With over four hundred billion cups of coffee consumed each year, caffeine is by far the world’s most widely-consumed psychoactive drug. For many of us, a hot cup of coffee proves to be a powerful and potent stimulant — a necessity to start the day. But caffeine’s effects vary significantly from person to person, and its actual effects on productivity remains unclear. Beyond anecdotal evidence, numerous studies show that, in small doses, caffeine provides an increase in energy and alertness, while improving reaction time and cognitive performance. But is coffee really making you more productive?
What does the research say?
The effects of caffeine on productivity have been a topic of considerable academic interest — researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently found that consuming small amount of caffeine can have a positive effect on long-term memory. In a double-blind trial, participants were given either a 200-milligram caffeine tablet or a placebo, and were asked to study a series of images. The next day, both groups were shown a new set of images, including pictures that were visually similar to the previous — the caffeine group was better able to identify these new images as “similar” rather than citing them as the “same.” In a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers wrote that this ability to recognize the difference between similar but not identical items — called “pattern separation” — suggests that the caffeine group benefited from greater memory retention.
However, other research suggests that many of the benefits of caffeine can be replicated by placebo. In another double-blind study at the University of East London, participants were randomly given either caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee — half were told they were regular coffee, and half that they were given decaf, also at random. Interestingly, the participants who were told that they received caffeinated coffee performed better on tests measuring reaction time, self-control, and reward motivation. The researchers concluded that the relationship between caffeine consumption, mood, and performance depends on many individual psychological variables — strangely, all participants in the study reported increased feelings of depression after drinking coffee, although this increase was slightly lower in the group that received caffeine.
Research also shows that caffeine also has a complex effect on creativity. Maria Konnikova observed in The New Yorker that “creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated.” As evidence, she pointed to a 2012 study in which participants performed better in creative thinking exercises (for example, devising novel and inventive uses for an everyday object like a newspaper) after they had allowed their mind to “wander” by switching between “undemanding,” low-intensity tasks. This suggests that caffeine may assist more in very simple, repetitive tasks like checking e-mails or filling out forms, and less in jobs that require high levels of insight and creative thinking.
And, for the same reasons caffeine increases alertness and wakefulness, it also has a tendency to cause anxiety, jitteriness, and sleeplessness. Scientists at Rice University studied the effects of caffeine on sleep — they observed that a typical cup of coffee decreased the average sleep time of study participants by an average of two hours; it also increased the amount of time it took to fall asleep by thirty percent. Coffee also had significant effects on quality of sleep: the number of sleep awakenings in the experiment subjects doubled. These conclusions has been reproduced in numerous studies, and suggest a significant risk of impairing your creativity and productivity if you don’t properly manage your caffeine intake.
Many people don’t know that the human body naturally “caffeinates” itself with the hormone cortisol at specific times of day, depending on your body’s natural circadian rhythm — typically early in the morning (between 8am and 9am), around lunch time (between 12pm and 1pm), and once again in the late afternoon (from 530pm to 630pm). If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may be impairing your body’s ability to produce cortisol — by drinking coffee when it’s not needed, i.e. when your body is attempting to naturally energize itself according to its hormonal cycles, you may build a faster tolerance to it.
Test it for yourself!
All the research shows a complex interaction between caffeine and bodily cycles — so instead of relying on the abstract conclusions of large-scale studies, how can you determine the specific effects caffeine has on your body? Caffeine’s effects depends on dosage, body type, weight, age, time of day, and many other factors; so it’s best to monitor all these variables by collecting your own data. First, you need to make sure you’re collecting accurate information: here are some tools we recommend.
RescueTime records how much time you spend using computer applications and browsing web sites. It allows you to keep track of how you are spending every minute of the day, and when and how you are wasting time, and it doesn’t require any effort to set up! It simply runs in the background and stays on top of your browsing habits for you.
Jawbone UP Coffee
Jawbone UP Coffee is a great app for tracking your coffee intake — it’s a simple tool for logging your coffee, tea, and energy drink consumption, to see how it changes overtime.
Sherbit is a personal dashboard that gives you access and control of your personal data in one place. The app syncs with over twenty-five applications including Facebook, Fitbit, Uber and Withings to gather and visualize data. From there, you can identify patterns in your daily habits and correlations across multiple services. For example, if you wanted to find out if you were less active on days you worked more, you could add steps counted by your Fitbit and productivity hours tracked by RescueTime. Download Sherbit from the the App Store here.
