to shift their production away from producing food crops needed locally and towards exclusive dependence on foreign coffee importation, which makes Latin American and economies very fragile and prone to poverty-ridden collapse.

    Shade-grown coffee is grown without contributing to deforestation. Fair trade coffee ensures that the local producers are given a fair share of the profits, and can therefore invest in local economic development.

    I dunno about y’all, but I concentrate a lot better when I don’t have to worry about the misery and destruction my beverage choices are sowing around the world :)

  23. Oh jeez. Great effort on his part, but really these results show absolutely nothing considering he was the only one in the study, and he was the one recording and taking care of the data. He obviously had a hypothesis going into this, and he subconsciously did not want to be proven wrong. Self fulfilling prophecy shit.

    The study was conducted like an elementary school science fair project, and for some reason reminds me of people self diagnosing themselves with cancer or something. You’ll always believe what you want to believe I guess.

  24. Actually it pushes dopamine and I’ve never heard of it blocking any neurotransmitters. The dopamine “theory” accounts for a lot of coffee behaviour–love of novelty, sleep issues.

    1. No it doesn’t “push dopamine”, it blocks adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine produces a drowsy effect. Thus, it keeps the drowsy at bay. If its main work was through dopamine I suspect caffeine would be more highly addictive than it currently is.

      Wikipedia is your friend and will tell you all you probably want to know about adenosine and the action of caffeine on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adenosine

  25. Nothing like having a calm, easy-going morning shot to hell by a coffee-drinking, eye-bulging, lip-flapping, hand-flailing goof with a false sense of urgency attempting to multi-task while getting nothing done right.

  26. Just finished reading the article and it doesn’t really say how much he was drinking before he stopped. Which means its entirely possible he was drinking too much and quitting has improved his concentration. As to all the comments to the effect that he must be wrong because “I drink coffee and I’m just fine”, I could add that he drinks coffee and he’s just fine, now. As with any drug; dose, frequency, substance interaction, genetics, these things all play a role and aren’t well quantified in his experiment. But he did it, its working for him, so I say more power to him.

  27. In clinical psychology practice we make use of self-monitoring schedules for two main reasons: 1) to gain understanding of the frequency and related social/emotional impact of a behaviour; 2) the act of monitoring behaviour often works as a therapeutic intervention as once the person is aware of their behaviour they tend to moderate it in the desired direction, which if often visible as changes on their monitoring form.

  28. With a ‘methodology’ this flawed and subjective I’m not even sure why you’d attempt to measure and graph this data, other than out of some sort of graphing fetish. Maybe the pointless and probably misleading graph can be the next ‘False God’ we try to tackle?

  29. Robin may concentrate better on coffee, However I assume he came up with the IDEA for this project while he was on the sweet black juice. Although his concentration goes down perhaps his productivity goes up, in the form of useful ideas. His concentration goes down simply because he’s too smart to be bothered with menial tasks.

    I admit, coffee never helped me concentrate, I drink it for the motivation it brings.


    Caffeine is a vital part of my daily regimen. Unfortunately, I take so many damned medications that make me incredibly sleepy, caffeine is Absolutely Necessary for me to remain even vaguely awake.

  31. So adenosine inhibits which neurotransmitter? Could it be dopamine? Do you think there’s a reason my psychiatrist gave me amphetamines to perk me up when I told him that coffee makes me feel really good? He’s been doing his job for abut 40 years…

    1. According to apoxia’s link caffeine, by virtue of it’s similarity, blocks adenosine. I don’t know how that effects dopamine but this link suggests that dopamine increases without describing the causal relationship. Action in the central nervous system.

      In this article, released today, false memories were created with a fly by pointing a laser at adenosine artificially implanted in its brain and thus releasing it in the fly’s brain. This constituted a “negative” experience, the creation of an adenosine receptor, and dopamine would be released whenever that receptor was activated by future adenosine molecules (or presumably caffeine molecules), as a means of communicating this triggering of the negative experience. So in short the neuron is a function that takes adenosine as input and releases dopamine as output.
      UK Scientists Use Laser To Give False Memories to Flies

      1. Rereading the links, the suggesting of Wikipedia (the first link) is that the lack of adenosine (not the caffeine triggering the adenosine receptor) causes increased dopamine. The implication of the article from the singularity blog (the second link) suggests that dopamine is caused by the triggering of the adenosine receptor.

        So which author is correct? I don’t know.

  32. Kudos to you! I tried to quit the coffee and substitute with tea but massive headaches provoked me to discontinue that rationale after two days. Two days! How pathetic!

    miriam n.

