Thursday, 14 January 2010

Kicking the caffeine habit

Much of what we do every day is a habit: the time we get up, checking email, even what we eat and drink. But habits get formed for all sorts of reasons: because they are someone else’s habit and you just fit in, because it’s easier/quicker to do it that way, or because you have never taken the time to think about it. Yet something that you do automatically, without thinking, is a great source of leverage in your day. Unthinking habits leave space for the big decisions, the big thinking and the bigger picture. Imagine how inefficient you would be if everything was thought through from first principles every day.

However, changing a negative habit – perhaps an outdated or unhealthy habit – into a more positive habit isn’t easy, as I have been discovering. I am now at 100 days without caffeinated beverages – tea and coffee to you – and getting to this stage wasn’t a given. I’m not a person who does things by halves, so for me one mug of green tea easily turns into 5 or 6, particularly if I’m pushing hard with work. Before I know it, I’ve OD’ed and have a racing heartbeat and trouble sleeping. So whilst I know many people wonder what all the fuss is about, for me going without caffeine is a better choice. But, it has taken every single day of that 100 days to wean me off the stuff.

So my conclusions from this little challenge are as follows:

  1. Give it enough time. Recent research that suggests it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit seems correct – and for some habits is likely to be on the low side. The power of round numbers does it for me and I would reckon on difficult habits taking 100 days to form.
  2. Know why. You have to have a good reason for changing your behaviour – doing something on a whim isn’t good enough.
  3. Set a target. Setting a goal and monitoring progress is important. And making the goal public helps enormously. Most of my friends and family know about the caffeine challenge.
  4. Don’t give up. I failed twice, horribly publicly, but got back to it. I could have decided not to bother after the first or second failure but (2) and (5) were big drivers in making me continue.
  5. Do your homework. It is quite likely that others will have studied and written about what you are trying to achieve. Standing on the shoulders of giants helps enormously in strengthening resolve and getting ideas about how to succeed. In my case it was “Caffeine Blues” by Stephen Cherniske, a well researched and informative book that eloquently argued the case for living a caffeine free life.
  6. Figure out alternatives. For me this was Roibush tea, which is close in taste to the real thing and to my utter joy also come in a green variety. This has made the transition much easier.
So, after 100 days I can honestly say that any yearnings for a cuppa of caffeinated tea have long gone. I gave up coffee over 15 years ago so that wasn’t a problem. But the bit question has to be – was it worth it? Has my new habit realised the benefits I’d hoped for? Well the answer is yes and no.

Yes, to better sleep, reduced anxiety and no caffeine-induced racing heartbeat. But no to fewer headaches. I seem to be prone to headaches for a variety of reasons, and whilst I think that cutting out caffeine has reduced the headaches, it certainly hasn’t stopped them.

Having spent the best part of six months forming the caffeine-free habit, I’ve decided to stick with it: for me the benefits massively outweigh the disadvantages.


  1. Congratulations! I appreciate that you shared the failed attempts. Gives hope to all of us that are struggling. Wonder if you considered allowing tea only as reward under very strict circumstances. Then it would not seem so final and a bit of a sad loss of something you love. Or would have that just lead to eventual breakdown? Wonder how you are doing now on this?

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