One of my goals this year has been to experiment with abstinence from various habits and indulgences that I think I might be better off without.

In my post on the subject I mentioned technology, caffeine, news, and alcohol. There are others I could target but these seem to me like the best places to start.

This isn’t about testing my self-control or being an ascetic or anything like that. It’s more to do with looking honestly at habits that develop over time into something close to (or in the case of caffeine, probably actual) addictions, and asking if these habits are good for me. Do these habits bring me the pleasure I associate with them, or is it simply that I have come to rely on them, or that the pleasure is actually coming from satisfying an addictive craving.

For instance, I am certain that I can dramatically improve my enjoyment of life by reducing the amount of time I spend working at or interacting with people through a screen (although this is mostly about reducing time-wasting activity, being more productive whilst online, and finding ways to work on paper where efficiency isn’t damaged too much). I know that if booze is readily available I quickly look to it for answers in times of stress or boredom (when it’s not available for weeks and months at a time I really don’t miss it) which is a habit that certainly needs breaking. And as for the news, it rhymes with blues, and since I get my news through a screen this habit is double whammy of bad-mood-inducing displacement activity.

I’ve had little success with breaking any of these habits in my previous attempts, so I figured I’d start with caffeine and go for a motivating easy win. Most of my caffeine comes in coffee form, and I really enjoy it, but I use it as an excuse to the point of comedy.

“My brain isn’t working because I haven’t had enough coffee yet. Let me go get a coffee.”

“I can’t exercise now because I drank too much coffee today.”

“My brain isn’t working because I’ve had too much coffee. Let me stop working, or better yet, go make a cup of tea to balance out the coffee.” (does anyone else do this?!)

There’s a lot of really cool stuff going on here, like the fact that my brain is affected by caffeine and – since I’m clearly addicted just like you probably are – the lack thereof, and that my brain is clever enough to use this knowledge not only to get me to drink caffeine through bribery, persuasion, and threats, but also to get out of doing work that it really doesn’t want to do at the same time! I need to name my brain so I can treat it like an annoying git when it’s behaving like one.

I like lots of things about drinking tea and coffee. It’s added a great social element to our high streets, it does make me work faster (maybe because I’m an addict), and I enjoy the process of brewing an espresso and discovering what different varieties are like. But for me the benefits are outweighed by the costs and I think I can happily live without or replace these things quite easily.

So I went cold turkey at the beginning of a 5 day hike, well-timed so I would go through the worst of the withdrawals without the pressure of getting any work done. I think if I had done this during a full on work week I would have really struggled, with my git-brain using every dirty trick in the book to convince me that it was all just a stupid idea and the sooner I caved in the less embarrassing it would be for everyone involved.

Stupid git-brain.

As it was, hiking through beautiful mountain scenery with a heavy pack along steep trails that were easy to lose, I had plenty of other things to blame my problems on than the levels of caffeine flowing through my system. Headache? Maybe I just need more water. Not feeling hyper-astute? So what?! I’ve just got to keep my legs moving. Tired? Maybe I was just bloody tired! At work, all of these things would have had me crying “double espresso!”

As it was I’m pretty sure all of those things were down to withdrawal symptoms from coffee. I had a dull headache for a few days, I did feel a bit sluggish in the head and I think I was grumpier than usual too.

I’d say those symptoms lasted for 3 or 4 days. After that it has been really, really, surprisingly easy to stick to this habit. I’ve only had a couple of occasions where I even thought about breaking it, but even then it was sort of contemplative and not really serious. I haven’t had one moment where I’ve thought, I’m desperate for a coffee. That has really surprised me.

Admittedly I have reduced my workload and taken some of the pressure off myself over the last few months, so perhaps that has also helped. And I must confess to accidentally drinking a Mountain Dew (lots of caffeine) mid way through the month, half way through a failed attempt to run 20 miles up and down mountains. I found it hard to sleep that night. And, a few days ago, I had a sip of Jayna’s chai to see if it had sugar in it (long story) and immediately felt the neurons in my brain go berserk as though the town Christmas lights had just been switched on. Not a very nice feeling.

So I’m happy and will be staying off caffeine for as long as I feel good about it. I think I will probably keep avoiding it because once I start to enjoy it every once in a while, I know I will find it hard to stop it becoming habitual again.

The only major downside that I have noticed to date has been a terrifying increase in the amount of sugar I’m eating. After my hike, I ate something like 5 chocolate bars in a day, and I’ve been eating chocolate and drinking sugary drinks daily this whole month, which is really unusual for me. In effect, my system has been trying to substitute the caffeine highs with sugar highs, and I’ve been giving in.

So May will be No Sugar Month for me. I know this is going to be really hard since there is sugar in everything, but I really feel the effects of sugar in my body, mind, and mood, so I’m very curious to see how I feel without these influences. No sugar also means almost no booze so that’s a 2-in-1 right there!

UPDATE

It’s the 9th May and I’m back on the coffee! Last week I ran the 3rd Himalayan Marathon, smashing my personal best and setting a new Course Record. It’s the hardest I’ve ever pushed my body and the fatigue was severe. After the two day bus journey back ‘home’ I found I was utterly exhausted and that work was impossible, so I called in the cavalry.

Although when I first drafted this post I was intending to keep up my no caffeine diet, that wasn’t the intention when I started the month. The idea was to reign in the habit and see how much of an effect it was really having on me. I’d say a month should be enough to get my body back to pre-caffeine norms, but by the end of the month I wasn’t working as fast as I apparently do with a little bit of caffeine in my system.

So, I’m going to limit myself to one coffee and one tea a day on work days and see how that pans out. Even that may be more than I need but I definitely feel as though I have what was an out of control habit tamed and harnessed.

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