I never identified as a coffee snob or someone with a serious habit – like everyone else, I made lots of self-deprecating jokes about how much coffee I drank – until one day I realized that I had been drinking more coffee than anyone else I knew for the past fifteen years.
I started drinking coffee in high school. I would stay up all night competitively playing video games, and then head to school on two or three hours of sleep. If I tried to attend class, I would immediately pass out on my desk. There was a coffee machine in the cafeteria, where I would solve that problem by purchasing a cup of scalding-hot black coffee for fifty cents. It was shitty coffee, and I hated the flavor. But I needed it, and took the bitterness as fair punishment for not sleeping. That cup got me wired – the caffeine rush would electrify my body, and my hand would shake erratic, two-inch tall letters out of my Pilot V5.
Two hours later, I’d get another cup, and that would last me into the early afternoon. I’d crash and fall asleep in class at 1:50pm, like clockwork. I’d get another cup at 2:00pm between classes, to carry me through the rest of the day. When I took my finals before graduating, the principal sent out a grade-wide complaint that too many coffee cups got littered outside the exam rooms. They were all mine. My #1 concern in high school was dying of a heart attack due to my completely insane sleep and caffeine habits.
Somehow I survived high school. My sleep patterns would, over the course of the years, very slowly approach those of a normal person, but coffee stuck. I would drink it to help stay up late, or to wake me up after a short night. When things got really urgent I’d supplement with some Red Bull. My tastes advanced a little bit: I quit the punitive straight black coffee, and experimented with extravagances like sugar and milk. As I started to work internships near Starbuckses, I would get vanilla-hazelnut lattes, and my coffee runs were known for their consistency and punctuality.
After college and graduate school, things kicked up a notch. Lots of people define their persona by their love of coffee, and I chose to be one of those. I drank coffee – lattes, in particular – religiously. My first business card’s title read Caffeine Fiend.1 I systematically sampled nearly every single cafe in San Francisco. Weirdly, I knew I didn’t really love lattes. I liked them, but a latte can ultimately only be so good. They were a habit, something I’d been doing for a long time, and had made part of my persona.2 Besides, I needed the kick. I realized that coffee was useful in technical, creative work not because it increases wakefulness, but because it increases focus. I had a latte machine in the office and a company to build, so at some point I hit ten cups a day.
Enter March 2020. I had moved offices – no more free coffee – and was spending more on cinnamon lattes than some people spend on their mortgage. I was more cautious than most about COVID-19, and started isolating myself in early March. Being a coffee addict but not a true aficionado, I did not own anything in the way of a coffee machine. (I have never made much use of my kitchen.) I had no way to make coffee at home, and due to COVID I wasn’t in the mood to go out shopping. Almost four months later, I still haven’t had any coffee.
Losing coffee was unpleasant at first. Abandoning a ritual can make the rest of the day feel weirdly incomplete. But I soon stopped missing or thinking about it. My quality of life had improved. With coffee, the regular motions of the day become exaggerated – there would be spikes of focus and the feeling of productivity3, but there would also be caffeine crashes every four hours. The days that I used caffeine to push myself too far would invariably end in long headaches. I often felt very seriously drained at the end of the workday, and couldn’t do anything in the evening.
The last four months, without coffee, have been much better. No headaches. No crashes. Consequently – and ironically – I’m now probably more awake on average throughout the day. I’ve been very surprised by how little I actually needed the caffeine, even in the morning after a short night. Thus, I’m not sure how much value caffeine actually provided me over the past few working years. I had so much of it that the beneficial effects certainly wore off (I would even drink coffee right before going to sleep). However, the downsides of coffee – trading in later energy to have more focus now, the drain and crash later in the day – never wore off.
Ultimately, as COVID wraps up and things go back to normal, I don’t feel the need to pick up coffee again. Maybe I’ll try decaf for the pleasure of an evening latte, but I’m happy to kick the habit.
Cringe, I know. ↩
For me, this triggered careful introspection about whether I really derived pleasure from the things I claimed to like, or whether those claims were really just signaling about the person I would like to be, rather than who I actually am. ↩
The jury is still out on how much more productive I actually was, if at all. I wonder if there’s some counter-intuitive effect by which access to coffee encourages worse sleep (because you can stay up late and then just drink coffee when you’re tired) which leaves you less productive overall. ↩