We’ve all had days where coffee just seems like a necessity. Whether you haven’t gotten much sleep or you have a stack of paperwork to get through, caffeine can make us all feel like it’s possible to do something productive.
But you’re probably also acquainted with some of the drawbacks of caffeine—the racing heart, the jitters, the anxiety. Are the positive effects of caffeine worth it to feel like your brain is borderline exploding? In short: yes. And also no. Truthfully, the research on the effects of caffeine on productivity is mixed. It might make you a more productive person, but it also comes with drawbacks.
Need to Do Something Productive? Use Caffeine Wisely
Look, we’re not here to tell you to burn your French press and subsist solely on lemon water and air. Instead, we want to tell you how to use caffeine in a way that helps, not hinders, your productivity. So you can do something productive when it’s important. Or even when it’s not. Even if you’re not a caffeine drinker (and thus a superhuman), the research is super interesting. So let’s take a look at some common questions on caffeine and productivity, their research-based answers, and how you can use all of this science to up your output, not your stress.
How does caffeine work?
Before we talk about whether or not caffeine can increase productivity, let’s talk about what caffeine actually does to your body.
Throughout the day, your brain creates a chemical called adenosine, which is a byproduct of your neurons firing. Adenosine binds to adenosine receptors throughout the nervous system, which slows down nerve cell activity. This signals to your brain that you’re tired. The more adenosine, the more tired you get, which is why you feel sleepy at night. Sounds simple, right? Enter caffeine.
To your body, caffeine looks like adenosine’s identical twin. It’s the same size and shape, so it fits into adenosine receptors. But when caffeine is in the receptors, adenosine can’t attach to them. And when adenosine is blocked, your body has a lot more trouble telling that you’re tired.
But that’s just one way caffeine helps keep you awake. When those receptors are blocked, other neurochemicals called dopamine and glutamate get free rein. Dopamine can’t get reabsorbed as quickly, and the extra chemicals give you another jolt of energy.
Blocking adenosine receptors is also what leads to a caffeine crash. While caffeine is pretending to be adenosine, all the actual adenosine is building up in your body. When the caffeine wears off, the adenosine floods the receptors and the sleepiness can hit you all at once.
Can caffeine make up for sleep?
You probably know the answer to this question, even if you don’t want to. While the effects of caffeine can last for hours (and how long exactly depends on how fast your body metabolizes caffeine), they don’t replace actual hours of sleep. (We wish they could, too.)
And we all know that lost sleep can make you less productive and perform worse on cognitive tasks. That’s the case regardless of how much coffee you’ve pounded to accommodate.
Okay, but it has to help a little bit, right?
Yes. If you really didn’t get enough sleep, research suggests that caffeine can help improve your cognitive and physical functioning, which can make it easier to do something productive. Or just to baseline function.
Want to really boost your alertness? Combine caffeine with a short nap for optimal effectiveness. Research suggests that this combination helps you be more productive than just caffeine alone. Even better? Researchers still found this benefit even if their study participants didn’t fully fall asleep during their naps. So your half-asleep, brain-is-still-running-around state gives you the same benefits as an actual nap. That’s a win for those of us with overactive minds.
And if you have to drink some late-night caffeine, there’s some evidence that it might actually help you the next day. Some research has found that, despite caffeine interfering with proper sleep, it can make you perform better on your tasks the next day. While researchers don’t know exactly how this works, they think it could be because the caffeine is still in your system the next day. And while that’s a plus for a questionable strategy, it’s still better to just log the sleep time.
Can caffeine help you work in groups?
Yes and isn’t that a relief? Whether or not you’re groaning about the group project, you might want to consider bringing coffee to the next meeting, since research shows it can help productivity.
- By affecting how each person performs: If caffeine improves the performance of group members individually, the whole group’s performance might be affected. In fact, research supports this.
- By increasing engagement: Research has found that groups spend more time discussing the topic or task when they’re well-caffeinated, probably because the caffeine makes them more alert. Being caffeinated also makes people more likely to participate in groups. (Use this wisely.)
- By improving reaction time with tasks that involve physical coordination.
- By boosting perceptions of performance both within and outside of the group. People rate their own performance and their group’s performance more highly when they’ve had caffeine—whether or not they knew they had consumed caffeinated coffee. And don’t we all want to walk away from a group project with those good feelings?