  33. I’m nearly jealous of the magic tales I hear about coffee and caffeine…. I’ve never had any effect positive or negative. Quad shots….. Jolt…. Caffeine pills… Nothing. Coffee tastes good but it could be water for all my body cares.

  34. Shun the unbeliever! Shunnnnn!

    Honestly, I drink coffee because I like coffee, and sometimes I feel more alert when I’m dragging around and then have a cup or two.

    I think the real False God here is the graphing of one’s hours of concentration.

    “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.”

    Yeesh. If it keeps you off the streets, and from being my project manager, go for it, I say.

  35. Y’know, there’s always tea…gives some caffeine, some fluoride, some nice soothing theanine…
    Must help productivity– the British built an empire while chugging the stuff.

  36. Pretty much all of the research I’ve encountered shows that caffeine increases concentration, intelligence, recall and alertness, among other things, but only in the right doses and only in people without a high tolerance and obviously with exceptions. Just search something like “caffeine intelligence” or “caffeine concentration” and you’ll find a bounty of scientific studies proving increased performance in the aforementioned categories following ingestion of small to moderate doses of caffeine (20-60mg, maybe). Considering Americans are use to Starbucks and the like, it’s no surprise to me that some people such as the author experience negative effects from daily overdose. It’s still not right to assume the caffeine is to blame, and not the dose, which comes to something like 350 mg from a Starbucks “Grande”.

    Perhaps this is one of the reasons you hear the same tired gospel from every other tea drinker about how much their life changed when they switched from coffee to tea. It could be the life-affirming antioxidants, but it’s probably just the lower caffeine content.

  37. What an interesting article. He’s been drinking coffee since the age of 10. Ten. He also tapered off in 20 ml increments. I think that this is sort of an edge case.

  38. Never got coffee. Taking a stimulant daily for long periods is called an addiction, it serves no benefit.

    I don’t mind if you do, just don’t lie to yourself about it.

    1. japroach, stimulants are used legally to great benefit for millions of people daily. Caffeine is one of the safest available, but it is one of many. It’s also not physically addictive. It is to a degree or another psychologically addictive to most of its users, but seeing that it’s actually heatlhy in the right doses, why does it matter that it’s addictive?

      1. Not physically addictive? You get a headache that go away immediately when you have some more caffeine. This is due to the physical effects caffeine has on you.

        I’ll give you that it isn’t highly addictive, it’s relatively easy to give the stuff up because the withdrawal symptoms ease up fairly quickly.

        1. Staring at bright lights has physical side effects. Does that make staring at bright lights addictive?

          Just because something effects the body physically does not mean it’s physically addictive. Perhaps you don’t understand addiction; regardless, check the science with a quick internet search and you’ll see that it’s psychologically but not physically addictive.

  39. I quit drinking coffee outright when I noticed everyone at work FREAKING OUT by noon. It went steadily downhill til 5. There’s something to be said for the contrast between sweating and stressing out and calmly approaching a problem without the jitters.

  40. Well somebody has to say it so I will. Drinking coffee on a frequent and regular basis causes your breath to smell like the grave. It is for this reason that I drink tea. Also it tastes better. There is nothing you can say that will ever cause me to change my mind on the subject. Another point in tea’s favor is that if you’re a cheap bastard you can reuse your tea leafs. Try that with coffee grounds if you dare drink the bitter hell brew that will result. Nonetheless I will say that the smell of coffee brewing is one of the wonderfull smells. And when all else fails coffee gets you going.

  41. false god? Try reading the Bible…

    “…for love is of Coffee; and every one that loveth is born of Coffee, and knoweth Coffee. He that loveth not knoweth not Coffee; for Coffee is love.”

  42. I quit caffeine for a year, just to see if I could. At first, there were *awful* headaches. After that, no real difference. The big difference came when I started drinking it again: one cup of machine-regurgitated instant dross had a massive and magical effect on me, and would make me able to work long into the night before deadlines.

    But now I’m back to drinking it regularly, and it no longer has this effect.

  43. Thanks for noticing this experiment. One thing that is always interesting to see when one of the posts on our QS blog gets linked: a few people seem to find these sorts of experiments worthless, since they are not conducted like a double blind clinical trial. Notice, though, that Robin was not trying to disprove that coffee aids concentration generally. He was attempting to check an intuition that he himself had been concentrating better when he was drinking coffee. He went back in time to check his concentration, and found that his intuition was false. Perhaps this is obvious to most, but the modesty of his hypothesis seems worth pointing out in light of a few of the comments.

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