This Is Your Writing on Caffeine

No, it won’t stunt your growth, but will it stunt your writing?

Annnd back to work.
Annnd back to work.

Lifehacker recently did an excellent and comprehensive piece on how your brain behaves on caffeine, and why caffeine itself isn’t responsible for the surge of energy most people get when they down a cup of coffee or a bottle of soda—it blocks your brain’s adenosine receptors and prevents it from receiving signals of fatigue from your endocrine and central nervous system. With caffeine blocking the signals, other, more stimulating neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and glutamate, become more effective at revving you up and getting you moving. Result? We can’t tell if we’re tired and don’t know when to quit.

I’ve written before on The Procrastiwriter about my coffee addiction. Because I’ve got to get up very early (about 4:30am) to have time to write before going to work, the warm and welcoming smell of fresh coffee is what drags me out of bed in the morning, what powers me through my hourlong morning commute, sustains me through the afternoon slump, and sometimes, keeps me awake for the hourlong drive home.

If caffeine changes the brain so significantly, what does it do for writing? Here are a few things I’ve noticed.

I use it to fuel more risk-taking. There’s evidence that caffeine makes a lot of people more outgoing and confident. Blocking fatigue receptors and encouraging dopamine/glutamate activation seems to yield a payoff when I’m writing (and even if it doesn’t, I think it does, because confidence!). I tend to go out on shaky limbs of metaphor or swing for the fences of memory with a chemically reduced regard for anything my inner critic might have to say.

I use it to quiet my inner critic for a few hours. By amplifying the effects of the stimulants dopamine and glutamate in the brain, caffeine helps to plug my ears when that inner critic starts talking. I feel more positive about what I’m writing, and I write more.

Research suggests that in most people, caffeine also helps improve the quality of one’s work on “vigilance tasks and simple tasks that require a sustained response,” according to the abstract of “Effects of caffeine on human behavior,” a study published in 2002. The flow and pace of my simultaneous editing-while-writing (which is a bad habit that I can’t seem to break) improves and I find my caffeine-addled writing to be less in need of concrete typographical and grammatical corrections than other work.

I use it for more writing volume. Without caffeine, I’m more likely to puzzle and ponder over small (at the time) issues, like word choice, or parallelism, or formatting, when I really need to be getting words out on the page. (Can you tell that just getting the words out is my biggest challenge lately?) When it’s all about speed, efficiency, and getting it done, coffee helps. For me, that’s just a fact.


Confession time: To fuel my long days, I consume about six or seven cups of coffee in any given 24-hour period (somewhat less on the weekends).

I’m not always sure that I should be so dependent on a chemical to function throughout the day. I mean, I do exercise, I eat (mostly) healthy, keeping carbs and sugar to a minimum. I have a standing desk at work. I could sleep more, but at this stage in my life, I honestly don’t have the time. So, in my opinion, I’ve wrung out all my energy options that don’t require a prescription.

Really interested in caffeine? For some fascinating reading on how coffee affects creative people, check out The Atlantic’s Caffeine: For the More Creative Mind, by James Hamblin.

What do you think? Is coffee part of your creative formula? Could you get by without coffee? Share it in the comments.