But—and this is a big one—these effects are mainly for low to moderate doses of caffeine. Translation: This isn’t a free pass to drink as much coffee as possible. The downside to over-caffeinating your group? Just as the positive effects of caffeine are amplified in a group, the negative effects are as well. If people are edging toward anxious or jittery, group productivity and performance can tank.
How much caffeine is enough caffeine?
Now to the good stuff. You’re probably wondering if your caffeine consumption is within range of these benefits. Or if you’re three cups over the legal limit. Luckily, research has some answers.
Low to moderate is the sweet spot
- Research found that low-to-moderate doses of caffeine can improve mood, reaction time, and alertness with very few side effects. What’s a moderate dose? About 10 ounces of coffee.
- Another study found that people who consumed lower-caffeine energy drinks actually had faster reaction times than people who had high-caffeine drinks and people who didn’t have any energy drinks.
There is, of course, a catch. The more tired you are, the more caffeine you need. And the more caffeine you take in, the more likely you are to get anxious and jittery, which decreases your cognitive performance. It’s tough to do something productive (or do anything, really) when you’ve hit peak caffeine.
Yes, but how much caffeine do I need?
This is where it gets personal. Truthfully, everyone is different, and you’re going to have to figure out your own personal tolerance level. Haven’t we all gone too far with the caffeine and found ourselves running up and down the halls of our offices? (No? Just us?) In other words, go with how you feel and what your past experience tells you about how much caffeine will help you do something productive and how much will hurt you.
If you’re well-rested and feeling good after a small cup, you’re in a good spot. Not well rested? You’ll probably need more caffeine to feel the same level of alertness. And if it’s a multiple cup day, don’t worry too much about it. You can have up to 400 mg of caffeine safely, according to the Mayo Clinic. That’s about four cups of brewed coffee.
How can I make caffeine work for me?
With a lot of mixed evidence out there, you’re probably wondering how exactly you can use caffeine to help you do something productive, whether it’s at work or Saturday errands. Here’s a summary of some of our best research-backed tips to make sure caffeine is working for you, and not just against your sleep cycle.
Do drink the right amount
Too much caffeine can keep you awake and make you too jittery to be productive. But too little may not have an effect. The best way to figure out how much caffeine to drink? Listen to your body. If you’re still yawning in meetings and nodding off at your desk, you might need that second coffee break. But if you’re already feeling alert, you should probably skip the afternoon top-up.
Don’t have too much caffeine too late at night
While some evidence suggests that late-night caffeine can stay in your system and help you be more productive the next day, there’s a lot more evidence that caffeine messes with your sleep. Even caffeine six hours before bedtime can lead to tossing and turning. A lot of advice out there suggests not drinking caffeine after 2 p.m., but you might need to adjust that depending on your own personal tolerance.
Do make your coffee break a group effort
If you need to work in a group, you might work better together when you’re all caffeinated. If you really need to stay on topic, consider treating your teammates to some coffee during your meeting. Just be mindful of crossing into too-much-caffeine territory. It’s not a pretty place.
Don’t have all of your caffeine at once
Most of us go for the big hit of caffeine first thing in the morning, and then again when we crash in the afternoon. But research suggests that having smaller amounts of caffeine throughout the day—only until about six hours before bedtime of course—actually helps you stay more awake and productive. So instead of a venti in the morning, try a small coffee or cup of tea instead. Then don’t feel bad about having some caffeine with your lunch too.
Do try the coffee nap
Drinking caffeine, then taking a 15-minute nap can help make the caffeine even more effective. It gives the caffeine time to kick in, and even dozing can make you more alert. Just make sure to only use this tip when you’re at home and have the time. We definitely don’t recommend dozing off in the office, unless policy allows. In which case, let us know where you work in the comments.
So next time you’re feeling a mid-morning or afternoon slump at work, don’t be afraid to reach for the caffeine. It can help you do something productive and perform better. Just in the right amounts. Our recommendation? Drink the least amount of caffeine that helps you stay awake and focused to get the benefits without the jitters.
Your turn: Do you turn to caffeine when you need to do something productive? Tell us what works for you in the comments.
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Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.