Here are some results from our own test:
By combining the data from Jawbone UP and RescueTime, I found a correlation between caffeine and productivity. You can see this by looking at the trend lines and flipping between the tabs at the top of the chart.
However, I found an even stronger correlation with my sleep and productivity — the more coffee I drank, the less sleep I got. This seem to be true for everyday other than JuIy 22nd and July 29th, but as I looked closer I realized that I had consumed coffee earlier in the morning on those days. This may seem like an obvious conclusion in retrospect, but being able to visualize the data made the effects of coffee on my life much more apparent to me. By reflecting on my data, I realized that there’s is a dual effect on the relationship between coffee and sleep: caffeine affects my quality of sleep and reduces the length of time I’m awake… however, when I don’t get much sleep the previous night, I tend to drink more coffee the next day, perpetuating the cycle. I also noticed that my quality of sleep decreases much more significantly when I drink coffee late in the afternoon — I realized that caffeine tends to work best early in the morning, when it will have a minimal effect on my sleep that night.
Have you found interesting correlations between different data sources? Let us know in the comments below.
We just made some exciting new updates to the RescueTime IFTTT channel. You can now use weekly summary reports in your Recipes and log offline time from other apps (like your Google Calendar).
IFTTT is a service that connects hundreds of applications via simple connections that let one application respond to actions in another. You can use the RescueTime IFTTT channel to connect to hundreds of apps to automatically log time, export data for reports, respond to alerts, and add daily highlights. You can even use it to control your FocusTime sessions!
Here are some of the things you can do:
Log Offline Time
This is something a lot of people have asked for. You can connect your Calendar (or any other app that exports events with a start / stop time) and automatically log offline time.
Export Weekly / Daily Summaries
Every day at midnight a new summary is available with details of your time. Use this to construct your own custom email reports, log time in a spreadsheet, or update a personal dashboard.
FocusTime just got a LOT more powerful. Mute your phone, or post a do-not-disturb note on your calendar. You can also control FocusTime from other apps. Like starting a FocusTime session when you park your car at the office in the morning.
Respond to Alerts
Whenever your RescueTime alerts are triggered, you can respond by taking an action in another app.
Log Daily Highlights / Action Datapoints
Daily Highlights and Actions help you keep track of your accomplishments. Any trigger from another app can automatically log a highlight or action in RescueTime.
Check out the RescueTime channel page on IFTTT.com to learn more. There are literally thousands of possibilities. Please let us know your favorites in the comments!
RescueTime now offers a wide array of integrations with partner services. These allow users to greatly expand the scope and functionality of what can be done with RescueTime data and feature actions. Many of these features are based on user requests over the years, some are new ideas that we have had ourselves that we think will help improve your productivity and enhance your digital lives. Check out all that you can do with RescueTime!
Connect RescueTime to hundreds of apps with IFTTT and Zapier
RescueTime now provides links to two connective services, If This Then That (IFTTT) and Zapier, which give users the ability to connect RescueTime data and feature events to a large number of other services. Features such as Alerts, FocusTime, Daily Highlights, and daily Activity Summaries can interact with applications and apps on your computer, mobile devices, and other internet-enabled devices. Each of these relations is called a recipe (IFTTT) or a Zap (Zapier) and is set up with a few simple steps on the partner website. There are now over 300 connected services and you can even create new connections yourself!
Here are some of the possibilities:
Enhance the functionality of FocusTime. You can do a number of things like start and stop a session based on the date/time or Google calendar events, or have a session block out other distractions by posting “do not disturb” status in your media outlets. You can start a FocusTime session automatically when you arrive at work or mute you phone when it is in effect (some features require additional products).
Use daily summaries to do more with your data. You can have summaries emailed to you at the end of each day to get automated daily reporting. You can have this summary logged automatically to a Google spreadsheet or in a service like Evernote. You can have them logged as a detailed event in Google calendar or receive them as Slack messages.
Extend the range of Daily Highlights. Have a highlight logged when you have a meeting scheduled in Google calendar or when you post a Tweet, or post your Highlights as Tweets. Create a highlight for each email you send in Gmail.
