Tag Archives: writing

The Caffeine Engine

[Though many Americans have turned coffee into a bizarre kind of fountain drink, coffee retains its hold on us. This piece from 2015 is a reminder of its efficiency at helping reluctant neurons fire.]

New Yorker Cartoonist Tom Cheney obviously loved coffee. A lot of his cartoons featured the stuff front and center.  My favorite was entitled the “Writer’s Food Pyramid,” with a food-group triangle of “essentials” for scribes that would give most dietitians severe heartburn. His pyramid was a play on those dietary charts that usually adorned classroom walls in the 80s.  At the wide base of Cheney’s list were  “The Caffeines” of cola, coffee and tea.  They anchored the rest of a pyramid of necessities which included “The Nicotines,” “The Alcohols” and “Pizza” at the very top.  Tough nicotine from tobacco has lost of most of its charms, the rest still make the perfect fuel cell for a cultural worker.

Many of us owe the completion of at least a few big projects to the caffeine that the brain needs more than the stomach.


Cheney obviously knew a lot about writers with their old typewriters, which movie mogul Jack Warner once hilariously dismissed as “Schmucks with Underwoods.” But there’s actually some method in all of this madness.  Communication—at least the process of generating ideas—is clearly helped the spur of this addictive substance.  We have more than a few studies to suggest that writers and others who create things can indeed benefit from the stimulant.  Notwithstanding a recent New Yorker article suggesting just the opposite, caffeine is likely to enhance a person’s creative powers if it is used in moderation. I’m sure I’m not alone in owing the completion of at least a few books to the sludge that now makes my stomach rebel.  As for decaf: it seems like the food equivalent of a non-sequitur.

It turns out the stimulant has a complex effect on human chemistry.  As James Hamblin explains in a June, 2013 Atlantic article, caffeine is weaker than a lot of stimulants such as Adderall, which can actually paralyze a person into focusing for too long on just thing. It’s moderate amounts that do the most good.  Even the New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova conceded the point.  She noted that it “boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration … Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion.”

To put it simply, the synapses happen more easily when that triple latte finally kicks in.  A morning cup dutifully carried to work even ranks over keeping a phone in one hand.

But there is an exception. A person facing a live audience in a more or less formal situation probably should avoid what amounts to a double dose of stimulation, given the natural increase of adrenaline that comes when we face a public audience.  For most of us a modest adrenaline rush is actually functional in helping us gain oral fluency.  It works to our benefit because it makes us more alert and maybe just a little smarter.  But combining what is functionally two stimulants can be counter-productive.  They can make a presenter wired tighter than the high “C” of a piano keyboard.  We all know the effects.  Instead of the eloquence of a heightened conversation, we get a jumble of ideas that are delivered fast and with too little explanation.  In addition, tightened vocal folds mean that the pitch of our voice will usually rise as well, making even a baritone sound like a Disney character.

All of us are different.  But to play the odds to your advantage, it is probably better to reserve the use of caffeine for acts of creation more than performance.

Figuring Out when the Lights are On

Picking  the wrong time to perform a demanding task is the penalty we pay for not knowing our own efficiency curve.

We are in a waking state most of the day, roughly two thirds of our life.  But being awake and being alert are not the same thing.  All of us have an efficiency curve: a line that tracks when we are least and most able to face the big mental challenges that the world throws at us.  Many tasks don’t require knowing the moment of one’s peak performance.  Answering phones in an office or helping customers in a retail setting may require more stamina than a period of intense focus and concentration.  But for many others, finding the moment when the lights are really on is an important workplace survival skill.

I was reminded of this by reading Janet Malcolm’s profile of MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow.  Malcolm asked her subject why she started work in the early afternoon.  (Maddow’s show airs live at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time).  Maddow sensibly answered that she had to pick her moment.  She noted that you can only have your brain ‘light up’ for a limited time. She needed to perform well in what amounts to a series of extended narratives delivered in her prime time spot. It is possible to hit the high point of her curve if she starts preparing for her show after lunch. Her particular ‘high noon’ happens at 9 in the evening.

A lot of writers note the importance of the same natural curve, with many finding that mornings are when they are their most productive. In my own scheme for getting a book done, mornings are for writing; afternoons are reserved for rewriting or polishing. The curve flips for others who work best late at night.

It is true that a jolt of adrenaline might be enough to overcome encroaching mental dormancy. A pianist about to perform a set of demanding solo pieces for a paying audience will probably find hormonal reserves to carry them past the torpor caused by a sleepless night.  But that’s no way to live.

Students are often slow to learn their own curve, sometimes making the mistake of saving the toughest mental work of the day for the periods when their minds are fallow. High school schedules don’t help. They often require punishing early morning starts of classes forced upon nearly comatose teens. Many are simply not ready to handle an A.P. Physics at 7:30 a.m.


Is it good to be the first surgery patient on a Monday morning?  What if the doctor was at the Tiki Bar in Costa Rica just 15 hours earlier?


We all know the feeling of staring at a blank page or screen waiting for inspiration that may never arrive. Picking  the wrong time to do a demanding task is the penalty we pay for not knowing our own efficiency curve.

Sometimes it bears not thinking about potentially consequential mismatches of work tasks against a person’s natural curve.  Is it good to be the first surgery patient on a Monday morning?  What if the doctor was at the Tiki Bar in Costa Rica just 15 hours earlier?  And how about pilots flying a ‘red eye’ coast to coast?  One can hope that at least somebody in the cockpit is a late riser.

I had a friend who worked on a car assembly line one summer. In the days before robots and computers he swears that they managed to partly assemble a three-door sedan early into the first morning shift.  Workers on the line realized too late that the company was making a two-door car on one side and a four-door car on the other side.  Clearly someone was off their game.