Faster, Not Smarter: Does Caffeine Really Make You More Productive?

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Alex Senemar, the CEO of Sherbit.io. Read more about exploring data and turning numbers into meaningful insights on the Sherbit Blog.

Cropped shot of a woman at cafe working on her laptop computer. Female wearing smartwatch using laptop with a coffee cup on table.

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
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
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:

image01

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.

image00

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.

Editors note: This is a guest post by Alex Senemar, the CEO of Sherbit.io. Read more about exploring data and turning numbers into meaningful insights on the Sherbit Blog.


Tracking my data proved that I’m actually kicking ass (even when it feels like I’m not)

megan-post-header

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Megan Seling, Culture Editor at the alt-weekly newspaper The Nashville Scene. It’s a world of constant tight deadlines and moving pieces – exactly the type of environment where it’s easy to lose track of the time. We asked her to share some ways that RescueTime helps her make it through the day. You can follow Megan on Twitter at @mseling.

I don’t track my personal data well. Okay, scratch that — I don’t really track my personal data at all. I am a writer, and for a very long time I believed the only legitimate measure of my productivity (read: evidence I wasn’t a worthless human being) was based on the number of blog posts, articles, or cookbooks that I actually published.

That’s not true, of course. The time spent writing those words means something, too. But because so much of my career has been spent at a fast-paced weekly newspapers with even faster-paced blogs, I spent nearly my entire adult life believing the lie that the amount of time I spent on the blog post or article or interview didn’t matter and that there was only one measurement of true productivity: If my byline didn’t go up, my day was a waste. Using RescueTime over the last few years has absolutely changed my perspective on how I view my own productivity, though, and it has taught me to trust and appreciate the writing process.

When I first got RescueTime, there were days I wouldn’t publish a single word yet I’d have a productivity pulse in the 80s or 90s, thanks to hours spent banging my head into a keyboard. I was shocked. Wait, even though all I did was write, delete, write some more without any grand finale, my day wasn’t a complete waste? All those hours of typing, revising, and deciding ultimately to “sleep on it” was worth something? Lookatmego! It might’ve taken me a couple days (or weeks) to finish a story, but at least I had evidence that it was being worked on. (Related: I so regret not using RescueTime when I wrote a cookbook in 2011 because now that it’s all over I have no idea how I did it — all I remember is staring blankly at my Twitter timeline for hours on end while wishing the book would just write itself.)

But the productivity pulse can only account for so much. What about the days I had a low productivity pulse but felt busier than ever? What about the days I listened to the same record over and over and over again, trying to sort out exactly what about the guitar tone is so great (or annoying) so I could finish that album review that was three days late? What about all the meetings that were mostly just a bunch of smart people telling each other jokes for an hour until something sounded good enough to stick on paper? What about the days I was on assignment, hanging out in the kitchen with a punk rock pastry chef, learning her secrets and asking her about all the different kinds of sugar she uses for each dessert? Okay, now I’m just bragging. But really, with so much of my actual job being away from a computer, my productivity pulse wasn’t always a reliable representation of my work, either.

But now RescueTime is making it easier for me to recognize that work, too. They’ve always had the option to log time spent offline, but I never cared enough to actually do it — I never considered that time real work. The new Highlights feature has, once again, changed that. No matter how productive (or how unproductive) I am, the Highlights feature pops up on my screen a few times a day (I control how often) and it prompts me to log a few of the things I’ve gotten done so far.

Screenshot 2015-03-28 at 10.46.58 PM

December was all a blur, but thanks to Highlights I have evidence that I got things done amidst the craziness.

So right now, after every two hours of productive time, I get a pop up that alerts me of all the ass I’ve been kicking and then it reminds me to make a note of the other productive points in the day that may not have been picked up by Rescuetime. Like meetings, in-person interviews and reviewing things like movies and restaurants. It’s finally okay to not have a day that fits into a pretty little easily-defined productivity package. (This was especially helpful when I was doing a lot of freelance writing — being able to easily log offline work and log which work I got done on which assignment gave me hard evidence to better judge what kind of rate I should charge in order to make enough money without working 24/7.)

