28 Days Without Coffee, or “On Relief and Delayed Effects”

I write this on 28 February, about 28 days since my 28 days without coffee.
My findings were:

  • I can live without coffee (I had no headaches)
  • I missed coffee, even well within the experiment
  • The danger of coffee is the delay period, and this is representative of delays in feedback systems more generally. The trick is to develop strategies to hold tight during that delay period while the effects kick in. And likewise in more serious feedback systems, be mindful of delays.

“I’m not addicted, I could quit any time.”

To paraphrase Dr. Gabor Maté, addiction is any habit in which you seek relief from pain (say, discomfort), but you are unable to stop despite its negative long-term consequences.

I’ll be honest – I decided to stop drinking coffee as an experiment, because I prefer the Eoin that drinks tea over the Eoin that drinks coffee. The Eoin that drinks coffee can be less patient, which isn’t just a problem for me personally, but for people around me, like my sons. They have to deal with the stress of an impatient parent.

To continue paraphrasing Dr. Maté, do not underestimate what we can accept as normal daily stresses (like me saying “Get ready for school, it’s time to go!”), as kids build life-long habits from dealing with childhood stresses.

I’ve lately had great debates about whether “life’s little comforts” are an answer to happiness, or are they just vices that the Stoic philosophers might say the we would be better off to be free of them.

The common thinking is that if you deny yourself life’s little pleasures, you’ll end up with an unhappy meager life.

My conclusion so far is that “life’s little comforts” are absolutely fine, but there’s a thin unspoken line between that and “life’s little vices in which to seek relief from emotional pain, without ever addressing why I’m feeling that pain”. OK, back to coffee!

“What’s the addictive behaviour doing for you?”

With more input of Dr. Maté, don’t analyse an addiction asking “why the addiction?”, ask “why the pain?”.

How come I rely on a socially-acceptable stimulant to get on with the day? Is it as simple as the generally-accepted reasoning “I’m tired, and it helps me get going?”.

Or is that a shared cover-story for a more honest answer, just for example: “If I consider life without coffee my initial reaction is that my life would be boring without at least being able to enjoy some coffees in the morning”. Some food for thought, in any case!

Delay Periods in Feedback Systems

In the book The 5th Discipline, Peter Senge described delays as a fundamental building block of feedback systems (vicious and virtuous cycles). They make it harder for us humans to understand the overall impact and alternative possibilities to particular feedback systems.

With coffee, “they” say that it takes roughly 40 minutes for caffeine to fully kick in. (Hence the idea of a power-nap where you guzzle down a coffee just before napping, and you’re meant to wake up with extra energy.)

The problem with coffee’s delayed kick-in, is that during those 40 minutes I find it very easy to justify a second strong coffee. Suddenly, I’ve consumed two coffees, which I would have been better off just waiting for the first to kick in. So the real effect might be I get overly jittery from two coffees, when all I would’ve needed would be one coffee (or 0.5 coffees!).

It comes back to the question of not asking “how much can I get away with?”, and instead trying to ask yourself “what’s the smallest amount I need?”.

Delays within positive feedback systems can similarly make it harder to justify the better long-term action. If you have a “symptomatic fix” (e.g. drink coffee), and an alternative “fundamental fix” (just for example, getting to sleep earlier), the problem is that the symptomatic fix is usually easier and doesn’t involve as much delay.

The symptomatic fix lets you avoid the tension / stress / emotional pain, where you might very well be better off braking the cycle with the fundamental fix. Unfortunately, the symptomatic fix often moves you further away from a positive fix.

Holier Than Thou?

This isn’t preaching. After the 28 day experiment, my original commitment was to restrict my coffee to two espresso cups per day. Only a week or two later, I was drinking multiples of that by lunchtime.

But at least I’m learning about the power of delayed feedback: after drinking a coffee, the next drink after that is critically important. Drink water, green tea, or even a black tea. I’ll even do that pretty aggressively, having one of those drinks soon after the coffee, just to make sure I don’t give in to the temptation of another coffee immediately.

Like NerdFitness advise, if you’ve had a junk food meal, treat the next meal as the most important of your life! Have a healthy meal next, or you’re risking falling into the vicious “symptomatic fix” cycle of life.


Also see: I didn’t eat yesterday