How to live

Life Without Coffee

For many people, and I include myself until around six weeks ago, a life without coffee sounds terrible. However, I’ve recently given up coffee, and after a turbulent first week, I’ve never felt better.

Before we focus on the benefits of giving up coffee, it’s definitely worth mentioning just how difficult it is to give up. I essentially had a passion for coffee, and I would drink at least one or two at each meeting I had during the week, and at least two each morning, and maybe one mid morning, and one after lunch, and one after dinner.

Clearly this was excessive, but then I felt like I needed it.

It’s worth pointing out that around 80% of the world drinks (read: is addicted to) coffee. So there are plenty of people who, like me, drink far too much coffee.

Why Do We Drink Coffee?

If you ask most ardent coffee drinkers why they drink, you might receive a whole host of replies, but many of them will focus on pleasure, and the enhanced ability to stay focussed.

Let’s make no mistake about it, coffee drinking is pleasurable, but supposedly so is shooting up heroin, but that’s not a good enough reason to do it.

There are lots of supposed benefits to drinking coffee, and the question we ultimately have to raise with ourselves is whether the benefits of coffee consumption outweighs both the negative side effects, as well as the benefits of not drinking coffee.

Like almost every choice in life, it’s not black and white, and you gain something and lose something regardless of the choice you make.

However, it is worth taking the time to investigate the underlining reasons why we drink coffee, and to see if we can fulfil these desires without being required to consume coffee.

The issue I personally have with having some desires fulfilled by taking a drug is that we run the risk of Hedonic Adaptation both on a physiological level and psychological level.

While some people can control their coffee drinking habit, many cannot. If you are in the latter camp, you will strive to have more and more coffee the longer your habit continues, and this is both because your body craves caffeine, and because you feel that if you don’t have a coffee that there is something missing from your life and that you are depriving yourself.

I’ve asked several people why they drink coffee, as well as examining myself. The main conclusions I’ve drawn are:

  • **People use coffee to wake up, and to stay awake. ** In a world where we put ourselves under immense pressure to perform, it feels like anything that helps us to focus and work better is worth taking, as long it does adversely affect our health or performance. One the issues I will bring up later is that we often don’t realise just how much coffee is negatively affecting our life, because it’s such a ingrained part of our daily habits, and we end up attributing the negative effects – such as increased irritability – to other factors. Another example, clear to me now in my post-coffee life, is the need of a stimulant to awake fully each morning. The fact is that excessive coffee disturbs our sleep, which ironically means we need to consume coffee in the morning to be able to wake up.
  • We like to drink coffee because it’s pleasurable, and because it has certain social connotations. I still say to people, “let’s catch up for a coffee” or “let’s go for a coffee” even though I don’t drink coffee. However, I still want to experience the other parts of the life that surround the habit of having coffee. Going to a nice coffee shop to read a book, writing while drinking a cup of something, meeting a friend or business partner outside of the office environment, and so on. Additionally, many variations on the typical black coffee can be very pleasurable to our palette, and food and drink is one of things that can bring the most enjoyment to our lives.
  • We don’t like the negative consequences of not drinking coffee. Give any self-respecting coffee drinker a 24 hour period without coffee, and they will generally suffer serious side effects, which is something we will discuss later. Just as people like to have pleasure, they also like to avoid pain or negative feelings, and taking the drug away from the drug user brings lots of “pain”.

The Difficulty of Giving Up Coffee

I had tried on and off for over two years to give up coffee, and in the end, the only method that worked for me was going completely cold-turkey and giving it up 100% all in one go.

I suffered a whole bunch of symptoms, which made me realise just how addicted I really was. If you can’t give something up in life without adverse effects, it’s probably time to give that something up right away.

The top caffeine withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Headaches
  • Sleepiness
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Constapation
  • Depression (!)
  • Muscle Pain
  • Lack of Concentration
  • Flu-like Symptoms (!)
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Brain Fog
  • Heart Rhythm Abnormalities
  • Weight Gain

If this list sounds scary to you, that’s because it is.

I had several of these symptoms, and I found that I could barely work for around a week due to the lack of concentration, and I also found myself falling asleep in the late afternoon or early evening.

I did a self examination and I discovered that I was most probably suffering from a long-term lack of sleep, and now that I didn’t have my drug of choice to power me through the day, I could fall asleep at any time. I’ve now adjusted my sleep schedule so I fall asleep between 9pm and 11pm, instead of 11pm to 1am. I still wake up between 5am and 6am, as I am an early morning person.

While I might not be making the best case for giving up coffee – after all, who wants to deal with all the above? – there are so many benefits to doing so that they actually outweigh all the negative effects you may experience while trying to give up.

The Bright Side of Kicking your Coffee Drinking Habit.

So now is as good a time as any to review some of the benefits of giving up coffee. I’m going to be somewhat lazy and just list them out, and then discuss a few of the points I think are key.

