No Coffee and Quantifying the Self

February 28, 2020
Confidence: possible

For my first two decades of life, I could never sleep. I’d go to bed at whatever time was my bedtime (maybe 9pm?) and lay restlessly in the dark for several hours every night until I finally got to sleep. I honestly had no idea that other people didn’t do that, that they got to sleep in an average of twenty minutes. I attribute a lot of my current mental acuity to this — that I had three hours of dedicated and mandatory thinking time every day for twenty years.

In retrospect, probably it was that can of Coke I habitually drank every dinner. It never felt like the caffeine affected me. Those endless nights of sleeplessness just felt like the way it was.

I was reminded of this anecdote by a scary experience I had today. I ran into a guy who might have been my old coworker from halfway around the world, many years ago. We never worked together, but he had a distinctive face, and this guy had the same distinctive face.

He might have been my old coworker, but I’m not sure. I didn’t ask. Instead I got the fear. I got so fucking nervous about saying hi to this guy that I flinched away from the encounter, and am left to wonder about his identity forever. Or at least until tomorrow when I’ll probably run into him again at the same place.

These bouts of nerves — I used to get them all the time. But haven’t for the last four months or so. And my last four months have been overwhelmingly socially successful, most of which I attribute to higher-than-usual confidence. It’s the same nerves I used to associate with going over and talking to pretty girls. It’s the same nerves that I got before asking for a raise. It’s the same nerves I got while waiting in the queue at the bank.

Wait, what? Waiting at the bank? How is that nerve-racking? Good question. I’m not sure, but that was the first time I ever associated my nervousness with all the damn caffeine I was drinking. Not that I ever let that stop me from drinking coffee, but at least I was aware of it.

Today, nerves again, for the first time in months. And maybe it’s a coincidence, but I had just finished a strong coffee, after only eating soup for breakfast, after spending four months on an island with notoriously bad coffee, where the instant-variety is ubiquitous. I hadn’t stopped drinking coffee over the last few months, but maybe I’d accidentally stopped overdosing on caffeine?

I’ve been really grooving on being not-unbearably-nervous Sandy these last few months. It’s been a period of aggressive self-actualization; getting to a point where not only do I know I can take on the world, but I feel it, too. How silly would it be if my amazing change in personality was due to a fluke accident of stopping my socially-acceptable drug habit?

Now, granted, this is all conjecture, but it seems worth an experiment. So for the next two weeks, I’m going to consume zero caffeine, and see if I get any more of these nerves. I’ll keep track of my subjective confidence levels, and of my feelings of self-actualization.

On first glance, it feels like my productivity is going to suffer. “Of course caffeine makes me more productive!” Well known fact, that. Everyone knows caffeine makes you more productive. But I can think of more times I’ve been way too caffeinated and completely unable to work, than I can think of times I felt a profound performance improvement from taking a coffee (hangovers excluded.)

Last year I read a book on quitting smoking, even though I don’t and have never smoked. It made the interesting claim that over time, smoking lowers your default state, and having a cigarette brings you back to your old norm. The contrast is there; smoking does make you feel better and more productive, but only relative to your state of withdrawal. Relative to your non-smoking normal, it just brings you back to par. This feels very plausible for the case of coffee as well; I’ve heard much of the same comments from my friends who have stopped drinking it.

The great part is that I already have the infrastructure in place to measure my productivity. A little known secret of this website is that it tracks my computer time to the minute. Which means that I have historical productivity data for the last few years, and so looking at trends during the next two weeks requires no extra effort on my part.

I’m writing this blog post mostly because I couldn’t sleep (related????) and figured I might as well do something productive instead of being uncomfortable in bed. I guess the takeaway here is to build lots of weird infrastructure just because it’s interesting. I never expected my daily tracking stuff to be useful, but having already done the legwork means that I’m now ready to carry out an exceptionally high value-of-information experiment.

Oh, and also a reminder that our bodies are just meat machines that respond to chemical inputs just like any other automation does. This is a thing that I always seem to forget, and am constantly amazed when I remember it. Maybe writing it down will help. Hopefully.

You guys! We’re just meat machines! Maybe changing our personalities isn’t as easy as just drinking less coffee, but then again, maybe it is.