And, yes, how many things I publish any given day is still very important — Highlights can log those too, thanks to RescueTime’s integration with Zapier. Everytime my byline goes up, whether it’s a blog post or a story, it automatically gets listed among the other Highlights that show up in my weekly email.

I’m still not all that great at tracking my personal data — I’m the kind of person who will “forget” to wear their FitBit if I’m feeling especially lazy and don’t want to record an embarrassingly low number of steps that day — but even if I still can’t (or don’t want to) account for every second of the day, I now have indisputable evidence that it wasn’t a complete waste and I can stop being so hard on myself, even if I do still spend too much time on Twitter (some of it is for work, I swear!).

 

Full disclosure: I’m married to RescueTime’s Robby Macdonell (VP of Product Development) and I wrote this because he bribed me with pie. (Just kidding, of course, but he does make a really good key lime pie.)

 


Here are other examples of people using data to understand and optimize their days:

How I Used RescueTime to Baseline My Activity in 2014 and Set Goals for 2015
In an excellent, in-depth analysis, Author Jamie Todd Rubin looks back at how he spent his time in 2014 and uses it to create strategies to optimize his time moving forward.

The big mistake nearly every designer makes
Digital strategist Marie Poulin writes about building in “margin” into her schedule – critical time that’s held in reserve for the inevitable unplanned. Room to breathe, essentially. It’s easier said than done, and she takes a structured, analytical approach to fit it into her schedule.


Using personal data to find work/life balance

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Belle Beth Cooper. She is the co-founder of Exist, a kick-ass personal analytics platform that we recently launched an integration with. If you have ever wanted to examine the relationships between your RescueTime productivity stats and other data points such as mood, sleep or fitness, Exist is a great option.

Balance
I love the word balance. It implies that you have enough of everything. You’re not wanting for anything, or drowning in anything. When we talk about work/life balance, it means you’re getting enough work done, but you’re also spending enough time resting, relaxing, and attending to your family, hobbies, and interests outside work.

For those of us whose work tends to blend into our lives it’s even more important to find this balance. For my co-founder Josh and I, we find ourselves working in some form or another every single day. Which means if we’re not working we tend to feel a nagging sensation that we should be, because it’s become our default state.

Not to mention the ever-growing mountain of side projects and volunteer activities we want to take on, and new skills we want to learn.

I’ve always been keen to fill up every day with learning and practising new skills, but I’ve never been great at making sure I get enough exercise. Maybe you have a particular area of work or life that gets neglected. My ongoing imbalance was the impetus for me to start tracking my activity and other areas of my life.

I started out with a simple activity tracker on my phone, and graduated to wearing a Fitbit all day, every day. I use apps like RescueTime to track what I do each day, and put as much of this data into Exist as I can.

Exist is designed to help you find meaning in the data you track. There are three big reasons it’s helpful for finding that balance between work and “life” activities: it uncovers hidden correlations and trends, it has built-in mood tracking, and it creates personalised goals based on your data.

Data insights

Tracking data about my own activities causes me to ask myself questions like “Am I improving?” and “Have I been doing x more or less this month?”. Exist helps me answer these questions by surfacing insights into my data. For example, I recently had this insight on my dashboard:

Walking less this week

8,545 average steps, 1% decrease

Walking less isn’t something I want to make a habit of, but thankfully I only dropped by 1% in the past week. And knowing that my overall average steps is around 8,000 per day, I’m pretty happy with that average from last week.

I also noticed these sleep-related insights recently:

Sleep insights

For some people, going to bed later and getting less sleep would be a bad thing but those sleep numbers are pretty good for me. I have a tendency to oversleep some days, just because I don’t have a set time I have to start work, and it tends to set my day up badly. Knowing this, I’m putting in a conscious effort to not stay in bed too long in the mornings, and these insights show that it’s working.

