A slightly unhinged-looking stick figure holds a mug of coffee and says, “You may call it coffee… but to me it’s anti-slap-you-in-the-face juice!”
Hi there,

Ah, coffee: the magical morning potion that allows me to effectively masquerade as a person for the whole day (or at least, like, 60% of it). When you stop to think about it, coffee is so deeply embedded in our culture that it boggles the mind. We drink it to wake up, we drink it at work, we drink it on first dates. We drink it so much that we can collectively joke about how coffee is, at any given moment, the singular thing holding us back from doing something we may later regret.

Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world — but how much do you actually know about what happens in your brain when you consume it? As quick as many of us are to turn to coffee when we’re struggling to get things done, what does the evidence actually say about coffee’s effects on our productivity? Read on to find out.

Until next time,
Katie and the coffee-loving team @ TDL

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Today’s topics 👀
☕ Lit Review: Caffeine Crash Course
🌱 Field Notes: Tamping Down Disposable Cup Use
🌊 Deep Dive: Brewing Productivity
☕ Lit review
Caffeine Crash Course

First, a neuroscience lesson. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that circulate in our brains. They affect our behavior by causing our brain cells to fire (i.e. send an electrical impulse to surrounding cells), or by stopping them from doing so. Their molecules work by binding to specific receptors located on the cells around them.

Caffeine is essentially a sleep blocker. So how does coffee give us energy? Caffeine molecules block the receptors in our brains for another chemical called adenosine, which ordinarily builds up throughout the day to tell our bodies we’re getting drowsy. Caffeine also stimulates the release of adrenaline and amplifies the effects of dopamine.

As mind-altering substances go, coffee is very safe. The evidence shows that caffeine is safe to consume, and far less addictive than other commonly used substances like tobacco. If anything, coffee seems to have a protective effect against a number of diseases.

But it isn’t without its downsides. Every coffee drinker knows their favorite dark roasts have a dark side. First, there’s the dreaded caffeine crash: when caffeine leaves our system, the adenosine that’s been accumulating all day hits us all at once. Caffeine also raises our levels of cortisol (a.k.a., the “stress hormone”), which can cause anxiety and stress (especially at high doses).

Coffee does provide a bumpier boost than some alternatives. Matcha, for example, contains a number of antioxidants that are thought to slow the absorption of caffeine. This prolongs the tea's effects while also incurring less of a crash later on.

🌱 Field Notes: Tamping Down Disposable Cup Use

Disposable coffee cups are ubiquitous in our culture, and the act of clutching a takeout coffee while looking slightly harried is arguably an important signal of identity for the busy, urbanite professional. That’s one reason why it’s so hard to nudge consumers toward reusable mugs.  

TDL has been trying to tackle this problem in recent months, in partnership with one of the world’s biggest international coffee houses. By building strategies to help coffee lovers embrace a new identity — that of the eco-conscious consumer — we’re working to change the habits of millions of people worldwide. Stay tuned for more details on this project!

Blue coffee cups on a teal background
🌊 Deep Dive
Brewing Productivity

So, now you know all there is to know about the neuroscience of coffee; let’s put that knowledge to use. Here are a few evidence-based tips to help you extract the greatest productivity possible from your daily cup of joe.

Be mindful about scheduling coffee intake. To quote the inimitable Lorelai Gilmore, “Nothing says coffee like six in the morning.” For many of us, coffee is the final stop of our nightly pilgrimage from the dream realm back to the land of the living. But despite how you may feel, our bodies are actually pretty good at handling this transition on their own: our cortisol levels naturally rise shortly after waking, making us more alert. You can get more mileage out of your coffee by delaying consumption until mid-morning. To preserve your sleep, avoid caffeine after 2pm. 

Blend coffee with deep work. Studies have found that, in moderate doses, caffeine boosts our ability to focus. It also improves our reasoning and problem-solving abilities. All of which is to say that, if you typically end up channeling your caffeine buzz into feverishly sorting emails, you might not be utilizing it to its fullest potential. Try planning your day so that the peak of your coffee energy coincides with some deep work, where the caffeine can keep you focused and help you think through tricky problems.

Know thyself. Coffee (and other caffeinated drinks) affects us differently depending on our biology and psychology. For instance, your unique genetic makeup determines how you metabolize caffeine — that’s why some people can knock back four brew coffees without a problem, while others feel jittery halfway through their latte. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is to collect some data: jot down some notes on how you feel after a black americano versus a cappuccino, how well you sleep after a 3pm espresso, and so on.
A majestic black dog stares in anticipation at TDL’s espresso machine
Inside TDL: Don’t talk to Watson until he’s had his coffee
Social norms
Coffee is more than a beverage in our culture; it’s a ritual, shared with and reinforced by others. Learn more about how social norms shape our behavior here.
Opportunities in Behavioral Science
TDL is looking for a Senior UX Designer! We are currently looking for an experienced designer to help us transform the way mental health products and services are delivered, with a focus on designing for equitable access. Learn how to apply on our website.
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