This article was written by editor of The Lily-Jo Project’s Blog, Shelby Hale.
Ever heard the old saying, “Write drunk, edit sober”?
As an extremely stressed-out, under-slept, and overworked master’s student last summer, I began following a different, but similar mantra to the one above: write caffeinated, edit caffeinated – and it was a disaster.
My 10,000-word dissertation project started in May.
I was inspired, motivated, and had no trouble focusing on getting things done. I could write several hundred words per day and edit efficiently. My arguments were clear, and I was passionate about my project – often subjecting friends and family to endless conversation about it. I was looking forward to accomplishing this massive goal in my life and was genuinely excited to go to work every day.
But, as the summer went on, I became increasingly stressed. With the pressure of the September deadline looming, I was working 60+ hour weeks and not getting enough sleep. I became so focused on my daily objectives, I got lost in my own writing; forgetting the purpose of my project and my brain felt foggy. I didn’t understand it at the time but in retrospect, I was most likely experiencing burnout.
This is where my unhealthy dependence on caffeine began to develop. I would go into the library at 9:00 am every day to work. Amongst the work and stress, it seemed like the only thing I had to look forward to were caffeinated drinks. I always drank a cup of Yorkshire tea (my fave) while getting ready in the mornings, then I would have a classic Americano or Cappuccino from the coffee shop nearby before I would settle into work at my desk. Throughout the day I would have at least two more cups of coffee in the afternoon and three to four more cups of tea. If I needed to work late into the night, I would drink a can or two of Red Bull to stay energised.
Early on, I began to feel the benefits of the caffeine: increased focus, ideas started to come to me quicker, and the increase in productivity and creativity began to boost my confidence.
I also developed an unhealthy habit of skipping meals to save time and money. Caffeine is a known appetite suppressant, so I would plan my days around when I could drink a coffee or energy drink without having to take time to break for meals. It felt good. I was saving time and money, losing weight, and feeling energetic and focused.
But, by the end of the summer when I was feeling even more pressure to meet the deadline, I was at a maximum stress level that no amount of coffee could cure. I was interviewing for jobs, moving apartments, and wrapping up this 5-month dissertation project that I felt extreme pressure to attain high marks in. Being a natural “perfectionist”, I began to realize what a double-edged sword this personality trait really was. I hated the amount of pressure I put on myself to be perfect, but I also hated that I wasn’t perfect enough. Everything in my world seemed to be colliding all at once, and the pressure and stress was too much.
I became so dependent on caffeinated drinks that I couldn’t work without them. I couldn’t focus, write, or think clearly. What started as a simple cup of coffee to look forward to amidst the stress, had suddenly turned into a caffeine dependency that was working against me; ultimately fuelling stress instead of fuelling productivity.
Routines are important.
When you’re stressed or under pressure, you latch on to simple things in your daily life to look forward to. Whether that’s a cup of coffee, a reality show, or a walk in the sunshine over lunch; these simple things are important for giving your mind a break from the stress.
However, we need to make sure that they are not doing more harm than good. For me, something as small as a cup of coffee turned into something much worse. These choices we make may seem small in the moment but they can seriously impact our lives in the long term.
So, what did I do to overcome this? All of you caffeine lovers out there will be happy to know that I did not need to give it up completely – a reasonable (below 400mg daily) amount is considered normal and not bad for you. Luckily, I haven’t fallen out of love with Yorkshire Tea or coffee – but I have changed how I choose to manage this relationship.
I have since negotiated a new relationship with caffeine by limiting myself to a maximum 2 cups of coffee per day and a cup of tea if I want. This works for me – I still get the benefits of a little “perk”, I still get to enjoy the hot drinks I love, and it doesn’t exacerbate my symptoms of stress.
Here are some ways that I have integrated new habits into my daily routine to reduce my caffeine consumption.
- Strike a deal: Choose your favourite times for a hot drink, and schedule it then. For me, my favourite times for a coffee/tea are midmorning and after lunch. More than this, for me, can make me feel anxious, jittery, and stressed. I have found that making a deal with myself and scheduling times for caffeine helps me stay in control.
- Replace the drink: instead of drinking tea or coffee, drink something else – I’ve found that replacing a second or third coffee in the afternoon with hot lemon water, sparkling water, or other hot decaf teas really helps me get my drink fix without the caffeine.
- Replace the activity: I started to notice that I would use getting a caffeinated drink as a way to reset and reenergize my mind. Now, instead of drinking coffee to reset, I realized there are so many other things I can do instead. I can get up and take a walk outside in the fresh air, eat an apple or banana, have a chat with my working buddies, or take a moment to stand up and stretch. Replacing a negative activity with a positive activity can be difficult to start, but over time it’s worth it!
Everyone is different. What works for me may work for you – or, it may not. Either way, evaluating your routine and becoming aware of how coffee, tea, soda and other caffeinated drinks affect your mental health is a great first step in taking back control and negotiating a better relationship with caffeine.
Take care this week!
Shelby, Blog Editor at The Lily-Jo Project