  • Break the addiction
  • Financial Savings
  • Lower Blood Pressure
  • Better sleep
  • Better Mood
  • Decreased Anxiety
  • Fewer Headaches
  • Convenience
  • Fewer trips to the bathroom
  • Healthier teeth
  • Weight Loss
  • Healthier Diet
  • Cleaner Environment
  • Caffeine will work better when you need it.
  • No more cases of the “jitters”
  • Less heart palpitations
  • Increased Productivity (less standing in line, etc)
  • A smooth energy curve.

Better Sleep

This has been a major one for me. I’ve been an early bird for the last five years or so, but it’s never been easy to consistently wake up early, because I always found it difficult to fall asleep at an early enough time to get enough sleep to then wake up between 5am and 6am, while still having a sane amount of sleep. I seem to function fine on between 7 and 8 hours of sleep, any more or any less and I wake up quite groggy.

The problem I was having is that because my addiction was quite serious – I had been drinking coffee for more than ten years – I couldn’t help but have coffee in the afternoon, and often after dinner as well.

This would mean that the earliest I could fall asleep was just after midnight, and I would get progressively more tired as the week went on, until I finally succumbed to exhaustion and either went to bed very early, or woke up very late.

Getting enough good quality sleep is linking to so many other things in life, including our general health and immune system strength, recovering from workouts, our willpower, and also the clarity of our thoughts.

Even taken singularly, these are all more than good enough reasons to ensure that we get enough sleep each night. In fact, I would go ahead and say that I didn’t really want to kick my coffee habit as such, I just wanted to get good quality sleep. Coffee was just the barrier to my goal.

My strategy when I was a coffee drinker was to time my coffees so that I drank them just before I had a particularly tough mental task, or whenever I felt that I was getting into an energy slump for the day, which usually happened at least once a day, normally after lunch.

The coffee would give me the kick I need to continue working and push through.

If I were to try and give my energy levels during the day a rating between 1 (low) and 10 (high), then just after I had a coffee I would be performing at a 9 or 10, but only for around 30 minutes or so, and then I would being the slide down to working at around a 3 or 4, but by that time I would have another coffee and bring my energy levels back up.

This is not a way to live.

Now I am working at a solid 8 consistently throughout the day, with the occasional variation due to the day in question. However my highs and lows are much closer together. I would estimate that I move between a six and a ten during any given day. If we were to plot these changes on a graph, my energy curve is far smoother nowadays that it was before when I was drinking coffee. Using the Pomodoro Technique also helps tremendously, because I can focus for 25 minutes (which is quite easy) and then I get a break.

So these are the two main benefits that I have received from leaving my coffee drinking habit. Note that it has only been six weeks, and so in the long term I may notice even more dramatic changes. This reminds me of an interesting quote, often attributed to Bill Gates:

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

How I Did It: Going Cold Turkey

There are a multitude of strategies for change. Many involve gradual change, which I often think are the strategies that have the highest chance of succeeding.

However, because I felt that I wouldn’t have the self control to slowly start cutting down on coffee, mostly because of the social situations I might find myself in during the day, I decided that the best way to go about it was going cold turkey.

This means completely giving up from the word go.

Not even one cup is allowed.

This obviously made the withdrawal symptoms more pronounced compared to if I had made a gradual change over a month or two. However, I did almost enjoy seeing how my body was reacting to the lack of coffee.

Both the Buddhist and Stoic philosophies advise us to look at things for exactly what they are. So the latest consumer gadget is just clumps of metal, glass, silicon, and some wiring. That beautiful woman you can take your eyes off is just flesh, blood, bones, excrement, and a brain.

By taking things apart in this way, it can help us understand how strange and irrelevant our desires are, and that’s how I came to think of coffee as simply “brown water”, and it felt very strange that my body was craving it so much.

In fact, the very fact that I was having many of the above mentioned withdrawal symptoms was both alarming and reassuring at the same time.

It was alarming because it made me realise the full extend to my addiction, and it was reassuring because it validated my idea and desire to combat against my addiction.

This is an interesting way to look at things and it definitely helped me during my tough week.

Give it a shot.

So giving up coffee is definitely something you should try, especially if you drink a lot of it, just like I used to. Worst case, you can always go back to drinking coffee. Best case, it might just change your life for the better.

I will drink it again one day, but as a conscious treat, rather than a daily habit. What we do on a daily basis is so important because we are shaped by our habits far more than one-off events. With this in mind, we can understand that it’s fine to give ourselves the occasional luxury or indulgence, as long as we can safely fall back on our positive habits that we repeat day after day.

I also noticed that my appetite has increased. I also gave up breakfast at the same time, and that was a bad idea. When I last gave up breakfast, I leaned up quite a lot, but I was drinking lots of coffee in the morning because coffee helps with surpressing hunger, now I don’t have that crutch and I find it more difficult to wait 6 hours before I break my fast since the day before.

Overall, for me it’s been a great life change, and while there were challenging moments at times, it was actually far smoother than my previous attempts at giving up things.