Averages

Seeing what my average is for each type of data can be illuminating, too. Exist breaks down averages by day of the week, as well as showing my overall average for each data point.

Exist averages

(Note: I used a Jawbone UP between my Fitbit Force breaking and the Fitbit Charge being released, which doesn’t track floors. I haven’t been wearing my Fitbit Charge long enough to increase my floors average yet)

It’s good to see, for instance, that my average mood is 4/5. It’s also pretty obvious, looking at this chart, that I tend to rate my mood higher on weekends.

I can also see that I tend to walk more on Fridays, and that my average steps is just over 8,000 per day.

My productivity tends to dip on weekends, and jumps up most on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This makes sense, since Monday is our catch up day at Hello Code, so Tuesday is when I start to really get stuck into my work for the week.

I like knowing these averages, because it helps me calibrate my own goals. If you’ve ever used a fitness tracker or a pedometer app on your phone, you’ve probably been confronted with a suggested (or enforced) 10,000 steps per day goal. Although this might be suggested as a healthy amount of exercise for adults, it’s ridiculous to expect someone who walks 3,000 steps per day on average to suddenly jump up to 10,000.

8,000 steps per day has been my average for the past six months or so. I know this is the amount of exercise I get without trying too hard, so if I want to increase my activity levels I’ll know to start by aiming for around 8,500 steps.

Correlations

Seeing the correlations between different data points is one of the most surprising and useful parts of Exist. Although correlation doesn’t imply causation (i.e. just because two things are related doesn’t mean one causes the other), correlations can still give us useful clues into our existing behaviour and how different things affect us.

I’m especially interested in what affects my productivity (tracked with RescueTime) – both negatively and positively. I’d like to learn from my correlations so I can set myself up for the best chance of being productive each day.

Here are some of my current productivity correlations:

You are somewhat less likely (35%) to be productive when you walk more.

This is a fairly obvious one. The more I’m exercising, the more time I’m spending away from my desk. If I had a treadmill desk I might be able to turn this correlation around…

You are somewhat more likely (26%) to have a better day when you're productive.

I’m pleased to see that I have a better day when I’m productive. I’d be in a tricky position if being productive put me in a bad mood!

You are slightly less likely (22%) to be productive when it's warmer overnight.

Although I don’t work at night, a warm overnight temperature usually means less sleep (or lower quality sleep), which doesn’t bode well for a productive day. It also means it’s likely that the next day will be warm, which makes me uncomfortable and less likely to get work done.

I can also see from my correlations what affects my mood, and when I’m more likely to exercise:

You are somewhat less likely (22%) to have a good day when you climb more floors.

Lots of floors climbed could either be walking up and down hills (yuck) or staying home all day where I go up and down stairs a lot.

You are somewhat less likely (27%) to walk more on days after you've gone to bed later.

You are somewhat more likely (24%) to be walking when it's raining or snowing.

I don’t purposely go out walking in the rain, but I guess it just happens to catch me often.

Mood tracking

Exist has built-in mood tracking that works via a simple email. Every night at 9pm you get an email you can reply to including a rating for your day from 1-5 (1 being terrible, 5 being perfect) and a note about what happened.

Exist mood email

Mood tracking is a really simple way to make sure you reflect on what happens each day and how you feel. We’re adding mood tracking to our mobile apps (currently in beta testing) to make it even easier: each night at 9pm you’ll get a notification that will take you to a simple form with five numbered buttons and a box to type your note into.

Exist mobile apps

Although I tend to dread the effort of thinking back over my day and choosing a rating for it, I’ve found mood tracking to be so useful that I’ve kept it up for over a year now. As I go about my day, I tend to be more mindful of how things affect me because I always have in mind that I’ll be rating my day later and making a note about what happened.