Use Alerts in new ways: post them to Slack or Facebook, send them via SMS, or schedule a phone call when an alert in triggered; send an alert via Gmail based on specific criteria, like after a day when you spent more that 20% of your time on email and communication
Keep track of your photos with timestamps in your logs from iOS devices or Daily Highlight entries from an Android device
Log your visit to your favorite coffee shop with Foursquare
These are just some of the things you can do with IFTTT and Zapier. There are over 300 available services. Find out more information about IFTTT here and Zapier here and start creating your own new features.
Developers, keep track of your code commits with Git and GitHub
Git is a popular version control system for software projects. You can use Git’s flexible hook system to maintain a log of your code checkins within your RescueTime account, so you can see what you accomplished on days when you spent lots of time coding. If you host software projects on the social code hosting repository GitHub, you can keep a log of your code checkins in your RescueTime account. Checkins will show up as highlights on your dashboard and in your weekly emails.
Find correlations between your time, sleep, fitness, etc…
You can do more with your data with the data analysis tools Gyroscope, Zenobase, and Exist.io. Gyroscope, for example, is “A personal website powered by your life.” Connect your online accounts and see beautiful weekly reports showing how all your productivity and fitness data fits together. RescueTime can add time about your productivity levels to your weekly Gyroscope reports.
Supercharge FocusTime to limit distractions
To really block out distractions while in a FocusTime session, connect RescueTime to Slack and you will be automatically marked as ‘do-not-disturb’. If you are feeling more masochistic, try connecting RescueTime to a Pavlok wristband and shock yourself every time you hit a blocked page during a FocusTime session. You can also use IFTTT and Zapier to mute your phone, post do-not-disturb messages on your calendar, and much more.
Many more integrations
Some of the other notable integrations we have:
Automatic: Track your driving time just like an app or website
Beeminder: Commit to meeting your productivity goals or pay a fine
At RescueTime, we are always looking for ways to expand our horizons. Have a suggestion for an integration? Let us know in the comments!
Ask a dozen people what makes someone creative and you’ll probably hear answers like cleverness or mental acuity. But researchers Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern University have been digging into what really makes creative people tick.
What they’re finding is that the most creative people – the folks with the truly novel and useful solutions – are the ones that don’t give up easily.
Persist, and then persist again
Lucas and his team are promoting persistence as a principle pathway to creative performance. There’s a load of historical research and anecdotal evidence to support this belief. Everything from Edison testing thousands of theories before inventing the light bulb to Csikszentmihalyi’s introduction of the concept of flow.
The researchers at Northwestern wanted to see if people actually recognize the value and importance of persisting when idea generation gets difficult. Their basic hypothesis: “People generally underestimate the value of persisting on creative tasks.”
After a series of 7 cleverly constructed creativity experiments, a few things are clear:
- People perceive being creative as difficult.
- The best ideas are often produced later rather than early in the creative process.
- People probably abandon the creative process before coming up with their best ideas.
Creativity: The generation of ideas and solutions that are novel or useful to a given situation.
On being creative…
Before we take a look at the studies and results, let’s examine creativity. Specifically, why it’s generally considered difficult to “be creative?”
The researchers identified two attributes of creativity that are illustrative of its perceived difficulty, and I think these are both fantastically insightful.
First, creativity is a two-stage, iterative mental process. In stage one, we scour our long-term memory for anything associated with whatever it is we’re trying to be creative about. In the second stage, we apply, break apart and reform associated knowledge to form new ideas.
People move back and forth between memory and idea generation in an attempt to create something novel and useful. If you think about it for a bit, there are four logical outcomes to this process.
- Booo… We fail, and no association is made.
- Yawn… We come up with something commonplace – an idea that lacks novelty.
- Meh… We make an association, but it doesn’t prove useful. (Remember our definition? We’re looking for creative solutions that are novel or useful!)
- Eureka! We’ve come up with a cool, new idea.
This is a grueling mental process. It’s hard to be creative because of all the false starts and unsatisfactory ideas. Perseverance is necessary to win the numbers game!
The second attribute pointing to the difficulty of creativity is that, unlike defined processes and procedures, it’s really tough to verbalize your progress toward a creative goal.
