How to Use Coffee to Get Stuff Done

Fall has arrived and you’re waking up in the dark; all the more reason to put down that mug.
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Fall has arrived and you’re waking up in the dark; all the more reason to put down that mug.
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The commercials were catchy. That’s why you know that the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.

Here’s the catch: Everything you think you know is a lie. Folgers Coffee may be as great as the actors made it look, but you shouldn’t drink it when you wake up – not if you actually want to benefit from caffeine’s restorative powers. By hitting the pour over as soon as you roll out of bed, you’re actually unmanning the beans that help you muscle through the morning. Now that Fall is stiff-arming dawn and you’re waking up in the dark, that matters.

The science is fairly simple. Your body naturally produces a hormone called cortisol that makes you more alert by metabolizing fat, protein, and carbohydrates, essentially flooding your tank with fuel. Most humans (and the vast majority of Americans) produce the most cortisol mid-morning, around 8:30 AM. Great, you say, let’s mix caffeine and cortisol and have a party. Not so much. In combination, the two chemicals will give you more or less the same jolt as they do individually.

So, instead of adding them together, alternate them. This means having your first cup after you arrive in the office and your second an hour or two after lunch. It can also mean embracing the twenty-minute coffee nap, a staple of hardworking body hackers.

All sleep is not created equal. Quick naps at the office are different than overnight rests not only because they are less likely to be preceded by sex, but also because they interact differently with your circadian rhythm, the clock that keeps your natural functions on schedule. That means that you can take advantage of the 20 minutes between when you hit the coffee bar and when the coffee hits you by seizing some shuteye. You’ll wake up wired.

For a full understanding of the coffee nap’s benefits, it helps to consider the neuroscience.

The neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of drowsiness is called adenosine, and it’s produced during times of high brain activity. Coffee is able to work its electrifying magic because caffeine molecules fit into your brain’s adenosine receptors, blocking the circuit the brain uses to enforce drowsiness.

The brilliance of the coffee nap lies in the fact that napping clears your brain of adenosine molecules. Napping “clears the field” of adenosine, so when the caffeine hits your brain, it blocks a higher percentage of transmitters, keeping you focused and alert for a longer period. It’s the perfect pre-presentation (or workout) preparation.

While there’s a temptation to treat drinking coffee like cigarettes, making it an excuse to step away from your desk and – however briefly – avoid work, that’s backwards. Coffee should help you work. Use it right, and you’ll be leaving early.

Photos by Getty Images