My favourite part of mood tracking is that in the nightly emails we’ve added a feature called “Looking back” that shows you the mood entry you made on this day one year ago, or a random old entry if you don’t have one from exactly a year ago. It’s fun to open the email wondering how I felt and what I was doing this time last year, and to reflect on the notes I left to myself.

looking back

This reflective feature also makes me more mindful each night of what I enter as my note. Knowing that I’m essentially leaving a note to my future self each day helps me think about what was most important about my day, and what I’d want to know about it on this day in the future.

I also love comparing my old mood notes with my partner Josh to see what he wrote on the same day. We’ll often find we both mentioned something fun we did together, or the weather or some big news that was happening at the time.

Using averages as goals

We dropped goals from Exist a few months ago. One of the problems we’ve always had personally when tracking our behaviour, especially exercise, is working to hit a particular goal every day and losing motivation to do so after a while.

These days we use averages as goals. It works like this: if today is Monday, we create your steps goal for today by finding the average of your steps for every Monday in the past 90 days. We do this for productivity goals, too. So if you’ve been working late on Friday nights in the past few weeks, your RescueTime data will reflect that and your productivity goal will be higher on Fridays.

Averages as goals

And here’s why it’s awesome:

I don’t need to waste any time setting goals. Exist does it for me, and each goal is personalised to me.

This also means I’m competing against myself. Every goal is created from averages of my own data, so I’m only ever competing against “past me”, rather than aiming for a goal set by someone else.

And lastly, it’s always up-to-date. When I moved house recently my average steps per day dropped as my situation changed, and after a few weeks my averages started to reflect that. Because we only use averages based on the last 90 days of your data, your goals will always reflect what your activity has been like recently.

This affects each daily goal, as well. If you play in a sports team on Wednesday nights and get lots of steps those days, your Wednesday average will be higher than other days. Exist will create a goal for you, then, that will be higher on Wednesdays than it will on other days. This makes sure your goal is always as appropriate as it’s based on your existing behaviour.

I tend to get number fatigue really easily, so aiming for a set goal every day didn’t motivate me for long at all. One thing I really enjoy about having a new goal created for me each day is that I need to check Exist to see what my goal is. The simple act of checking my goal is a good reminder to be more active or productive.


With just RescueTime, mood tracking, and an activity tracking device or app, you can get a lot of useful data. Exist connects to other service like Twitter and last.fm as well, but just a few data points are enough to start seeing insights and correlations that will help you improve your work/life balance.

You can try it yourself with a 14-day free trial (note: we start you off with a set goal and switch to averages as goals once we’ve collected enough data).


How I Saved 4 Hours Per Day Using RescueTime

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Maneesh Sethi, a RescueTime user, productivity hacker, and author of the blog hackthesystem.com. He’s experimented with several creative ways to increase his productivity, and has decided to document the whole process as he goes so others can benefit from what he’s learned. If you’d like to follow along with his productivity experiments, you can sign up for his mailing list at http://hackthesystem.com/rescuetime.

It’s not easy growing up in a culture of distraction.

You’ve noticed it—it’s never been harder than today to focus on one task at a time. As I sit in this cafe, writing this article, my phone is buzzing with Facebook notifications, Twitter mentions, and–oh, hey! my Klout score just increased!

Fifteen years ago, none of these distractions existed. If you wanted to waste time at home, your options were to read, eat, or maybe watch television—if anything was on. Now, it’s never been easier to spend a day (or a week, or even a year) doing absolutely nothing.

What do you do online every day? Where do you waste the most time? Everyone has a different answer, but most people honestly have no idea. RescueTime was invented to help people track their wasted hours and determine what they should stop doing. So, ask yourself now—“Where do you waste your time every day?”

Growing up in an Indian family, I’ve always been driven to be more productive, but I’ve never been able to succeed. Recently, I sat down with Tim Ferriss, the master of productivity, to talk about how to get more done—and I realized that I was having the same conversation I had when I was thirteen years old.