The example that Lucas and his team used to illustrate this is a math problem. Try adding two large numbers together. It’s pretty easy to figure how close you are to having the correct answer, right?
Not so for creative challenges. Think of the last time you were trying to come up with a creative solution for some problem. At any point, could you tell someone how close you were to a breakthrough moment of insight?
Probably not. That progress isn’t really something you can measure.
And because of these attributes, it’s easy to think that being creative is hard. The researchers at Northwestern put that perception to the test to see if we can be more creative if we keep working when others might give up.
I won’t go into each of the 7 studies in detail. I think the first experiment is the most informative. Also, the paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is available on Lucas’ website and it’s well worth a read.
Lucas and Nordgren invited participants to take 10 minutes to generate creative answers to a simple question. All they were asked to do was come up with a list of things to eat and drink at Thanksgiving.
After coming up with a list of ideas, each participant was asked to estimate how many more ideas they could make with a subsequent “persistence phase.” The researchers then compared the estimates with the actual number of new ideas produced.
The participants came up with nearly 22 initial ideas on average. When asked how many new ideas they could come up with if they kept working, the average answer was 10 more ideas. Interestingly, their predictions for performance in the persistence period was much lower than the number of ideas actually produced (15).
And here’s the coolest part…
The researchers ran all the ideas past another group of test subjects to determine which were the most creative. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point, but the participants came up with their best ideas when asked to keep going.
This shows us that:
- People tend to undervalue persistence.
- We are at our most creative when we keep working on a problem, even after we think we have all the answers.
- People who give up too soon or too easily miss out on their best ideas.
It’s worth noting that time has a very real cost. Sometimes – be it in school, work or with a personal project – it’s more important to be finished than to be creative.
But understanding that we tend to shy away from persevering on difficult challenges because it’s just plain hard to come up with new and useful ideas is a valuable bit of information. Knowing this, we can make conscious, deliberate decisions about when to accept an idea as good enough and when to go back to drawing board in search of more creative solutions.
The next time I’ve come up with a new and creative idea, I’m definitely going to pause and wonder if I’m leaving my most creative ideas on the table. And then maybe I’ll set a timer for ten minutes to see if I can come up with something even better.
I recently had the chance to kick the tires of ProWritingAid, an online automated editing service. I rarely get to write product reviews, but the timing on this one worked out perfectly. Particularly given all the just-been-finished NaNoWriMo manuscripts floating around out there.
If you’re one of the many first-time NaNo winners gazing bemusedly at your 50,000-word achievement and wondering, “Now what?” – editing is a fine answer. Editing, however, requires a very different skillset than what’s needed to write an original draft. Luckily for us, there are automated tools that can help us along the way.
What is ProWritingAid?
If you’re reading this website, there’s a good chance you’re interested in leveraging technology to quantify and improve your productivity. RescueTime does that by watching how you spend your time and providing tools on how to use each valuable minute more effectively. ProWritingAid works to provide a similar technological edge, applying rigorous proofing algorithms to written works.
Unlike in-line contextual editors you may be used to with Microsoft Word, Google Docs and Scrivener, ProWritingAid doesn’t track words as you produce them. Instead, it offers a series of tests that may be applied to a finished manuscript, work-in-progress, business report — anything written, really.
Most of us take things like spell-checkers and contextual grammar editors for granted in our word processor of choice. We see a word underlined in red and right click to correct it. They’ve worked that way for decades.
ProWritingAid will definitely edit for spelling and grammar, as well. However, the program is intended to do more than simply correct writing mistakes. It is also meant to teach; improving a writer’s skill by identifying overused words and phrases, highlighting cliché passages and generally improving grammar and diction.
Features I liked
There are a ton of editorial tests – called “Checks” – available in ProWritingAid. And both the online and plug-in versions allow writers to mix and match features into a more comprehensive, customized “Combo Check.”
I’ll talk about the online app versus the plug-in installations in a little later, but first I wanted to talk about the editing tools I found most valuable.
Hands down, my favorite tool is the Repeat Words & Phrases report. We all have our little pet verbs and descriptive phrases, right? Those comfortable writing crutches we lean on when we get stuck. This is a great tool to ferret out those overused passages.
