I’m sitting in my kitchen as I write this, 15 minutes after arriving home from the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. I’m suffering from sensory overload hangover. I slept less than three hours on the plane, and had a bit to drink before I left Las Vegas. I also had far less coffee than normal the last three days. Will a fresh cup help, or just make me jittery, nervous, and error-prone? How about a few Starburst? Or do I just need a nap?
The ultimate chemical aid to our productivity would be a small cookie that instantly drives your creativity and enthusiasm forward. But we humans don’t have that yet, so we make do with coffee and other energy drinks, sugar, alcohol, sleep, and substances that are easier to find at Rite Aid.
Being interested in all things productivity and workflow, we at Dispatch thought it might be interesting to run down some of the lesser-known effects of the substances we use to improve our output. Let’s start with the big one.
Caffeine: less precise than you think, less effective each time
I wrote a long piece on caffeine and its smarter uses while I was a contributing editor at Lifehacker. If, like me, you’re not quite in a state to read hundreds of words involving science right now, allow me to break out the key bullet points about a substance that’s still not fully understood:
Caffeine is not like an amphetamine that gets you jazzed; it’s real power is in tricking your brain and body not to feel tired and bogged down. Caffeine, in other words, lets you be as fully awake as you possibly could be, which varies from person to person.
Your body grows tolerant to your daily caffeine dose somewhere between a week to 10 days. That means that even if you drink nine cups of coffee per day, in two weeks’ time, that’s what you need to drink just to not feel beat. If your caffeine habit is really a dependence, suffer through a two-week withdrawal to “reset” your caffeine needs, so you can start using it more strategically.
Caffeine can increase work output, but mainly for straightforward tasks and “busy work.” Caffeine can also boost memory creation and retention, but also trigger more impulsive types to forgo second looks and look-overs.
Alcohol: If it puts you in a good mood, it might actually work
All those alcohol studies that news outlets love to pass on, the kind that suggest can actually extend your life? There’s something to them, but not exactly what you think. It’s not the chemicals and compounds in alcohol, perhaps, but what social drinking implies about somebody: they have friends, they have interests, they have occasion to leave their house or entertain guests. That’s good for your overall mood, health, and longevity.
The same possibly, could, maybe go for your work, assuming you’re in the right frame of mind. One University of Illinois study showed that splitting 40 men in half, and giving one half enough vodka to reach a 0.7 blood alcohol level, left the drinking half with a higher score on a Remote Associates Test. With their inhibitions lowered, the drinkers were more likely to reach far afield in their minds to connect words together and free-associate objects.
Before you start working a Mad Men-style Scotch nap into your day, keep in mind: the idea is to relax your focus and allow for novel possibilities, on occasional breaks from straight-ahead work.
Marijuana: as with alcohol, it’s mood that matters
Screenwriters and standup comedians have long had a crutch to lean on, whenever they need somebody to be stupid and unable to grasp remotely large concepts: stoners. Smoking pot makes childish things seem amazing, makes users lazy or impulsive, and generally lowers the IQ in any smoke-filled room. But many studies that “prove” marijuana’s mental impairment are incorrectly weighted and unintentionally biased, and the long-term cognitive impairments are overstated.
Furthermore, like alcohol, marijuana’s mood-improving powers can heighten associations and connections. And, like alcohol, that doesn’t mean moderation is the best approach.
Sugar: a double-edged willpower weapon
The way your body takes in and processes sugars is complex, interesting, and often overlooked. So is the way your brain helps you fight your worst impulses. You know the kind: “Hey, ignore that email from the boss. He’s stupid.” Or “You know what’s more fun than this spreadsheet? Asking everybody if they want to go to Shake Shack for lunch!” Luckily, you can use a small indulgence in sugar to fight a larger indulgence in slacking off.
No, seriously. In a long but mind-expanding article in the New York Times Magazine, John Tierney writes about willpower as a resource that we expend every day, often unconsciously. I summarized the articles as best I could at Fast Company, including the findings on how, say, a Starburst or two can be used like a scalpel:
… After being a proper lady or gentleman for extended periods, your body just wants something simple, instant, and reassuring of your ability to survive: a cheeseburger, a soda, peanut M&Ms. Blood sugar, in fact, does an intricate dance with your willpower all day. So eat a good breakfast, have healthier snacks available for stress eating… and, once in a while, don’t be afraid to give yourself a little treat when you feel like you’re at your wit’s end. A quick shot of calories can partially restore your ability to step back from the brink and make good calls. Too much sugar, of course, and your body tells you, “Hey, whoa, no need to work hard, I have plenty of energy.” Try shots of sugar, not small meals.
What’s the substance that most boosts, or cramps, your style when you’re getting things done? Tweet at us about it, or send us an email. We would give away a free Dispatch team account to the best responses, but Dispatch is already free. We’re still learning this stuff, folks.