“I just feel like there is nothing I can do. I waste all my time chatting and browsing reddit. Imagine what I could do if I just learned to focus!”

“Remember man,” said Tim, “that you’re going to die. Do you want to want your time spent to have been wasted—or spent producing something? Focus on output.”

Small Changes That Cause Big Effects

I don’t want my life to be filled with unmemorable Skype chat and funny cat pictures. It’s a waste of living. So, I began to undertake a series of productivity experiments to determine what actually works—what small changes could I make to effect massive change. Over the past year or so, I’ve used RescueTime to measure the results of my online productivity. The results have been astounding.

I want to discuss a few experiments that I’ve done, and let you know that I’ll be conducting several more over the next few months. I’ll be revealing my stats, writing about what works and what doesn’t, and attempting to help others join the movement to improve their habits.

If you’re interested in following along, sign up over at http://hackthesystem.com/rescuetime.

Hiring a Craigslist Slapper

I spend a lot of time online every week, and the majority of it is unproductive.

38% productive. That means that almost 19 hours of my time last week were wasted—disappeared, never to be seen again.

So, what could I do to fix this? I decided to outsource an authority figure and hire someone to watch over me, and if need be, hurt me.

I used Craigslist to hire a girl to sit next to me. Her job? Every time I used Facebook, she would slap me in the face.

Yes I know. I’m weird. And yes, she actually slapped me.

But the results were astounding. My average RescueTime productivity skyrocketed from 38% to 98%.

But not only did my productivity skyrocket—the quality of the work I did skyrocketed as well. Kara forced me to complete my first guest post, The Sex Scandal Technique. She also helped me push through an application for a secret project that I applied to—an application that won, out of hundreds of applicants.

It was certainly a funny experiment, but it also seemed to be relevant around the world—the HackTheSystem article I wrote about it ended up being featured in NPR, on ABC News, in the Telegraph, Venturebeat, and the front page of Yahoo. Clearly, the whole world recognizes the amount of time we waste using Facebook.

The Bet-Switch Mechanism — $50 For A Cookie

[Before we move on, I want to remind you—to follow along with future RescueTime experiments, please sign up at http://hackthesystem.com/rescuetime . I’ll help you improve your productivity—guaranteed.]

Another of my most successful experiments involved using competition to improve my productivity and my health.

I decided that I wanted to lose 10 lbs. So I made a rule—every time I ate something that wasn’t healthy—anything that wasn’t meat, vegetable, or eggs—I owed my friend $50 / item.

I wrote an article where I described what happened: The Bet Switch Mechanism: The One Simple Social Tactic That Will Get You In The Best Shape Of Your Life. The difference was astounding—instead of looking at food and saying ‘Oh, one chip won’t hurt,’  my mental processing was completely changed. I began to look at a bag of chips and say ‘I’m not paying $50 for that chip, no way!’

I’ve used the Bet Switch Mechanism to write guest post articles and articles on my own blog, too. My friend will give me a deadline for an article, and if I don’t write it, I owe her $500. In fact, I have a bet on the article I’m writing right now—if I don’t finish it today by 8pm, I owe Robby from RescueTime $50!

Betting allows you to make a competitive game out of a goal, and makes it much more fun to play.

You’re just one step away from skyrocketing your productivity

Over at my site, Hack the System, I talk about small hacks that can cause big changes. I’m really excited to announce that RescueTime and Hack the System are partnering to help readers become more productive.

If you head over to my site using this special link, you’ll be able to sign up for the Hack the System productivity challenge. I’ll be testing several experiments to see how they affect my productivity, and inviting you to join along.

I’ve also created a special gift for RescueTime readers, The Minimalist Guide to Hacking Your Habits. It’s my special gift—a worksheet that will help you identify exactly what’s holding you back, and how you can overcome your barriers.

Thanks a lot, and don’t forget to join in over at http://hackthesystem.com/rescuetime .