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Coffee lovers have had good reason to rejoice over the past decade or so. Major research projects have been touting the benefits of coffee on health, with very little bad news for those who live by coffee. There’s even lots of research that shows coffee is good for productivity, too. The good news about coffee and productivity has encouraged more and more offices to provide coffee – and coffee breaks – for their teams. But is coffee really that good for your work life? Here’s what key researchers say about how coffee affects productivity at the office and outside it.
While many people think of coffee as a waker-upper, it actually helps you maintain attention and focus. It does that by blocking the adenosine receptors in your brain. Your body creates adenosine as a by-product of producing energy. It binds to the adenosine receptors in your brain, building up over the course of the day. As your adenosine levels increase, you start getting sleepy. The caffeine in coffee tricks those receptors so that they bind to the caffeine molecules, cutting off the sleepy signals. As a result, you feel more alert, and find it easier to pay attention to work that requires high levels of focus.
Caffeine starts to work within 10 minutes and reaches maximum effect within about 45 minutes from drinking your coffee. If you know that you’ll need extra focus to get through a task, experts say, drink a cup of coffee about an hour before you need to get to work on it. Which leads to the next thing you should know about coffee and productivity:
A few years ago, there was a spate of articles in news media and online that talked about “the best time to drink coffee” and suggested that “you’ve been drinking your coffee all wrong!” Turns out that there is a best time to drink coffee if your goal is to be more productive – and first thing in the morning is not it. When you first wake in the morning, your body goes to work producing cortisol, sometimes called the fight-or-flight hormone. Cortisol’s job is, as you might have guessed, to pump you up and get you ready to work hard.
That also happens to be what caffeine does – but if you’re thinking, “Great! Double the effect!” you’d be wrong. In fact, scientists say that drinking caffeine when your body is building up cortisol actually is counterproductive. It’s like your brain figures it doesn’t have to work as hard since you’re pitching in with that lovely java boost. The end result is that you have to down more caffeine to get the same buzz, and your body finds it even harder to get going without the caffeine.
So what’s the answer? According to neuroscientist Steven Miller, whose blog post about coffee and alertness started the whole “drinking your coffee wrong” trope, you should wait an hour to an hour-and-a-half after you wake up before slugging down that first cup of joe. By that time, your body has reached peak cortisol production and is starting to slide back down the other side of the peak. The caffeine in your coffee will prolong the wakefulness and focus and keep you coasting at high output until lunch. For most day shifters, that translates to the typical 10 a.m. coffee break. A second coffee break between 2 and 3 in the afternoon can keep you productive until the end of the day.
Research shows that caffeine boosts short term memory and long term memory. In fact, scientists now believe that caffeine in nectar may help bees remember where flowers are so they can come back for more. In one study, researchers head groups of volunteers look at pictures that were closely related to each other. After they had finished their task, the volunteers took either 200 mg of caffeine or a placebo. The next day, the volunteers who had taken caffeine were able to recognize more pictures from the day before than the volunteers who had taken a placebo.
The research on coffee and memory suggests that drinking a cup of coffee before doing a detail-oriented task – like transcribing accounts, for example – can help you work faster and more accurately. Likewise, if you drink a cup of coffee during or after studying important material, you’re more likely to remember it.
Finally, many companies have found that providing a communal coffee room and loose coffee break schedules lead to significantly more creativity and team building. While a bunch of people sitting around drinking coffee may look like goofing off, team members tend to discuss work over coffee in a less stressed environment. The cross-pollination of ideas from different parts of the same team or company often leads to creative solutions that would not have otherwise resulted.