Coffee: Focus and Flow-State

This is a second video dedicated to getting into a focussed flow-state. For some this isn’t a problem, but in this world of digital distraction, for a growing number, it is.

Now I’m a coffee lover. I probably drink too much of the stuff. No scratch that. I definitely drink too much of the stuff. Today I want to look at if coffee and the caffein it contains is a help or a hindrance to focus and flow. On the face of it, we might assume caffein helps. But on closer analysis, is that so clear?

Now there’s this narrative. We wake in the morning, we stumble around half-asleep and then we grab a coffee, and get jolted awake and we’re then able to prepare for the day with presence and alertness.

But if we look deeper at how coffee works, I think some wrinkles begin to appear in this story.

For starters caffeine blocks the action of adenosine. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and relaxation. But that’s what we want isn’t it? After all doing this increases alertness and reduces feelings of tiredness. And the blocking action can lead to the release of other neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

But there are some reasons why this might not be the positive thing we think it is.

As we have seen in earlier videos, externally generated dopamine highs can lead us into addiction, distracted behaviours and potentially a world of pain. Grabbing a coffee might not seem so bad, but it is still an externally produced shortcuts to dopamine. And we know repeatedly taking shortcuts to small dopamine hits degrade our net balance of the stuff over time. And that can happen before we even realise it’s going to. So that’s a reason to exercise some caution.

But further, blocking adenosine might seem like a good thing when you want to be alert, but how much we benefit from doing so is questionable.

When caffein blocks adenosine we are compromising our ability to modulate dopamine highs. So we are decoupling from the natural work-reward dopamine cycle. We then lack the normal level of conscious focus control and we can become overstimulated and jittery.

Even if we aren’t overtly overstimulated, you wouldn’t want to drive a car that only possesses an accelerator and has no brake. So it’s not clear blocking adenosine results in a superior state of control.

If we follow the right actions for regularising sleep we can attain a natural level of alertness on rising, without requiring additional stimulation from caffein. The activities I’m referring to are:

– Avoiding using digital devices at night, or
– And, ensuring no coffee is drunk after 3 in the afternoon,
– Also avoiding eating within three hours of going to bed,
– And getting up and going outside within 20 minutes of waking, to look at the early morning light
– Also it’s worth knowing, research has shown there is a measurable degradation in sleep quality on the fourth night after you have changed bedsheets. So changing bedsheets regularly helps sleep.

If we do all these things, we find our natural circadian rhythm and sleep patterns regularise. Personally I’ve found the effects of following this regime quite eye opening; pun intended.

So with the right approach we wake smoothly into a state of alertness. And when we rise, we obtain a natural cortisol spike. Cortisol is a hormone which helps ensure a dopamine response. So while it isn’t strictly a stimulant, it acts in some ways as one. If we drink coffee within the first 90 minutes of rising, we are layering a stimulant on top of our already high-levels of cortisol.

I’ve now spent 2 weeks avoiding drinking coffee in the first 90 minutes after waking. And I can report, the natural measures for ensuring a regular and healthy circadian rhythm work. I feel alert and focussed from early on. However I have to confess I still have a strong urge to grab a coffee. So what that tells me, even though I’ve realised I don’t need the coffee for wake-fullness, I do have a mild addiction, or compulsion for the caffein. I’m going to keep going for a month to see if the compulsion subsides.