I’ve got one of these writing tics that shows up in first drafts of my fiction. My characters all seem to need something to do with their heads, and each one of them comes to the apparently universal decision to nod like a lunatic when speaking. Each time I read one of my early drafts I am greeted by a cast of bobble-heads.
The Repeat Words & Phrases report alone is probably worth giving ProWritingAid a look.
The Writing Style Check is probably most analogous to traditional word processing tools Microsoft Word’s contextual grammar checker. You know, the green, underlined reminder-bits we get every time we try to use a semicolon?
The report seems comprehensive, and it’s interesting to see all those passive verbs and repetitive sentence structures bundled up into a single report.
I have a reasonable grasp on grammar and my drafts are usually pretty clean. Even so, it’s educational to see where I’m leaning on adverbs a bit too heavily or using needlessly complex wording.
The system also makes suggestions to improve readability, and I agreed with the recommendations more often than not. For me these suggestions usually showed up as unnecessary qualifiers like “very” or “some.” I’m curious to see how the mileage varies for other users. If you try out the app, definitely let me know in the comments.
Choose your editing experience
ProWritingTools is available online as a browser-based application, and also as plugin for Microsoft Word or Google Docs.
I tested the app using a premium account and the interface is a straightforward, predictable web utility.
Understanding the results generated by each of the editing checks was also relatively simple. There is a user manual available on the web site, but I didn’t need to use it. Perhaps it’s a valuable tool for interpreting report results if you don’t have a lot of experience with editing and grammar.
Most of my work with ProWritingAid happened in Google Docs. The add-on was simple to install in both Google Chrome and Safari. Again, the interface was intuitive. I tried to duplicate everything I did in Google Docs on the website version. Although the interface was different, I didn’t notice any variations in the meat of the reports.
The one add-on I couldn’t test was ProWritingAid’s Microsoft Word integration. That plug-in is only available for Windows versions of Word, although not through a lack of interest by the developers. The Mac OS versions of Word simply don’t support the creation or installation of add-ons.
Another tool in the toolbox
Don’t expect manuscript editing software to shore up a weak plot or fact-check statistical figures. That’s why developmental editors have jobs. However, content editing and proofreading are laboriously detail-oriented tasks. I think ProWritingAid is a reasonable way to ease that editing burden.
I believe the tool is best suited for newer writers, or writers without a high degree of confidence in their prose and grammar. That said, established writers might benefit from testing a chapter or two to identify overused word or phrases. Or to see if they’re slipping into bad habits.
If you think you might enjoy something more robust than your stereotypical spell-checker, ProWritingAid might be a great place to start.
If you’re interested, head over to ProWritingAid.com and check out their free or premium versions.
“Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
– Stephen King
Writing, at its core, is a solitary endeavor. On top of all the challenges threatening to crush the success out of creative works, it almost seems unfair that we have to bear those burdens alone.
But such is the lot of writers. Our productive output isn’t about inspiration or muse-motivated moments of eureka. It’s about sitting your butt down and teasing out one unwilling word after the next. It’s about wrestling each scene from the white-knuckled grip of your inner editor and body slamming it onto the page.
Books, articles and blog posts about writing process are legion, and writers would do well to study what individual routines work for successful, prolific authors. But the introverted writer is a habitual creature, so draped in routine and ritual that one’s process is very unlikely to work for another.
And so we invent tricks and rewards to keep us moving forward.
Remember, however, that November is different. Certainly, NaNoWriMo is a chance to write. But it’s also a chance to be part of a community, a movement of united makers intent on creating art and crossing a 50,000-word finish line at the end of the month.
Although the actual act of writing is a singularly reclusive pursuit, support structures like NaNoWriMo are a comforting confirmation that we’re not tilting at fictional windmills alone. Remember that there is an army of wordsmiths out there banging away at keyboards and purposefully gripped pens scratching away in every corner of the world.
Write how you need to write, but if you’re struggling – if you’ve fallen behind your daily word count or your story feels like it’s starting to come off the rails – it’s okay to find yourself a broad and welcoming shoulder. And when you do, feel free to lean on that sucker for support.
But no one can write your book for you. You were always destined to do that part on your own.
So close your door. Or put on your headphones. Maybe get up early while everyone you know is still asleep.
Then write. And know that others will be doing the same. Separate… but never alone.